Sunday, March 29, 2015

Sunday, March 29, 2015 - 2 comments

Journey to Jordan #6: Ancient Amman

It's kind of a joke around our house that we're "ruin snobs."  (See this previous post.)  Living in the land of "ancient this" and "Roman that", we are spoiled rotten with arches, columns and underground cisterns.  We no longer jump at the opportunity to visit every vestige of an empire past just because it's in the neighbourhood.  (Though I must say that a "Seven Churches of Revelation" tour with an educated guide is still high on my bucket list.)

That said, what I do find intriguing is when the ancient is mixed in amongst the modern.  Take my usual Starbucks, for example.  It's right smack inside the old Roman city walls.  That to me is cool.  Coming across a local shepherdess grazing her sheep in the middle of Perge, having tea in a home whose yard is bordered on one side by Istanbul's Byzantine land walls, and shooting senior portraits of a girl in jeans and UGGs with a backdrop of a Roman harbour once sailed into by the apostle Paul - those are the kinds of interactions with ruins that I love the most.

So even though visiting "The Temple of Hercules" wasn't high on my list of things to do in Amman, the fact that it was located on the citadel right in the heart of downtown made me want to check it out.  

My friend-cum-tour-guide hailed us a cab, and we wound our way up the most central of Amman's seven hills (pretty sure it encompasses more than seven now...), our driver deftly navigating the crowded streets while watching a religious teacher preaching in the desert on his dashboard TV.  Immediately inside the gate, a series of stone signs took us through the parade of civilizations that had built, conquered, ruled from, worshipped upon or sold entrance tickets to this citadel.  Everyone from the Ammonites (Amman - get it?) to the Nabataeans (we were to see a whole lot more of their footprints in Petra) to the Romans, and the Ottomans have had their stake in this ground, all the way up to the Hashemite Kingdom, whose capital Amman is today.  It is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world.  The hill is believed to be the place where Uriah the Hittite was killed, and it is crowned by monuments from its various past lives.

Temple of Hercules
Interior of a Byzantine church
Roman mosaic
Refugees make up almost half of Jordan's eight million people - two million Palestinians since the creation of Israel and nearly as many Syrians and Iraqis during the current war.  With urban planning not exactly keeping pace with the steady flow of newcomers, the city is a swollen sandstone and concrete forest with hardly a park to speak of.  But up on the citadel, a significant chunk of green space with a breeze and a view makes for a perfect picnic spot.  The hillside was dotted with families on blankets, clusters of teenaged girls taking Roman-selfies, and women collecting bags of what I can only assume were edible herbs and weeds.  When the wind picked up, the kite flyers appeared, and it was fun to watch Ammanis out enjoying the day in their city's ancient core. 

Layers of civilization - ancient and present day Amman

I'd heard a lot about Amman's "monotonous ugly brownness" - it is illegal to make a building that is anything but neutral sandstone or concrete - but I actually kind of liked the continuity.  (Maybe that's some leftover annoyance at the "Corinthian columns and mismatched paint" free-for-all that has taken over our once-uniform complex like a disease...)  Even so, it was still fun to spot little splashes of colour sprinkled around the city.

Walking down from the citadel, we came out of a neighbourhood and were greeted with an impressive Roman amphitheatre right across the street.  From there, we headed over to the souk - lacking in the medieval charm of Aleppo or Istanbul's covered bazaars, but still a colourful hub of activity.  Moving away from the more touristy shops on the periphery (think belly dancing skirts, kohl eyeliner and pirated DVDs) we headed into the section of the souk where locals come for fruit, vegetables, coffee, nuts and spices.  Best part:  snacky samples and the cart from which one can purchase gummi bears, gummi worms and fuzzy peaches! 

The Candy Man :)
By this point, we'd definitely earned some refreshment, and since we (okay, I) couldn't decide between the juice man and a coffee shop, we did both.  The fresh strawberry-banana-pineapple "smoothie" got my vote over the cardamom-laced Arabic coffee.  I'd been curious to try it and was glad for the experience, but I think I'll stick to straight Turkish coffee, which is apparently favoured by Arabs anyway.  

We finished out the evening with a trip up Jabal (Hill) Amman to Rainbow Street.  The street, which gets its name from a nearby cinema.  Al-Rainbow Street is one delicious string of cafes, burger joints, espresso bars, waffle sellers and funky bookshops.  (It's a very good thing I was full and tired by the time we got up there!)  A pop into a corner grocery shop to stock up on presents - Nerds and Skittles for the kids, parmesan cheese, pancake syrup and blueberry pie filling for the grow-ups - rounded out my tour of the city.

Rainbow Street caught my fancy because not only is it the place where the smartphone crowd come to sip and socialize, but the leafy boulevard also boasts some of the city's oldest and most charming villas, one of which was once home to King Abdullah's father and grandfather, the two previous kings.  It was the upper-middle class equivalent of picnicking beside the temple of Hercules.  And it showed me an Amman lives its present in the midst of its past.

Makes me excited for my first "latte in the shade of the Roman walls" when I get home.  :)


Thanks for the education about Ammon, I didn't know it was so modern as well as being ancient. Thanks for the photos too, even your shoes got in the picture again.

Glad you liked it, John! I was super intrigued by the traditional-modern spread. We have that here in Turkey, but I guess I just notice it more when I am somewhere else.