A Night Out of Amman: Part 1 – Madaba & the Ma’in Hot Springs

If you read my last post, you already know that Chandler & I decided to stay in Jordan for our 2-week winter break. This was a tough decision for us since we didn’t go anywhere for our summer break either. In fact, Chandler hasn’t left Jordan since our previous winter break in Sri Lanka. I, however, had a work trip to Oman (that wasn’t interesting enough to blog about) back in February.

To say we feel a bit cooped up would be an understatement. But, obviously, you’re living in the same world that we are and so you probably understand our hesitancy for long-distance travel. Instead, we decided to do some in-country travel. We’re still not too keen on overnights – ironically we think the hotels are safe enough, but we haven’t been able to solve the logistics of eating while traveling during the winter.

So, we looked for a comprise and found the Ma’in Hot Springs Resort and Spa. Only an hour and a half away, we knew we could easily book one night and test the travel waters, so to speak. Also, it looked like they had outdoor dining with waterfall views, so we felt set.

Because the resort was so close, we decided to spend the morning in Madaba, a town halfway between Amman and the hot springs. Famous for its collections of Byzantine-era (395-1453 AD) mosaics, the town also has one of Jordan’s largest Christian communities.

We parked near the Visitor’s Center, obtained a map, and walked to our first stop: The Madaba Archeological Park. It looks pretty unassuming from the outside and we actually arrived before opening hours – long after Google Maps claimed they’d be open! However, the guard outside was happy to let us in and we made sure to tip him when we left.

The grounds start with a courtyard surrounded on two sides by porticoes. A closer inspection inside each portico revealed mosaics that were found by chance during house renovations and under church floors. The city is old enough to have been mentioned in the bible, but was pretty much abandoned after the 13th century. A group of about 90 Christian families moved there from Karak in 1880 and slowly the art and mosaics began to emerge.

After walking through the porticoes, we came to a glass and stone structure and, with limited English, the guard started telling us the history of the mosaics. In 1887, a large floor mosaic was discovered in an ancient building that was occupied by a family from Madaba. Greek inscriptions were uncovered that identified the structure as the Church of the Virgin Mary. The best part of the story – the family continued to live there until 1972! It was only then that full excavations could begin.

As the church was uncovered and explored, it was discovered that the church was actually built above the hall of an earlier Madaba mansion, known as the Hippolytus Hall. And, because Jordan is a country of layers within layers, the 6th century mansion was actually built on a circular Roman temple. You can see mosaics from each in the photos below.

Knowing Madaba is famous for its mosaics and actually seeing them are two totally different things. We were floored by our first stop and excited to be on our way to the Archeological Martyrs Church (also known as the Burnt Palace).

This took a surprisingly long amount of time to find, because Google Maps essentially pointed us to the back door. Numerous locals gave us permission to enter an unmanned glass door. We wandered through the church and around other excavated houses before making our way out through the actual front gate. Sorry!

Our next stop was the Shrine of the Beheading of John the Baptist (an operational Latin Church). This was easily my favorite religious structure in Madaba. For 1 JD we were given complete access to the church (and were the only ones on the grounds anyway). We started our tour climbing to the top of the bell tower (views pictured below) and I couldn’t tell you why, but it’s the most acrophobic I have been in my entire life. Possibly due to the consistently narrowing of the stairs or the weaving in and out of the bell ropes. But while this is the highest point in Madaba, it is hardly the highest I’ve ever climbed. Whatever the reason, I was thrilled to return to the ground.

After taking a peak in the heavily decorated (it’s Christmas time, haven’t you heard) sanctuary, we made our way to the incredibly named Acropolis below. Beneath the church sits an ancient, vaulted system of rooms and tunnels where you can find: A working 3,000 year old Moabite well, shrine to John the Baptist, Tent of Ruth, and collection of impeccable mosaics, including the one pictured below of the tree of Madaba (constructed in 595 AD).

The next stop on our walking tour was quite quick: The Apstel’s Church (or Church of the Apostles). This one also featured an empty ticket office, but a woman inside waved us in. The structure was just one room, but the mosaic is dedicated to the Twelve Apostles, was created in 568 AD, contains the name of the craftsman – Salomios – and takes up the entire floor.

Earlier, I mentioned that Madaba has a large Christian population (about 1/3), which is why so many of the mosaics here are found in churches. We still had one more to explore, the most famous: St. George’s Church.

It is a 19th-century Greek Orthodox Church built on top of an old Byzantine church. But they didn’t find just any mosaic underneath the rubble, builders discovered the oldest map of Palestine in existence. Originally, the map is believed to have covered a surface area of 5.6 by 15.7 square meters (18 by 52 square feet). The mosaic depicts all of the Holy Land, cities and surrounding villages in Jordan & Palestine, and the northern Nile Delta in Egypt. The map refers to 157 towns and villages, all of which have been identified.

Having had our fill of mosaics (is that even possible?) we realized we also needed to fill our stomachs. Initially, we planned on eating at Haret Jdoudna, a local favorite, set in a restored home. However, it was unclear if the courtyard was open air or contained by windows – we’ll be back post-Covid. Instead, we made our way to Kawon – just the right amount of quirky, this cafe and used bookstore was the perfect fit for us.

The menu was entirely vegan and entirely delicious. While waiting for our food, we chose some books to purchase and I struck up a great conversation with the owner about his childhood dream to live in Ethiopia (his father moved the family to Oman instead). The place had a lovely vibe and we nearly returned the following day for a repeat meal.

All that was left were the hot springs – or so we thought. In reality, the drive was just as beautiful as the destination. We found ourselves suckered into stopping at the Dead Sea Panorama, but you could just as easily stop anywhere along the road for gorgeous photos of the Dead Sea, mountains, and desert landscape.

This isn’t to say that the panorama is a bust, but by this point we were eager to arrive at the hot springs. We had just finished lunch, so were uninterested in the restaurant; had been to numerous sites of historical significance that morning, so didn’t feel like a walk through the museum; and didn’t have time for the short hike. Which meant we were quickly on our way!

Shortly after 2:00pm, we were checking into the Ma’in Hot Spring Resort & Spa. And damn, was it nicer than we had anticipated. After getting a tour of the grounds, we dropped off our luggage, changed into our swimming suits, and made our way to the private pool.

The resort is great because there are so many different ways to access the hot springs, including my favorite: A private swimming pool fed with thermal mineral water. Because, lets face it, I’m only into nature when it’s clean. There are additional hot springs at the spa, which was (rightfully) closed due to Covid. Just down the road (within walking distance) are two public springs as well, that resort guests can access outside of public hours (i.e. from 9:00pm until midnight and again from 6:00am to 9:00am).

We figured we’d sit in the pool for a few hours until it was time to get ready for dinner, but we forgot one thing: Hot springs are HOT.

I think we made it 30 minutes before we wimped out and had to get out of the pool. Somehow, there are additional pools in a man-made waterfall right next to the pool that function as a sauna. I walked in and turned right back around, already sweating.

The ambiance around the thermal pool is incredible. There’s a natural waterfall in the background and the resort itself is situated in a valley surrounded by mountains, so it definitely has a middle-of-nowhere atmosphere that we hadn’t felt since our 2019 trip to Feynan Ecolodge in the Dana Biosphere.

After we left the pool, we wandered the grounds, got dressed, relaxed, and made our way to dinner. This is the only part of the trip that left us uncomfortable. The resort did it’s best – trading their signature buffet for personalized feasts – however, they only do indoor seating in the evenings (due to bugs/lights) and you can’t always control other guests.

Halfway into our meal, a family on the opposite end of the room decided to let their two children run wild, and run wild they did. Shouting, heavy breathing, ignoring social distancing. Not having kids of my own, I don’t like to judge parents, but I have to admit, I judged these two pretty damn hard. It’s a pandemic – show some respect.

Needless to say, we scarfed down our food and headed back to our room to wait until 9:00pm when we could visit the public hot springs without the public. Unfortunately, the golf carts stop offering rides around 8:45pm, so we walked to the pools. We took a few wrong turns in the pitch black darkness and finally made our way to what I can only describe as Murder Falls.

There was no one at the hot springs (goodbye public), but there was no one from the hotel either. We hopped in near the top of the falls and immediately hopped out. These springs get as hot as 65 degrees Celsius (149 degrees Fahrenheit) and while they were nowhere near this temp on December 20th, they were too hot for us to handle! We walked to the bottom pool which was a bit more manageable.

Not too much later, we began to get creeped out, in the dark, by ourselves. However, Chandler was convinced there was a larger waterfall somewhere nearby. Quite a bit colder than when we were dry, we continued our search behind what is either a local hotel or housing for resort staff. We found a giant waterfall that lands in an amphitheater, but the abandoned quality was too much for us, so we skedaddled back to the hotel pretty quickly.

We found ourselves pondering why the resort manager mentioned the public hot springs to us, when they looked unattended and weren’t as nice as the regulated pool at the resort itself. We decided we’d have another look at them as we drove out in the morning.

Breakfast was incredible. Another buffet brought to our table, and this time, we were able to eat outside, within view of the gorgeous waterfall. It was a perfect way to end our time at the resort. As we drove away, we wondered what we’d find when we made our way back to the public hot springs from the night before.

We didn’t expect to find this:

Lovely, right? Clearly the time to come is during the 6:00am to 9:00am time slot because all of the creepy, unsafe vibes melt away in the daylight. So, if you find yourself at the Ma’in Hot Springs Resort & Spa in Jordan, my advice would be to stick to the hotel pool during the day/evening and make your way to the public pools in the morning.

We might have rethought our early getaway, but we still had to more adventures to go before our drive home: Machaerus (Castle of Herod the Great) and Umm Ar-Rasas (a UNESCO site dating back to the end of the 3rd century).

That said, I’d say this was a pretty successful first day out of Amman : )

    1. We could have spent all afternoon in that bookshop, if not for the hot springs awaiting us. It was a surprisingly fun getaway – none of these things would make the list of “must dos in Jordan,” but I’m so glad we went!

  1. When I went to Madaba last year, I knew I would see some mosaics dating back to the Byzantine period, but I didn’t expect to stumble upon that incredibly detailed floor at the ruins of Virgin Mary Church. It’s so exquisite I ended up taking so many photos of it, as well as those belonging to the Hippolytus Hall next to it. I didn’t go to the Shrine of the Beheading of John the Baptist, though. Maybe next time. Thanks for sharing this — it certainly brings back memories of pre-Covid travels.

    1. We loved Madaba so much more than anticipated! The Virgin Mary Church was incredible, but I highly recommend the Shrine of the Beheading of John the Baptist if you make another stop in Madaba : ) I can’t wait to start doing post-Covid travels…someday!

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