It was a city I had heard little about. Nobody had said to me, ‘You must go to Amman’ or said it was on their bucket list. As with many travellers to Jordan, my main goal was to visit Petra and explore the desert dunes by jeep.
The capital city was never a priority.
So I decided to leave my time in Amman to fate. If the city didn’t appeal to me, I would head south towards Petra as soon as I could.
It was the first thing my driver said to me after he asked my name (which he politely told me was a man’s name in Arabic).
He held out his pack of cigarettes as he honked and sped his way out of the airport. ‘No thanks,’ I said, enjoying the breeze through the open window.
Every so often, we passed the face of King Abdullah II, waving to his people from a poster or billboard.
It took one night of talking to other travellers at my downtown hotel to decide I wanted more time in this city. The hotel manager told me I could also use Amman as a base to take day trips to the Dead Sea and northern Jordan. Perfect. With that plan in mind, I set aside a full day to explore.
The day started with my first taste of Jordanian hospitality: hotel breakfast, supersize. This consisted of cream cheese, hummus, jam, olives, fresh-cut cucumber, tomato and a basket of bread. Omelette and beans followed.
In the streets outside, car horns blasted. People walked, paused and ran between cars. Men leaned with cigarettes against the walls of bazaars.My first stop for the morning was the nearby Hashem Restaurant for a cup of mint tea. The popular (and cheap) restaurant sits just inside a small alleyway. Both locals and tourists sat crowded into tables to share bowls of flat bread, falafel and hummus.
The city of Amman was originally built on seven hills, also known as ‘jabals’. After asking directions from one of the Hashem staff, I puffed my way up stairs and road to the leafy neighborhood of Jabal Amman. In particular I was hunting for Rainbow Street, which a friend had told me to visit for its shops and eateries.
Rainbow Street and its buildings smelled of three things: art, wealth…and coffee.
I detoured off the main street into the Books@Cafe. On the ground floor was a bookstore filled with Arabic and English titles on every subject from politics to making falafel. Upstairs I sat near a group of people smoking shisha. I sipped at my latte and looked out at the view. Houses rose up the hills in a patchwork of stone and windows.
Back in the downtown, I peeked into an alleyway where earlier I had spotted a queue of people. Habibah, a sign read. The Amman institution for the Arabic sweet kanafeh.
I joined the queue and paid a half dinar (about US 70 cents). ‘Thanks,’ I said, smiling at the man at the counter. He grunted and counted his cash.
Sitting on a wall at the back of the alley, I took my first bite. It was enough to win my undying love. The sweet sank into the tongue with its cheese base, thick syrup pastry and crushed pistachio nuts. I watched another customer walk out with a kilo’s worth.
Oh, how I understood.
Luckily for the size of my stomach, I was ready for an afternoon workout walking the city’s archaeological sites.
Not far from the King Hussein Mosque in the downtown I came across my first two relics of ancient Amman. The Nymphaeum was once a grand fountain and pool dedicated to water nymphs, believed to have been built in 191 AD when Amman was known as the city of Philadelphia.
Near the Nymphaeum, the Roman Theatre sits majestically against the hillside. Also built around the second century AD, the theatre seats up to 6000 people and is still used for occasional performances. In a side section I wandered into the Jordan Museum of Popular Traditions. Inside were glass cabinets of traditional Jordanian and Palestinian costumes, headdresses and intricately decorated jewelry. There were also mosaics found in sites at Jerash and Madaba.
I stepped back out onto the stage and breathed in the size of the theatre. A local guide approached me and asked if I would like a tour up to the Citadel. He appeared trustworthy and friendly, and I was guidebook-less. ‘Okay, why not?’
‘Over there is the Royal Palace,’ he said, as we drove up to the Citadel. ‘And that,’ pointing at a tired huddle of buildings, ‘is the Palestinian refugee camp.’
I interrupted to ask a question. He got flustered and after a few seconds said, ‘Yes, but I will finish this story first…’
The Citadel site, or ‘Jabal al Qala’a’, is a museum in itself, with relics from several civilizations spread across the hilltop. The guide walked me around the columns of the Roman Temple of Hercules, and the ruins from the Umayyad Palace and Byzantine Church. I felt lost in an archaeologist’s dream.
After the guide left, I joined other tourists at the edge of the Citadel and looked out across the hills of Amman.
I was just in time to hear the mosques sing out their calls to prayer.
The city, suddenly, felt like the old and holy place that it was.
I made my way back to the hotel and freshened up. It was time to relax for the evening, this time at the nearby Al Quds ‘Jerusalem’ restaurant. The restaurant is known for its mansaf, a traditional Jordanian dish with rice, cooked yoghurt and lamb. Or in my case, half a chicken.
While watching a woman feed her son a spoonful of rice, I reflected on my day in Amman.
There was only one word to describe it.
If You Go