Advantages Insight into a modern Arab country
Disadvantages Not yet totally geared up to deal with the tourist need for info
|Value for Money|
"He did say eight?"
The incredulity was an echoed whisper as we landed in the rain at Amman airport after the airline captain had just given us his local conditions update. "Eight degrees?"
O.K. it was still only March, but it had been warmer than that when we left London. The cold was going to be an unexpected feature of our first few days in Jordan. Of course it can freeze in the desert at night, but we weren't in the desert. Yet. This was Amman. This was "the Middle East" which most of us had grown up knowing about from our bible stories and news bulletins (as broad a mix of the good and bad as you could possibly imagine) and both had led us to believe that folk spent most of the year avoiding the sun, seeking water, trying to stay cool.
And O.K. this was a Ramblers group, we're all walkers, we come prepared.
Well, maybe not quite. Whatever kit we might have had, one thing was for sure, the mindset wasn't prepared. It had been a wet week in Jordan the week before we arrived. January weather, so we were told. Not usual for this time of year.
The lobby security staff at the Ibis said "Not Cold! Freezing!!!" and held their hands out towards a hastily installed electric radiator by the exit door. Any false sense of security we'd acquired by waking up to bright clear sunshine the next morning, was dispelled the second we set foot outside. Layers gradually crept out of rucksacks and on to bodies. Gloves. Scarves. Hats.
Too polite on this first day to say anything other than the helpful, Hazel our illustrious Ramblers leader would comment later in the week how "scrunched" we all looked on this first venture. Smiling and shivering.
So: when you read that bit about "be prepared for the weather to be less warm than you expect": believe it! When you read the Rough Guide or Lonely Planet summary on climate: ignore it. The world's weather is changing, which means it's doing strange things everywhere. In Amman, in March 2012, it was being wet and cold.
We got lucky. It had stopped being wet.
The history of the region is long and complicated and Amman has been there in the middle of it from the beginning.
Archaeological finds suggest that the site has been inhabited since the bronze age. In biblical times it was Rabbath Ammon (capital of the Ammonite Kingdom) from about 1200 BC until it was taken by King David, probably about 600 years later. It is one of those places that fades in and out of the historical record. It was rebuilt and renamed Philadelphia by the Egyptian Ptolemy Philadelpus.
The Selecuids (who?) moved in. And then the Nabataens. But by 30BC it (like much of the known world) was in the hands of the Romans.
Part of the Decapolis, it was remodelled in the Roman style and grew to be a centre of Christian observation. Trade continued to thrive uninterrupted by the Muslim takeover in the early 600s A.D. It's not clear when the name reverted to Amman.
By the 10th century however it was in decline. Perhaps the trade routes had shifted. Certainly the world power base had. By the dawn of the 20th century it was a tiny town of about 2000 inhabitants.
The political events of that century were to shift its fortunes again however. The Emir Abdullah, Jordanian leader in the Great
Arab Revolt against the Ottoman overlords made it his headquarters in 1921, possibly because by then it had a railway link(on the Hejaz line from Damascus to Medina). Certainly the story goes that he started his reign as the Emir of Transjordan, and later King of the Hashemite Kingdom, from a railway carriage.
Since then growth has been steady, supported in no small measure by the Jordanians ready acceptance of Palestinian refugees and its precarious balance between its Muslim identity and its western approach to commerce.
City Overview – a bit of a bus tour
Day 1: our first experience of Jordan. This was to include "the Citadel, the Roman Amphitheatre, and downtown Amman, including the colourful souks". Well, we are (ostensibly) walkers, if they'd told us that there'd been anything remotely resembling a 'bus tour' scheduled we'd've rebelled. As it was, it was nearly over before we spotted it was happening. The historic heart of Amman is not that large, but you can spend a lot of time sitting in traffic, so it does help to have a local guide distracting you at every turn.
Let's put this in context. Amman is a thoroughly modern Arab city. If you've come to Jordan (and you probably have) in search of its romantic past, then Amman is a refreshingly shocking place to start.
It has a historic heart – more on which later – but that isn't its current raison d'être. It is the modern capital of what might just be the most modern Arab country. It doesn't seem to see its purpose in life to be to cater to western tourists with their own idea of Jordan. It is there to serve Jordan and Jordanians. It is a business centre. There is a thriving financial centre (and if you think that Muslim notions of money-lending mean it can't make a profit, think again). There are modern shopping malls. Of course downtown has its souks and markets. So does London. Likewise Amman has its malls and Safeway hypermarkets hidden away on the outskirts.
We started on the principle that we'd maybe have a picnic, but two steps outside the door and we were already thinking "ah…em… maybe a local café..? Please!"
We started with the surreptitious bus tour, which was really to give us an overview of the capital. Because we hadn't really realised we were supposed to be paying attention, we generally weren't. The impression I gained was one of an average capital city that is struggling to maintain a historic identity whilst forging a new and relevant one. The financial district looks like a financial district: shiny tall buildings with impenetrable glass walls. The Abdoun bridge is an impressive piece of engineering, apparently the first ever curved suspension bridge: the valley it spans is part dried-up wadi, part building site. It links the old and the new in a way that is probably more symbolic to the locals than we had any hope of grasping. The local pride in the Circles was more telling. Prosaic traffic roundabouts they may be, but they mark the increasing outflow of wealth to the periphery; they mark the growth of the city as a modern development; they speak inexorably of Milton Keynes.
Fortunately, things improved once we got off the bus.
A Quick Roll-Call of What We Did
Key points deserve their own reviews and so won't be elaborated upon in this general overview.
Our first stop was King Abdullah Mosque. Suffice to say here that this was another 'catch-up' moment: another chance to re-evaluate any preconceptions. It's a very modern mosque and a shining example of what (or how) Islam can be in the modern world. It is also specifically aimed at capturing the tourist interest. Don't take that the wrong way: it is a fully functioning place of worship. It's just that it is also one that reckons you can charge the tourist for gawping. Somehow I find this more acceptable in a foreign country than I do in my own.
From there we headed up to the Citadel, the true heart of ancient Amman, looking up the hills (like Rome, the place is built on seven hills) and down into, well, "Downtown". The Citadel is clearly a place worthy of visiting in its own right, ancient roman remains are always a fascination, and with the national museum still not open and with no firm date set for it to become so, the tiny museum here is doing its best to hold on to enough of the heritage to keep people interested, while many of the key pieces seem to have vanished into an edifice whose time-schedule has gone mysteriously quiet.
And so to lunch:
And the complete failure of your reviewer to pay proper attention to the café where we ended up. I can tell you that it was a little off the main tourist trail. I can tell you that it was full of Jordanians on their lunch break. Sadly I can also tell you that a few of them were chivvied out of their after-lunch-linger by the prospect of a 20-strong group of tourists with crisp unaccustomed JD to spend. The layout was simple. Think a combination of Greggs and your local Greek takeaway.
The sitting area was L-shaped, with a bakery/cafeteria-style counter along the upright, selling pizzas and breads and meats and soups and casseroles and rice and couscous and vegetable mixes. To the rear were the meat-spits. The general principle seemed to be, you order, you get your chit, you go pay, then you sit down and they bring it to you. This was a tad complicated for us, so the head waiter came and took orders via a mixture of pointing and English and sign language. The expression "small" got totally lost in translation. Every dish produced came out in family-sized editions. The table itself was already set with small bowls of mixed pickles and bottled water and baskets of pitta. Given the range of orders across the board it would be hard to say what the average pricing strategy was. Those of us who opted for minimal lunch-snack of pizzas and pickles will have paid over the odds; those who took soup and roasted veg and rice and the local equivalent of the doner kebab (or any combination thereof). It came out at JD4 per head. It was hard to quibble.
Plus: we were warm!
It was a great atmosphere. Bustling and feel-good. Office workers in their suits. Families with kids.
The tables were small, but easily re-arranged into group-sized banquettes. The staff coped with our inadequacies brilliantly. If anyone had anything to criticise it was the inability to get a decent hot drink of any kind, but in the circumstances, that's a quibble.
I just wish I'd noted the name of the place.
Since my original posting of this review, our erstwhile guide Mahdi has come up trumps: the restuarant is called Ghaith and is in Jabal al-hussain. Definitely recommended! Especially if you want to linger over lunch.
Downtown: after lunch we were headed for the Souks. Interesting word that. Souk. It conjures quite a specific image in the western mind: one of dark, enclosed, indoor market-places. If I understand the origin correctly, it simply means a free market i.e. any place of commercial exchange where buyers and sellers can agree a price. I suppose that does mean more 'market' where maybe you can haggle, rather than 'shops' where (in the west at least) you don't. In Amman it seems to mean somewhere between the two.
Some of the shops may still bargain. In many it's going out of fashion. One of the western ways they're not shy of adopting is letting the seller set the price, if he can get away with it.
For me the most interesting point of this sprint around the shops was that it was conducted almost at a sprint. I'm used, in places like this, to being encouraged to go in and spend money. It was a bit of surprise to barely have time to window-shop. We weren't going to get any significant free time in Amman and it would have been nice to be able to contemplate blowing the budget in the jewellers or the clothes shops.
What I really loved about it is the juxtaposition of the modern money-making ethos (jewellers, CD stores) with traditional –
the 'small shop' is still the norm. Glitzy they might be in places, but mostly it's still a one-room-wide frontage extending back into darker corners. Particularly enticing are the spice shops, with their fabric-covered towers of herbs outside and darkened wooden shelves, pharmacy-like, holding the more expensive spices within. Anything you don't recognise, ask them what it's for and how it's used… you'll soon work it out. You'll also recognise many of your grandmother's remedies.
And finally, there were the vegetable markets. Somehow one doesn't think of the middle east (or is it just me?) as being lush and verdant and the fruit basket of the world… but the Jordan valley is surprisingly productive. It takes some ingenious irrigation and modern cultivation methods to be sure, but the produce is phenomenal. In the darkened alleyways we found mountains of citrus fruits, peppers, tomatoes, aubergines, potatoes, beans, radishes, sweet-corn, apples, pears, peas, fennel and no end of things we couldn't identify. That it was mostly men doing the selling didn't surprise me; that it also seemed to be mostly men doing the buying, did ~ but not so much as the very fact of the abundance itself.
And what we didn't…
The Roman Amphitheatre we only saw from above. We were promised a far better example later in the week and so this 6000 capacity auditorium remained a tantalising glimpse for us. Probably dating from the second century AD it has been much restored since the 1950s – not always accurately.
The Nymphaeum we likewise only saw in passing.
And as for museums, we were left confused. The original national museum in the Citadel tries hard, but its successor seems to be something of mystery. I'm sure that like any other city it has its fair share of smaller museums and galleries. What it lacks, if those I spoke to are anything to go by, is any sense of what the average tourist needs: namely a centrally placed tourist information office that can hand out maps, give advice on accommodation, tell you what is open when and how much it will cost. This makes exploring Amman on your own (not that I tried, but I'll believe those who have) something of a hit and miss affair.
Of course, that might be just what you want. I like a bit more orientation.
On balance: it's a small city and a surprising one, and I wish we'd had more time there, so I could risk getting disoriented and could have blown the budget in some of those fabulous shops. Even if you're not a shopper, I'd recommend you start (and maybe finish) your trip to Jordan in Amman. Away from the tourist haunts of Petra and the Dead Sea spas, away from the emptiness of the desert, it gives a real feel for a country trying to make its way in the world. Whatever you might hear about 'leering men' I felt very safe on the streets. If you dress appropriately, you'll be respected - they're used to westerners so no longer find it odd to see lone females wandering around alone.
I visited as part of a Ramblers Worldwide holiday package, and stayed at the Ibis on the outskirts. We weren't there long enough to sample the restaurants in town, which I think is probably a bit of shame.
(c) Lesley Mason
hiker @ Ciao.co.uk
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