Jordan culture

“This is an amazing country, which just gives and gives,” says our traveler Helen Ball, who travelled through the country exploring Jordan culture on our small group tour to Jordan. “The sounds, sights and people combine to make it unique: from the desert to the bustling town with historical sites interspersed, modern and ancient are part of it all. Learning from our local group leader – the stories of history explained from the other side – opened our eyes to so much.”

One memorable evening of Helen’s trip was an overnight stay at a Bedouin encampment in Wadi Rum. It’s an experience that features on many jaunts through Jordan, an introduction to desert customs for the guest and for the hosts a way of sustaining their centuries-old culture. Very few Bedouin still follow the old nomadic ways of their ancestors.

But while sleeping out under the stars, enjoying a zarb (a kind of underground barbecue) around the campfire, and waking to a desert sunrise is a thrilling way to learn about Bedouin life, this ever-popular activity is far from the only way to explore Jordanian culture.

Why is Jordanian culture so diverse?

Seated at a crossroads between Africa, Asia and Europe, itís little surprise that Jordan bears the traces of many civilisations. Empires have risen and receded, leaving behind them an intriguing and enduring cultural legacy.

Petra, that marvel of desert architecture, dates back to at least the second century BC and the Nabataeans, a nomadic Arabic people. There are Byzantine Christian churches in Amman, while just beyond the capital lies Jerash, home to the best-preserved Roman ruins outside Italy, with a spectacular forum lined with 160 Ionic columns. There are six surviving Crusader castles, built to defend ancient trade routes, including Karak. And by the side of the Hejaz Railway, you can still see the skeletons of trains destroyed during the Arab Revolt of 1916-18 that overturned centuries of Ottoman rule.

The culture of Jordan is also shaped by the patchwork of ethnic and religious groups within its borders, a kaleidoscopic community not least because Jordan hosts more refugees per capita than any other country in the world. There are significant numbers of Palestinians and Syrians here, along with Armenians, Chechens and Iraqis.

Exploring culture & traditions in Jordan

Spend time chatting with your guides. It will make your experience so much more enriching.
“The biggest highlight for me, culturally, was the Jordanian people themselves,” says Alice Jewell from our Travel Team. “They’re so incredibly friendly and genuinely welcoming to travelers. Our guides were a joy to spend time with and gave me the opportunity to not just travel through the country, but to experience it from a local’s perspective and learn about the rich ancient history as well as the more modern way of life.

“They took us to places most people don’t get a chance to see, and we enjoyed the most delicious food in family-run restaurants. My advice: spend time chatting with your guides. It will make your experience so much more enriching.”

Our partners aim to give you authentic, intimate experiences of Jordan culture and customs every step of the way. When not slumbering beneath the sand dunes in a Bedouin camp, you’ll often be staying in small family-run hotels and you’ll have local guides and drivers accompanying you throughout your stay. They ensure that wherever possible you eat in non-touristy restaurants that are typically Jordanian and help you gain a foothold when exploring ways of life here.

When visiting Petra in the evening, don’t leave by the canyon you came in by, but instead make for the other exit at the lower gate. This takes you to the village of Umm Sayhoon, where many Bedouin people live, having been moved out of the Petra caves by the government in the 1980s. Few tourists make it to this community, so you’ll be a (very welcome) curiosity.

By and large, Jordanian people are immensely friendly and hospitable, and it’s far from unusual to be invited to share a meal or a drink.

“In Wadi Rum we were invited for tea by our guide’s friends,” says Alice, “and we sat and watched the sunset with them whilst drinking cardamom tea and eating the most delicious dates.”

Food & drink

One of lifeís little bonuses is that getting to grips with a countryís culture usually involves exploring its cuisine as well. Jordanian cuisine shares influences with other Arabic and Mediterranean countries Ė hummus, baba ghanoush, tabouleh, falafel and kebabs all feature regularly on menus here. Yet Jordan has plenty of delicacies all its own, as well a winemaking tradition thatís among the oldest in the world.

Many foods, including the national dish mansaf, are served on large platters and eaten with your hands Ė but always the right hand, never the left. Itís common for a small cup of bitter coffee to be served to every diner before eating as a welcoming gesture.

Vegetarian dishes can be found across Jordan, but this is very much a meat-eating culture, so if sticking to your diet is crucial then be very clear at restaurants that you want entirely meat-free dishes. A big advantage of cultural small group tours in Jordan is that youíll have a trip leader there to ensure that you can get food that suits your diet.

When traveling in Jordan, itís very likely that you will be invited into someoneís home for a meal or drink. Not only is it considered rude to refuse an invitation, youíd also be passing up a solid opportunity to make a friend and learn more about the deep relationship Jordanians have with tea and coffee.

Just outside Petra, thereís a chance to delve deeper into traditional Jordanian cuisine with a cookery class at the renowned Petra Kitchen. Here, local women guide guests through cooking a handful of dishes before you share a meal together. And when we say itís authentically Jordanian, we mean every aspect, right down to the tableware, aprons and table linen, all of which have been made by local co-operatives and foundations to help people earn an income and develop new practical skills.
Travel Team
If you'd like to chat about Jordan or need help finding a vacation to suit you we're very happy to help.

Where to buy souvenirs in Jordan

Art River Mosaic Workshop, Madaba

Madaba in central Jordan has a rich culture of mosaic craftwork, largely as a result of the fine Byzantine and Umayyad examples found in its churches. The most famous is the intricate Map of the Holy Land, a well-preserved 6th-century mosaic in the floor of the Basilica of St George.

The ancient art is taught at the Madaba Institute for Mosaic Art and Restoration and this has spawned many workshops in and around Madaba. Art River Mosaic Workshop has been set up to provide training and employment for disabled people. Jobs for people with disabilities in Jordan are very limited, yet some 60 percent of the people working at Art River have some form of disability.

All the mosaics here are handmade. The stone is cut into very small pieces, a design is drawn and the stones are individually positioned with tweezers. Once all the stones are in place, the gaps are cemented, the surface polished and it is framed. This is painstaking and highly skilled work.

Art River is not a charity, it is a profit-making company, but its artists are paid an industry wage and have other employee benefits. Those who are able attend the workshop, while others can work from home if needed.

Craft workshops, Dana Reserve

There are three craft workshops in Dana Reserve, where local people have the skills and opportunity to produce high-quality goods for sale. The workshops donít just provide an income, but make the long-term survival of these rural communities more viable.

All the jewellery from the silver workshops is handmade by local women. The designs reflect the nature of the area, taking inspiration from wildlife or ancient rock art found in the reserve. The motifs have been created both by top designers and also the women themselves.

The terraced gardens of Dana village have fertile soils fed by spring water, and have fed the people who live here for hundreds of years and are still providing abundant produce. Everything is organic and local women use fruit from the trees to make exquisite preserves and sun-dried herbs, then package them as fragrant ingredients.

Down in the desert area of Feynan, there is a leather workshop where goatskins are turned into handcrafted cushions, picture frames and other items. The leather project also helps to control the size of goatherds in the reserve, which if allowed to get too large cause serious environmental damage.

There are also community craft projects at other reserves run by the Royal Society for Nature Conservation. Ostrich eggs are carefully engraved at Azraq Lodge, and the Jordan River Foundation has a number of projects throughout the country where people are taught skills and assist in running craft workshops.

The Soap House near Ajloun Forest Reserve

For generations, wherever olives were grown, rural communities used their oil to make soap rich in antioxidants and gentle on sensitive skin. Despite these and other beneficial qualities, modern mass production meant this ancient art all but died out. But in Jordan, traditional soapmaking has been revived.

Near the village Orjan in the Al Ayoun area, a house has been converted into a cottage workshop where local women handmake a selection of high-quality natural olive oil soaps. Medicinal herbs and fragrant fruit and flowers like mint, cinnamon, pomegranate, lavender and geranium are also added. The project was set up by the Royal Society for Nature Conservation (RSCN) and Dina Azar, a Jordanian businesswoman who had already established her own successful handmade soap and cosmetics company.

The Soap House not only provides local women with skilled employment but, because it is situated out in the countryside and not in an urban factory, it also contributes to the rural economy. Fruits, flowers, herbs and olive oil are bought from farmers in nearby villages who are given a better price than they would otherwise get at the major markets.

The soaps are sold internationally but they can also be bought at the Soap House in Orjan and at Dinaís own Soap House in Jabal Amman. Visitors are welcome to tour the Soap House and watch the women at work. There is a guided walk from the Ajloun Forest Reserve called the Soap Makers Trail that finishes with a visit to the Orjan Soap House.

Is there a dress code in Jordan?

There is no official Ďdress codeí in Jordan and Jordanian people recognise that people from other cultures dress differently. However, this is a conservative, religious country and you may feel that itís more respectful to dress as the locals do while traveling in Jordan. Our partners will give you all the information you need on what to pack when you book a vacation, but in general all travelers should try to keep arms and legs covered, while women will often wear headscarves. Wearing light, long clothing has the additional benefit of protecting you from the sun.
Written by Rob Perkins
Photo credits: [Page banner: Hisham Zayadnh] [Intro: Julie Kwak] [Food & drink: Saleem.q] [ Art River Mosaic Workshop, Madaba: Jordan Tourism Board]