A child's-eye view of an ancient land

Scrolling through Jordan from the Dead Sea to the Red Sea brings Classical civilisation to life for young travellers – with plenty of thrills on the way

The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan is a young country, yet it is a very grown-up place. For those pondering a holiday riven with historical and religious significance, there are few places to rival its status as a geographical primer for Bible studies.

And anyone with an ounce of wanderlust will be anxious to see icons such as Petra, Wadi Rum and the Dead Sea at some point in their travels. Yet Jordan is also a family-friendly destination that works brilliantly for young children. It wraps several educations inside one big adventure: the Holy Land, the Romans, the Nabataeans, the Ottomans, Lawrence of Arabia, Bedouin culture, the Middle East crisis. Plus you get to ride camels.

So, armed with a smattering of Arabic and industrial quantities of sunblock, my daughter Emily and I joined five other families for a child-friendly tour of Jordan's greatest hits. We landed in Amman, ready for adventure. Sadly the Jordanian capital – an architecturally boxy city built from grey cement – is not a greatest hit of any sort, so we immediately boarded our small bus and drove 45 minutes north-east towards Jerash, one of the best-preserved and largest Greco-Roman cities in the world.

As Emily and I peered through the window of the bus at the scrubby hillscapes of northern Jordan (which looked to me much like a parched version of Provence), our guide Ibrahim El-Wahashi, a former schoolteacher, took the microphone. He explained that Amman was named after the Ammonites who preceded the Greeks; that the Greeks renamed the city Philadelphia; that Jordan is five-sixths desert; that the Jordanian nation is a mix of Palestinians, Syrians, Israelis and Russians; and that it is "politically and socially the most stable country in the Middle East".

Jerash has been continuously inhabited for more than 6,500 years, which is surely the mark of an especially stable place. Modern Jerash adheres to the contemporary Jordanian architectural vernacular of concrete cubes. We, however, had come to visit ancient Jerash – a vast open-air museum dedicated to the ruins of this once-great classical city.

The ancient caravan routes that plied their way across Africa, Europe and the Middle East converged here and created a mighty trading metropolis which the Romans seized in 63BC. They proceeded to construct a grand, formal, provincial Roman city that became one of the so-called Decapolis, a group of 10 cities that pegged out the eastern flank of the Roman Empire.

Passing through Hadrian's Gate, we were confronted by a 15,000-seat Hippodrome, a forum the size of a cricket field, several temples and two theatres all leading off the Cardo Maximus ("main artery"), an 800-metre paved road which exits the city and heads north to Syria. Such is Jerash's state of preservation that very little imagination is needed to get a feeling of what life was like here in the Classical Age.

The Roman Army Experience and Chariot Race at the 244-metre Hippodrome was surprisingly entertaining. Twenty-five "centurions" in full battle dress demonstrated the "anti-equus" and "tortoise" manoeuvres that made the Roman army such tough opposition. The "anti-equus" involved two rows of centurions: the front row formed a fence with their shields and thrust their spears out through the interstices; the back row formed a roof with their shields and menaced the oncoming cavalry with their own spears. Imagine a Classical version of Aintree's Becher's Brook, and you're getting close. The "tortoise" involved the centurions coalescing into a tightly-knit block protected on all sides and above by shields, similar in look and purpose to a modern-day battle tank. As we left one of the older children commented: "It was like Life of Brian mixed with Asterix and Ben-Hur." That about summed it up for me, too.

Covering 800,000 square metres (about the size of Hyde Park), ancient Jerash presents a complete back catalogue of Greco-Roman architecture: colonnaded hilltop temples, theatres, public squares, plazas, baths and fountains. The children were fascinated by the perfect acoustics of the 3,000-seater Large South Theatre, whose ingenious echo spot and acoustic hollows permit interlocutors to conduct perfectly intelligible whispered colloquy from far sides of the theatre.

The following day, skirting Amman, we drove south along the world's oldest continuously used trading route: the King's Highway, which is Jordan's main thoroughfare. This ancient road links Damascus to Egypt, taking in Amman, Petra and Aqaba. It passes plunging gorges, gnarled escarpments and Bedouin tents. History records that Moses, Roman emperors and Richard the Lionheart trod this route. It even merits a mention in the Bible ("We will travel along the King's Highway and not turn to the right or to the left until we have passed through your territory." Numbers, XX, 17).

Modern Jordan is predominantly Muslim, but Christian heritage remains. Some 25km south of Amman, the city of Madaba holds a priceless treasure: the oldest existing map of the Holy Land, created as a mosaic on the floor of St George's Church, which dates back to the sixth century. All the key biblical-Christian sites are shown: Jerusalem is depicted in street-map format, with churches and gates all visible; the River Jordan is illustrated with fish swimming towards the Dead Sea, then retreating from the sea's lethal salinity. The map brings the Holy Land to life and makes the Bible seem almost like journalism. "In Christ's time, there were lions, tigers and giraffes in Jordan," said Ibrahim, pointing out a depiction of a lion in pursuit of its prey. "Jordan was greener in those days."

There is a gratifying culture of freshness about the Jordanian table. This is partly through sheer necessity; refrigeration becoming widespread only in the 1980s. For Emily and me, Jordan's finest culinary hour came at Haret Jdoudna restaurant in Madaba. Seated beneath a bamboo awning on the roof terrace of this converted 19th-century family house overlooking gardens of explosively coloured hibiscus, we devoured a delicious banquet of hummus (mashed chickpeas), fatoosh (bread with salad), shankleesh (goat's cheese, onion, pepper, tomatoes), baba ganuj (aubergine dip), jarjeer (green salad) and galaya (tomatoes, parsley, garlic, basil, olive oil). The price per head, including soft drinks and tea, was around 14 dinars (£13).

Snaking further south, the King's Highway crosses Wadi Mujib, a thrilling desert gorge. Wadi Mujib is part of the northern fissuring of the African Rift, that great crack that is forming as Africa splits from Asia at the rate of one centimetre a century, taking the West Bank with it. "The winding road up and down the sides of the gorge follows ancient donkey tracks," Ibrahim told us. "Donkeys are very clever at finding the safest route on steep slopes. Their trails became modern roads. Hence their name, 'engineers of the road'."

"So why," a young voice asked, "is it called the King's Highway and not the Donkey's Highway?".

At 1,400m above sea level, the Dana Nature Reserve – 190km south of Amman – overlooks Jordanian Rift scenery at its most spectacular. In the magical evening stilling of the air, I watched the children clambering about rocks set against a Biblical wilderness. The precipitous, isolated reserve is home to ibex, porcupine, jackal, wolf, wild cat, spotted hyena and wild boar – our neighbours during our second night, which we spent two-to-a-tent under canvas at the reserve.

The last time I'd slept under canvas was on the Inca Trail in Peru in 1980. I swore never to do it again. In Jordan, however, sleeping in a tent, Bedouin-style, feels like the right way to go. Besides, for children, camping is source of an adventure rather than discomfort.

They thought nothing of clambering on to great rocks and disappearing down the other side, apparently heedless of the dangers of falling down a ravine or encountering a wild animal (not that we did encounter any, other than a couple of Sinai rosefinches which used the breakfast sugar bowl as a bird bath).

The "lost" ancient city of Petra is a three-day trek by foot south across the desert from Dana, or a two-hour drive along the King's Highway. Petra is the apogee of any visit to Jordan. To reach it, you park your vehicle in the adjoining town of Wadi Musa and walk 1.2km along the Siq ("shaft") – a narrow mountain cleft 100m deep and, in places, just a metre or two wide. The Siq opens out to reveal the Treasury, a soaring pillared and porticoed classical building – equivalent in height to a 14-storey building – which the Nabataean people carved out of the side of Mount Hor 2,600 years ago.

The Nabataeans remain something of a mystery. Pre-Christian nomads, they grew rich on the spice trade but were so secretive that not only did they decide to hide their main city, they also seem to have written almost nothing down. No texts remain; very few inscriptions adorn their temples and tombs. Yet clearly they were sophisticated enough to rival the Greeks and Romans in creating a magnificent building such as the Treasury, which rivets you to the ground in awe, besides some 800 other buildings, tombs and monuments carved into adjacent mountains. Even more curiously, having bothered to sculpt a whole city from rock, the Nabataeans handed the whole lot over to the Romans in the first century AD and then disappeared from history.

Petra is served by the sleepy Bedouin town of Wadi Musa. There is little by way of après-Petra, besides the swimming pool at the Crowne Plaza hotel – a big hit among the children, being outdoors, small and little-used. In the evening, we visited Petra Kitchen, a dinner-only restaurant-cum-cookery school where, for 25 dinars (£23) per person, a brigade of chefs will supervise you in preparing Jordanian dishes which you then eat. We learnt to cook lentil soup, Arabic salad (diced tomatoes and cucumber), baba ganuj and galaya bandura (sautéed tomatoes, garlic and pine nuts). The children rolled out pastry, cut out discs for the cheese and thyme pastries and enjoyed getting covered in flour.

Our next stop was Wadi Rum, the rose-pink desert to the south of Petra. Its nickname is "Valley of the Moon", although the scenery is rather more Martian than the name implies. Rock formations rise VC vertically like giant molars, creating cliffs hundreds of metres high. Here, TE Lawrence plotted the Arab Revolt (1917-18) against the Ottoman Turks. He fought alongside Prince Faisal Bin Hussein, ancestor of the present King Abdullah II of Jordan.

In Wadi Rum, we put on keffiyehs (traditional Arab headdress), mounted camels and set off into the desert. For the children, camel trekking was the thrill of the week. The views from the saddle of a two-metre animal are panoramic, and the pace is perfect for sightseeing. And being intelligent animals, camels need minimal coaxing.

After a 5km trek, we reached our destination for the night: a Bedouin camp belonging to Mzied Atieg, whose ancestors supported Lawrence. Atieg, faced with rising prices after the Second Gulf War, has switched from goat and herb husbandry to seize upon the tourist potential of the desert.

After dining by candlelight, we slept on mattresses beneath a brilliant spangling of stars, whose brightness answered the question, "Why are nights black not white?" Night skies are indeed white, thanks to the light of billions of stars, but a very dark, even greyish, shade of white. Here in Wadi Rum I witnessed this dark-whiteness for the first time.

We woke to the Sinai rosefinch's dawn aria and set off for Aqaba, the most southerly city in Jordan, 40km to the west. As Jordan's only outlet to the oceans, Aqaba is an industrialised port. However, once you escape the dockyards, the beaches of the Jordanian Riviera open up along the kingdom's modest coastline.

Then we headed north along the Israeli border until we reached our last stop: the Dead Sea. At 420m below sea level, the Dead Sea is the lowest point on Earth that you can reach without digging. Every lungful of the dense air contains 6 per cent more oxygen than at sea level, which eases respiratory problems. The low altitude also filters out harmful UV rays, allowing psoriasis sufferers – including my daughter – to sunbathe with impunity.

The first thing you notice when you enter the viscous waters of the Dead Sea is the extraordinary buoyancy you acquire. Swimming is almost impossible. Your legs won't submerge. If you can work yourself into a vertical position, you float effortlessly with your entire upper body exposed. If you lie on your back, you can read The Independent without getting it wet. Every litre of Dead Sea contains 320 grams of salt, making it more than eight times saltier than sea water.

The origins of the Dead Sea's hyper-salinity are still something of a mystery, since the tributaries running into it are all fresh water. One theory is that the valley of the Dead Sea was originally flooded by the Mediterranean. Over millions of years the land between the Dead Sea and the Mediterranean rose, cutting off the Dead Sea which became a lake. As the water in the lake evaporated, its salinity rose. Meanwhile, as the Dead Sea is fed by the River Jordan, the waters of the sea were never able to evaporate fully, creating a salty soup held in equipoise between evaporation and replenishment.

The minerals in Dead Sea mud are reputed to nourish the skin. For best results – I'm told – smear it all over, wrap yourself in cling film, wait for 20 minutes, then rinse. Helping myself from a large tub by the seashore, I gave it a go, minus the cling film. The odourless dark green-brown-grey mire felt luxuriously creamy on the skin.

Besides human beings, living things cannot exist in the Dead Sea, and no boat hull can survive its corrosive salinity. The Dead Sea really is dead. Yet its shores are alive with religious symbolism: Sodom and Gomorrah was located here; Christ was baptised at Bethany-beyond-the-Jordan near where the River of Jordan debouches; at Machaerus, Salome demanded the head of John the Baptist. By night, you can see the lights of Jerusalem winking on the West Bank, where the three great monotheistic religions have their holiest sites.

So, a geographically uncompromising part of the planet, which has played a historic role in religions to which 60 per cent of the world's population subscribes. A place that provides stimulation for the mind as well as unguents for the skin. And a land where children will forge indelible memories. After all, our fridge door back at home is now covered with photographs of Emily proudly riding her camel.

Travel essentials Jordan

Getting there

* The writer flew with Royal Jordanian (08719 112 112; rj.com), which flies from Heathrow to Amman from £415 return, or £1,690 for a family of four. Add-ons to Aqaba start at £25 each way.

* BMI (0870 60 70 555; flybmi.com) also flies from Heathrow to Amman.

* Cox and Kings (020-7873 5000; coxandkings.co.uk) can tailor a similar itinerary to the writer's, with a week-long trip costing from £2,195 per adult and £2,145 per child, with flights.

* Group family trips are offered by Explore Worldwide (0845 013 1537; explore.co.uk), The Adventure Company (0845 450 5316; adventurecompany.co.uk), Exodus (0845 527 1393; exodus.co.uk), and Families Worldwide (0845 051 4567; familiesworldwide.co.uk). October half-term trips from £1,149 per adult and £1,049 per child, with flights.

Staying there

* The Regency Palace, Amman (00 962 6 560 7000; theregencyhotel.com). Family rooms start at US$200 (£133), B&B.

* Rumanna camp site ( rscn.org.jo). A four-person tent costs £74 per night. At the Ajloun camp, four-person tents from £100, B&B.

* Mzeid's Camp (00 962 777 304 501; rscn.org.jo). Four-person tents from £120, half-board.

* Crowne Plaza Petra (00 962 3 215 6266; crowneplaza.com). Doubles start at 192 dinars (£169), B&B.

* Radisson Blu Tala Bay Resort, Aqaba (00 962 3 201 4448; radissonblu.com). Family rooms from 304 dinars (£268), B&B.

* Mövenpick Resort & Spa Dead Sea (00 962 5 356 1111; moevenpick-hotels.com). Doubles start at 158 dinars (£139), B&B.

More information

* visitjordan.com/uk; 020-7223 1878

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