The most ancient route. The Kings' Highway winds its way through the different ecological zones of the country, including forested highlands, open farmland plateaus, deep ravines, the edge of the eastern desert, and the warm tropical Gulf of Aqaba.
Lining both sides of this 335 kilometer (208 miles) thoroughfare is a rich chain of archaeological sites that reads like an index of ancient history and a biblical gazetteer -- prehistoric villages from the Stone Age, biblical towns from the Kingdoms of Ammon, Moab and Edom, Crusader Castles, some of the finest early Christian Byzantine mosaics in the Middle East, a Roman-Herodian fortress, several Nabataean temples, two major Roman fortresses, early Islamic towns, and the rock-cut Nabataean capital of Petra.
First mentioned by name in the Bible (Numbers 20:17 and 21:22), the Kings' Highway was the route that Moses wished to follow as he led his people north through the land of Edom, which is in southern Jordan.
The name may, however, derive from the even earlier episode recounted in Genesis 14, when an alliance of "4 kings from the north" marched their troops along this route to do battle against the 5 kings of the Cities of the Plain, including the wicked cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. The invading monarchs captured Lot, Abraham's nephew before retreating, only to be chased and overpowered near Damascus by Abraham, who rescued Lot before continuing his mission. This may have happened around 5000 years ago.
The best way to explore the Kings' Highway today is to rent a car in Amman or Aqaba and spend 2 or 3 days on the road. Many new service facilities make this an easy and enjoyable trip, including hotels and motels at Petra, Al-Karak and Madaba, and many new restaurants, tourist service stations, and rest stops along the way.
From Amman, the Kings' Highway winds southwards through the lush wheat lands of the biblical kingdom of the Ammonites, where major sites to be visited include Hisban, Madaba, Aroer (Moab), and Tell Dhiban. The 6th century mosaic map in Madaba is the oldest surviving map of the Holy Land. 10 minutes west of Madaba is Mount Nebo, from where Moses viewed the Holy Land. Half an hour south is the hilltop Herodian fortress of Machaerus (Al-Mashnaqah, or "The Gallows," in Arabic), where Herod Antipas imprisoned and beheaded John the Baptist.
The Kings' Highway then winds through the picturesque, shallow Wadi Wala valley, then plunges 600 meters into Jordan's miniature Grand Canyon, the Wadi Mujib (the Arnon of the Bible). The road reemerges on the south bank of the Mujib onto the plateau of the ancient Moabite kingdom, passing near the Nabataean temple at Al-Qaser and the Roman temple/Byzantine church complex at ArRabba. 20 minutes to the south is the massive Crusader fortress at Al-Karak, built in 1136 and retaken by the Arab forces of Salahuddin Al-Ayyoubi in 1189. 20 minutes east of Al-Karak is the huge Roman legionary fortress at Lejjun.
South of Al-Karak, the road winds through Mu'ta and Mazar, major Islamic shrines at the site of the first clash between the armies of Islam and Byzantium in 632 AD. The road passes the Roman/Nabataean temple at Dhat Ras, descends through the Wadi Hasa (the biblical Torrent of Zered), past the Nabataean temples of Khirbet At-Tannur and Khirbet Adh-Dharih. It then enters the ancient Kingdom of Edom, with its excavated capital at Buseira (biblical Bozra). Half an hour to the south is the Crusader fortress at Shobak, built by Baldwin I in 1115 as a key link in the Crusader outposts that guarded the lands between Jerusalem and Aqaba.
The next major stop on the Kings' Highway is the unique rock-cut Nabataean capital city at Petra, fulcrum of the ancient world's spice and incense routes for 400 years. You can spend days exploring Petra's 800 monuments, along with the nearby 9000-year-old excavated Stone Age village at Beidha, two more Crusader castles, an Edomite mountain-top village, and the nearby Roman fortress at Udruh.
From Petra, the Kings' Highway descends gradually past Wadi Rum and its moonscape-like natural wonders, before reaching the warm resort of Aqaba with its Mamluk castle, Islamic-Byzantine towns, and the World's oldest known church.