In 2011 on my first trip around the world the Middle East was high on my list of places to stop. My original plan was to visit Egypt, Jordan and Syria before heading to Turkey. Then the Arab Spring happened and the Middle East was aflame. This time around I had hoped to do Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon and once again civil unrest changed my plans. I was determined to at least visit Jordan and see the ruins of Petra before Jordan was engulfed in the Syrian conflict.
In flying from Sri Lanka to Turkey it seemed reasonable to plan a stop in Amman and a visit to Petra. I really did not know what to expect…would Jordan be wildly exotic with camels wandering the streets and Bedouins in flowing robes riding their colorfully festooned horses through bazaar lined streets or would it be like every other modern capital city…shinny and new. Perhaps I would find the Jordanian version of “Ricks” with Arab men in Fezzes smoking strong smelling cigarettes in ivory holders and Sam at the piano trying desperately not to play “As Time Goes By”.
Of course, none of this is what I found. Instead what I found is a city of 2.5 million people with a split personality. Divided into East and West the two sections could not be more different. The East is home to the multitude of Palestinian refugees conservative and Islamic in their leanings. The western section is comprised of leafy residential areas, cafes, bars and art galleries. Fostered by a new generation of educated, tolerant and outward looking youth this portion of Amman pushes the boundaries of cultural life kept under a tight rein by Islamic Conservatives.
This ancient city dating back to King David and Solomon shows through here and there but for the most part it is a modern city struggling to move forward on the model of international centers like Dubai. Built on seven hills the city of squat limestone boxes that are the homes of the average Jordanian stretch as far as the eye can see. Modest and monochromatic the homes fill every square meter of space across the city.
To move from neighborhood to neighborhood it means long steep climbs. After I complained about the stairs leading to the Buddhist temples in Nepal and Sri Lanka I arrived in a city where I had to do the same thing to get to the coffee shop. The hills are ringed in streets but to get to the top in a more direct route or to access homes built on the sides of the hill between the streets a series of narrow winding stairs go up the hills…doorways and gardens open off these steep twisted passageways and landings offer amazing vistas over the littered landscape.
I walked the streets absorbing the smell, sounds and sights of my first Arab city. Bazaars lined the sidewalks and the call to prayer echoed from loud speakers on a thousand minarets dotting the city.
Friday is the holy day for the week and Imams preach the word in every mosque. There is often not enough space in the mosque proper and the faithful spill out into the squares and streets to pray. On the day I walked by Al-Husseiny Mosque, which is set in the middle of the commercial district, the men who had come to pray were filling the street for blocks…kneeling on carpets or cardboard boxes they listened to the broadcast of the sermon over loud speakers and offered up their prayers.
My hotel the Amman Pasha was a wonderful budget hotel with a perfect location. The top two tourist sites in Amman… the Roman Theatre which dates from 2 AD and the Citadel (Jabel al-Qala’a) which was the ancient Rabbath-Ammon (the great city of the Ammonites) mentioned in the bible from around 1200 BC…were within blocks. The nicely renovated stone theatre also houses two small but delightful museums…the Folklore Museum and the Museum of Popular Traditions and I would recommend both.
The Citadel sits atop the hill above the hotel and commands a wonderful view of the city. It has been occupied since the Bronze Age with a succession of civilizations including Roman and Byzantine. The remains of the Roman Temple of Hercules, Byzantine Churches and Umayyad Palaces make for a worthwhile visit. However, the National Archaeological Museum which is also located on the hill is a pretty dismal affair.
The people of Jordan are gracious, friendly and honest to a fault! Walking the streets I was wishing that the rest of the Middle East was available to me…I want more.