Jordan: Amman | Pella | Ajloun | Jerash | Desert Castles | Umm ar-Rasas | Madaba | Mount Nebo | Dead Sea | Karak Castle | Petra | Beidah | Little Petra | Wadi Rum | Aqaba
Saudi Arabia: Al-Bada’ (Midian) | Jibal Hisma | Zeetah | Tabuk | Wadi Qaraqir | Al-Ula | Dedan | Hegra (Madain Saleh)
From the dawn of civilisation, Arabia and the Levant have been at one of the world’s most important crossroads of peoples and cultures. Some of mankind’s greatest societies made their mark in this strategically significant area, located precariously at the gateway between the Orient and the Occident.
Vast networks of trade routes once flourished in this region, including the fabled Frankincense Trail. Fuelled by demand for incense by the Egyptian and Roman empires, entire civilisations were made wealthy from its production and transport, making it one of the most valuable commodities in the ancient world. At its peak between the 3rd Century BCE and the 2nd Century CE, up to 1,000 camels per caravan plied this route. Yet in those days there was a certain mystery about the origins of this sacred resin, as well as stories of terrible things that happened to those who tried to find out.
This expedition, the first of its kind, combines the fascinating history and archaeology of Jordan and Saudi Arabia. Tracing the Frankincense trade route of antiquity, we discover the magnificent highlights of Jordan and then venture overland into the vast remoteness of northern Saudi Arabia in search of ancient ruins and rock art. Following in the footsteps of key historical figures such as Saladin and Lawrence of Arabia, throughout our journey we explore Neolithic, Hellenistic, Nabataean, Roman, Early Christian, Arab and Crusader monuments as well as visits to some of the most spectacular archaeological sites anywhere in the world including Petra in Jordan and the rarely-visited oasis of AlUla in Saudi Arabia.
Led by expert archaeologist Dr Iain Shearer, this pioneering expedition immerses our travellers into the myths and legends of this captivating region, traversing lands of extraordinary natural beauty with stays in the very best luxury hotels and desert camps.
Every Arcadia expedition provides you insider access to the most unforgettable and thought-provoking local experiences, curated exclusively by us for our travellers. Here are some of the Arcadia Exclusives on this trip:
Day 01 – Arrive Amman
On arrival at Amman Airport, you are met at the arrivals gate by an Arcadia representative, who will assist you with a VIP fast track Immigration and Customs service. You will be then transferred by private vehicle to your hotel.
Amman is our base for 5 nights, allowing us the convenience to explore the fascinating sites of Northern Jordan on day trips and return to the comfort of our luxury hotel each night.
After our 6pm group welcome meeting, we head to Fakhreldin Restaurant for a lavish welcome dinner, where we dine on the finest Levantine cuisine.
The House Boutique Suites, Amman | Meals: D
Day 02 – Amman
Today we explore Jordan’s capital, a fascinating city of contrasts. We visit the Citadel, the fortress that was the religious and political centre of the ancient city. Situated on one of Amman’s highest hills with commanding views of the old city, the site dates from the Neolithic Period and contains the remains of the Roman Temple of Hercules, a Byzantine Church and Umayyad Palace. We venture on to the impressive 6,000 seat Roman Theatre, built in the 2nd Century CE at a time when the city was known as Philadelphia.
We then visit the Jordan Museum, home to the country’s most important archaeological finds. This beautifully designed museum delves into the history and rich cultural heritage of Jordan and will serve as a vital precursor to set the scene for our forthcoming journey. Highlights include some of the famed Dead Sea Scrolls and the 7,500 BCE ‘Ain Ghazal statues which are considered one of the oldest human statues ever made.
This afternoon we have arranged special access for our group to the Friends of Archaeology and Heritage Association in Amman. The Association actively promotes greater understanding of archaeology and the importance of preservation and conservation of Jordan’s national heritage. We will have a casual chat with some of the members and learn more about the vital work they are undertaking.
The House Boutique Suites, Amman | Meals: B
Day 03 – Pella & Ajloun
This morning we head north through the fertile valleys bordering Israel to explore the ruins of the ancient city of Pella. The uniqueness of this archaeologically important site lies in the fact that a visitor can see evidence of 6,000 years of continuous settlement. We can trace the transition of a variety of civilisations, from its Neolithic beginnings, on to Hellenic, Roman, Byzantine Christian and Islamic habitations.
We continue on to Ajloun, the site of one of the most impressive hilltop castles in Jordan. Built by Muslims in 1184 to protect them from Crusader attacks, it dominated this part of the Jordan Valley and is a fine example of medieval Islamic architecture.
Early this evening we head to a specially curated wine tasting experience hosted by Jordan River Wines. Viticulture has a long history in Jordan – the Nabateans produced wine as early as the 1st Century CE in Petra. Continuing our immersive journey into Jordan’s fascinating past, we will be joined by one of the country’s eminent Professors of history.
The House Boutique Suites, Amman | Meals: B,L
Day 04 – Jerash
This morning we drive north from Amman to visit Jerash, which remains today as one of the most magnificent and well-preserved Greco-Roman cities in existence.
Jerash was founded by the Greeks in the wake of Alexander the Great and was an important stopping point for caravans on the way to Damascus and Palmyra. It then became a key city of the Roman Decapolis, one of ten frontier outposts designed to protect the Empire from the Nabataean Kingdom in the South and the Persians in the East. When the Romans overthrew the Nabateans in the 2nd Century CE, Jerash’s status increased further and it became the most important and prosperous trading centre in the region.
With our Expedition Leader on hand to bring context to our visit, we take our time to explore this fine example of Roman urban planning. We wander its colonnaded streets and forums, stroll through the large hippodrome and stunning temples dedicated to Artemis and Zeus and bask beneath the glorious triumphal arch build to honour the Emperor Hadrian, who wintered here in the year 129CE.
Choose your own adventure
Early this evening, our travellers can choose from the following included options in Amman:
Gastronomic Walking Tour of Old Amman
This entertaining food tour lets you eat like the locals do as we head out to explore the very best cuisine of Amman’s old town. We begin with a visit to the local vegetable market to learn about the fresh produce of the region before sampling different dishes in lively establishments, including a stop at a legendary restaurant reputed to have the finest hummus and falafel in the country and a sweet shop famed for its tasty baklava.
Beit Sitti (which translates to ‘my grandmother’s house’) is run by three Jordanian sisters who created this wonderful cooking school and restaurant to keep their grandmothers legacy alive. Set in a traditional house in the heart of the old city, you will learn how to prepare an authentic 4-course Arabic meal with local cooks guiding you through the process that concludes by enjoying a meal of your own creation.
The House Boutique Suites, Amman | Meals: B,L,D
Day 05 – Desert Castles
Today we head east along an ancient Roman highway to explore Jordan’s remarkable desert castles. Built between the 7th – 8th Century CE under the caliphs of the Umayyad dynasty, these fortified palaces and hunting lodges represent outstanding examples of early Islamic architecture.
Many of these atmospheric buildings are decorated with beautiful frescoes and carvings depicting life during this time. The most stunning of these is the UNESCO World Heritage site at Qasr Amra, a small, exceptionally well-preserved pleasure palace whose reception hall and hammam are richly decorated with bold murals portraying Byzantine style portraits, hunting scenes and constellations.
After lunch at Azraq Lodge, a former British military field hospital, we drive to the imposing fortress of Qasr Kharana, which was used as a military base by Lawrence of Arabia in 1917.
The House Boutique Suites, Amman | Meals: B,L
Day 06 – Umm ar-Rasas, Madaba, Mount Nebo & Dead Sea
Leaving Amman for the last time, we head south to the UNESCO World Heritage site of Um ar-Rasas. This rectangular walled city lays in ruins, however restorations have preserved several buildings including one of the area’s earliest Stylite towers, whose crowning platform was home to Christian ascetics who preached to visiting pilgrims.
In 1986 archaeologists uncovered here what is considered to be one of the finest Byzantine mosaics in the Middle East on the floor of the Church of St Stephen. This perfectly preserved mosaic was built in 785 CE and features a map detailing the most important towns in the Empire including Philadelphia (Amman), Madaba and Karak, making the mosaic a significant contributor to the geographical record.
We drive on to Madaba, a centre of early Christianity located on the King’s Highway. We spend time exploring Madaba’s fascinating archaeological park which encompasses the remains of several Byzantine churches, including the outstanding mosaic on display at the Greek Orthodox Church of St George depicting a map of the Greater Jerusalem area. The map, made up of over two million pieces, is the oldest known geographic floor mosaic in art history and has been used frequently for localisation and verification of biblical sites.
After visiting the Institute for Mosaic Art & Restoration in Madaba, an organisation dedicated to training local artists in the production and restoration of mosaics, we head to Mount Nebo, where it is said Moses first gazed upon the Promised Land. After taking in the spectacular views of Palestine and Israel from the top, we check in to our luxury accommodation located on the shores of the Dead Sea.
Dead Sea Kempinski Ishtar Resort | Meals: B
Day 07 – Dead Sea & Karak Castle
This morning is free to enjoy a swim in the Dead Sea, which at 400 metres below sea level, is the lowest spot on earth. Floating in the hypersaline waters is a surreal experience not to be missed.
Heading south, we visit the incredible 12th Century crusader castle at Karak. This monumental example of medieval military architecture is still imposing even today. It’s vast size and strategic position east of the Dead Sea made it a power centre that controlled Bedouin herders and trade routes from Damascus to Egypt and Mecca. The castle was besieged in 1183 by Saladin, the renowned Sultan of Egypt and Syria, who led the Muslim military campaign against the Crusader states in the Levant. It took three separate siege attempts by Saladin’s men at Karak, spread over 5 years, to finally force the Castle’s inhabitants to surrender.
Petra Old Village Hotel (2021) or Movenpick Resort Petra (2022) | Meals: B
Day 08 – Petra
Few sites have the ability to take ones breath away like the city of Petra, one of the world’s greatest historical masterpieces. This astonishing city of rock, carved by hand out of rose-coloured canyons, was the capital of the desert dwelling Nabatean Kingdom and reached prominence around the 2nd Century BCE. It is from Petra that the Nabateans controlled the northern end of the overland Frankincense trail. The vast revenues generated by its status as a major regional trading and distribution hub made this previously nomadic Arab tribe wealthy beyond imagination. Once home to 20,000 inhabitants, Petra’s importance waned with its annexation by the Roman Empire in the 2nd Century CE and the parallel decline of the camel caravans as sea trade routes emerged.
We begin our in-depth exploration of Petra by walking through the narrow winding canyon known as the Siq, which emerges spectacularly at the famed façade of the Treasury. We spend the morning in the company of our expert Expedition Leader, learning more about the monumental palaces, tombs, temples and dwellings and the people who inhabited them.
After a rest in the hotel this afternoon, we return in the evening to experience Petra by night. We walk in silence along the candle-lit path of the Siq and witness the magical scene of the Treasury lit up by a carpet of hundreds of candles.
Petra Old Village Hotel (2021) or Movenpick Resort Petra (2022) | Meals: B
Day 09 – Petra, Beidah & Little Petra
This morning, our travellers are free to return to Petra for further explorations of this vast city. Those interested to visit the striking façade of the Monastery will climb 800 steps through a narrow wadi and take in tremendous views over the eastern valleys of Jordan.
Later this afternoon we will drive to visit Beidah and Little Petra. Beidah is a major Neolithic archaeological site that dates back 10,000 years, making it one of the earliest settlements in the entire Middle East. The site has revealed evidence of its inhabitants transitioning from nomadic to settled life. Digs have discovered cultivation of some early domesticated plants and animals, whilst various objects recovered, such as Anatolian obsidian, prove that trade flourished across large distances even in these early times.
Nabataean Little Petra consists of three open areas connected by a narrow 450-metre long canyon. A suburb of Petra used as a supply post for camel caravans and a lodging area for visiting traders, it was known for many years only to local Bedouin’s until the 1950’s, when excavations began under the British archaeologist Diana Kirkbride.
Tonight, we are in for a treat as we join the local Ammarin tribe for an authentic Bedouin meal. We gather around the campfire under the stars at Little Petra and enjoy some local delicacies such as Zarb, a succulent meat and vegetable dish seasoned with herbs and spices that has been buried in an oven with hot coals beneath the desert sands.
Petra Old Village Hotel (2021) or Movenpick Resort Petra (2022) | Meals: B,D
Day 10 – Wadi Rum
Today we experience the extraordinary desert landscapes of Wadi Rum, a wild valley of dramatic granite and sandstone peaks surrounded by red sand dunes. The area was regularly visited by Lawrence of Arabia and featured as the real-life set in the 1962 film based on his life.
We are picked up in 4×4 vehicles by local Bedouins who lead us in our desert explorations. We visit hidden valleys and canyons, see ancient petroglyphs and traverse amongst rock bridges and staggering mountain scenery. After lunch with the Bedouins, we arrive at our luxurious desert camp, where the clear roof of our sumptuous tents allows for unforgettable star gazing and sunrise opportunities.
Wadi Rum Night Luxury Camp (2021) or Wadi Rum Bubble Luxotel (2022) | Meals: B,L,D
Day 11 – Wadi Rum & Aqaba
Following an optional camel ride this morning amongst the beautiful scenery of Wadi Rum, we drive to Aqaba on Jordan’s Red Sea coast.
Today is free to enjoy some down time and relax at our beachfront resort. There are plenty of activities and water sports for those seeking adventure – snorkelling the fringing coral reef, taking a fishing trip or enjoying a sunset cruise.
Aqaba Hyatt Regency Ayla Resort | Meals: B,L
Day 12 – Aqaba - Saudi Border Crossing – Tabuk & Al Bada
With our batteries recharged, we transfer this morning to the border crossing between Jordan and Saudi Arabia at Durra.
After completing customs formalities, we start our explorations of Saudi Arabia in Tabuk Province, home to some of the country’s most majestic natural and historical sites. As quoted in both the Bible and Quran, Tabuk is the ancient land of Midian, where Moses sought refuge after fleeing Egypt.
After lunch we visit Al-Bada’, home to an ancient city that was named Midian until the Middle-Ages. This vast archaeological site dates from the 2nd Century BCE – coins discovered at the site have proven that the city was active during the Hellenistic, Nabatean, Roman, and Islamic periods. Moses purportedly lived in Midian for a period of 10 years. The site includes Nabatean tombs, built in a style similar to those found in Petra, and the caves of the Prophet Sho’ayb, who is sometimes identified with the Biblical Jethro.
Hotel Neom | Meals: B,L,D
Day 13 – Jibal Hisma & Wadi Qaraqir
An extension of Jordan’s Wadi Rum, the dramatic scenery at Jibal Hisma is every bit as spectacular as the more famed site across the border. This morning, we jump in our 4WD vehicles to roam among the blood red sand dunes and giant sandstone massifs of Hisma’s other-worldly landscape. We visit ancient rock art sites, some of which feature Arabic scripts dating to the first decades of Islam, showing that this area was crossed by ancient trade and pilgrimage roads. We then drive to Wadi Qaraqir, known as the most beautiful valley in Arabia. We first stop in at a lookout to appreciate the massive scale of the canyon, whose walls reach 500 metres in some places.
We have a leisurely picnic lunch at Zeetah this afternoon, a place with some of the region’s most amazing viewpoints and fascinating ancient carvings. We overnight in a specially created desert camp for us.
Desert Bedouin Camp | Meals: B,L,D
Day 14 – Wadi Qaraqir to AlUla
After breakfast we continue our journey south. Emerging out of the western entrance of the valley, we stop at some ancient remains by the oasis city of Dissah before heading past the volcanoes of the Harrat Al-‘Uwayrid and its 9 million year old lava field, to the fabled oasis of AlUla.
For the next three days we explore AlUla, one of the most spectacular archaeological sites in the Middle East. This beautiful oasis valley has over 7000 years of continuous history and was home to a succession of great civilisations including the Dedanites, Lihyanites, Nabataens and the Roman Empire. Because of its abundant water, AlUla was an important stop along the Frankincense route, a transit area for the camel caravans on their way to Egypt, the Levant and Mediterranean ports. With the advent of Islam in the 7th Century, the trading routes slowly transformed into pilgrimage trails. AlUla was an essential way station for pilgrims following the Syrian and Egyptian routes to Mecca and Medina well into the early twentieth century.
Sahary Resort, AlUla | Meals: B,L,D
Day 15 – AlUla (Dedan)
We begin by exploring the old town of AlUla, a traditional Arabian village built 800 years ago and inhabited until the mid 1900’s. We wander through this maze of ruined mud houses, where over 1000 dwellings were built together to form a defensive wall around the town.
We continue on to Dedan, the oldest city of the oasis and home to the successive kingdoms of Dedan and Lihyan, which ruled this area from the eighth to the first century BCE. Their political, economic and religious centre was here, strategically located by the palm groves at the base of an imposing sandstone cliff. The quality of the remains in this ancient city is a vibrant testimony of the richness of the caravan trade. We take our time to discover the well-preserved architectural vestiges of these two kingdoms which includes remains of temples, a necropolis and sanctuaries dedicated to the gods of water and agriculture.
After lunch we visit nearby Ekma gorge, the so called Lihyan library, where 200 ancient inscriptions carved in the rock tell give us a fascinating glimpse into the lives of the people of Dedan and Lihyan.
Sahary Resort, AlUla | Meals: B,L,D
Day 16 – AlUla (Hegra - Madain Saleh)
This morning we explore the most iconic historical remains in all of Saudi Arabia, the UNESCO World Heritage site of Hegra, also known as Madain Saleh. Hegra was a principal Frankincense route town built by the Nabataeans, who, having grown wealthy from the taxes imposed on caravans passing through their capital Petra, expanded the borders of their kingdom south in order to bring them closer to the Red Sea ports. The urban area they created at Hegra shares many characteristics with Petra – such as the monumental rock-cut tombs – and was eventually transitioned into a military outpost by the Roman Empire, who annexed the Nabataean Kingdom in 106 CE.
After an overview on the ancient city from our Expedition Leader, we visit a selection of the most interesting tombs, many with extraordinarily majestic facades cut into the sandstone massifs, and continue our discussions on Nabataean culture and architecture.
Sahary Resort, AlUla | Meals: B,L,D
Day 17 - AlUla
This morning we have arranged a helicopter charter flight to explore some remote Neolithic sites that can only be viewed from the air. Placed on inaccessible mountain tops, we fly through the remote canyons in search of these ancient treasures.
After lunch, we head to the outskirts of AlUla on an desert trip and begin with a visit to the hidden canyons of Jibal Al-Rukkab, a colossal labyrinth of fantastical rock shapes and sandy wadis set amongst narrow sandstone chasms. We move on to the sacred area of Jibal Ithlib, home to Diwan cultic sites and petroglyphs, before finishing our day at the famed Al-Farid tomb, whose surface occupies two third of an isolated rock and is a further testament to the outstanding workmanship of the highly skilled Nabataean craftsmen.
Sahary Resort, AlUla | Meals: B,L,D
Day 18 – Depart AlUla
With the expedition coming to an end, take a private transfer to AlUla airport or embark on further touring.
Red Sea extension
Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea coast has a wealth of white-sand beaches and virgin reefs brimming with marine life. We can arrange relaxing stays in the Kingdoms finest seaside resorts, as well as snorkelling and diving adventures.
Riyadh City Break
Explore the Saudi capital of Riyadh, one of the Middle East’s most dynamic cities. Visit the old city of Dirriyyah, where the Al-Saud dynasty first began, discover the compelling story of Arabian history at the National Museum and stroll the atmospheric Dira Souk, famous for its silver daggers, Bedouin jewellery and antique carpets.
Dr Iain Shearer FRAS
Iain is an archaeologist who has worked on sites across the Middle East, North Africa and Sudan, Central Asia, Caucasus, China, India, Pakistan, USA, Balkans, Europe and UK.
Iain took his degrees at the Institute of Archaeology, University College London, where he worked before being appointed The Sackler Scholar for Afghanistan and Iran at The British Museum. While working at UCL, he was asked to join the London Metropolitan Police Art & Antiques Unit Special Crime Directorate 6 as a Special Constable and is actively involved in the research and restitution of looted cultural heritage.
Iain surveyed at Madain Saleh in Saudi Arabia with an Italian Mission during the 2000’s and excavated at Jerash and Petra in Jordan. He was made a Fellow of The Royal Asiatic Society in 2008 and visiting lecturer at the US Naval Academy in Annapolis Maryland. He enjoys popularising history for a non-specialist audience, leading numerous lecture tours during the last couple of decades for Oxford and Cambridge Universities, The British Museum, Art Gallery of NSW and regularly gives public lectures at institutions worldwide.
Iain is the author of Lonely Planet’s Guide to Saudi Arabia and the Haj (2010), an author of Lonely Planet’s Guide to Iran (2012) and presenter of Lonely Planet & National Geographic’s ‘Road Less Travelled: Kazakhstan’.
The House Boutique Suites
A luxury boutique hotel centrally located in the heart of the city, each of the spacious suites are tastefully appointed with chic contemporary décor and a kitchenette. The rooftop terrace and pool offer fabulous views over Amman, whilst the cafés and restaurants of cosmopolitan Rainbow Street are just a short stroll away.
Wadi Rum Bubble Luxotel
Glamping at its very best in the spectacular desert of Wadi Rum, each private bubble tent has a bedroom, private bathroom and seating area. The clear roof of the tent gives travellers the unique experience of having an unrestricted view of the spectacular night sky while you lay in bed or lounge in your living room, perfect if you want to enjoy the sunrise or late-night stargazing. (2022 departure only)
- Domestic flight as per itinerary
- Meals as per itinerary (17 breakfasts, 12 lunches, 11 dinners) including welcome and farewell dinners
- Private airport transfers (arrival and departure)
- Fast track immigration and customs service upon arrival at Amman Airport
- Accommodation as stated on a twin-share basis
- Porterage at airports and hotels
- All land transport by private air-conditioned vehicle
- Services of an Arcadia Expedition Leader and English-speaking local guides throughout
- Sightseeing as specified including entrance fees to sites mentioned in itinerary
- Reusable responsible travel water bottle with daily drinking water provided
- Gratuities/tipping for local guides, drivers, hotel staff and restaurants for included meals
- All taxes
- Return international flights
- Passport and visa charges
- Items of a purely personal nature (i.e. telephone calls, laundry etc)
- Excess luggage
- Lunch and dinners not specifically mentioned as included in itinerary
- Travel insurance