My friend Lou and I spent a very relaxing day at Amman before making 2 enjoyable day trips. We luxuriated on lazy breakfasts with Hany, the Egyptian manager of my hotel, walked around the seven hills of the gleaming white city and watched a rosy sunset blush Amman pink. King Husseini mosque was our favourite, for both personal reasons and architectural beauty and we spent much time strolling around it.
Rebuilt on the site of an ancient mosque in 1924 by the late King Abdullah I, Husseini Mosque is a striking pink and white stone Ottoman style monument. Al Maqdasi, the great Muslim historian described the vibrancy of the late 10th century Amman as ” in the area of the souq, there is a fine mosque whose courtyard is decorated with mosaics”. Although photography is not allowed inside, conservatively attired tourits are permitted to enter inside the mosque. The ancient mosque was originally built in 640 A.D by Omar ibn Al-Khattab, the 2nd Caliph of Islam. It was also probably the site of cathedral of Philadelphia (the ancient name of Amman).
Incidentally Amman is one oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world and 1994 excavations lead to discovery of homes and towers, belonging to the Stone Age around 7000 BC. Many Biblical references point out to the fact that Amman became the Old Testament famous, Ammonite capital of Rabbath-Ammon in 1200 BC and that the Ammonites had fought many wars with David, Saul and other historical greats. Although Amman’s history between end of Biblical references and Ptolemies (Ancient Greek) era is obscure, it has been proved that this beautiful city was renamed Philadelphia in honour of the Ptolemic ruler Philadelphus in 3rd century BC.
Amman had been ruled by Semitic Ammonites, Seleucid(Hellenic/Greek dynasty who ruled after the division of the large empire formed by Alexander, the Great) and Nabataeans ( ancient Semitic people who inhabited northern Arabia, Egypt, Anatolia etc), Romans, Persian Sassanians along with Byzantine( Greco Romans)and Ottoman (Turkish) rulers. This has lead to the city having an eclectic mind blowing potpourri of architectural gems. The Romans as usual indulged in architectural pursuits and showered Philadelphia with grand colonnaded street, baths, amphitheater and impressive public buildings. In 635 AD, Amman fell to Arabian armies of Islam and from Philadelphia, it again returned to its Semitic roots and got renamed as “Ammon/Amman”.
It thrived as an important caravan route stop for many years before drying up eventually due to shifting of trading patterns. It finally declined into a small obscure village and stayed like that for many centuries, until the late 19th century. In 1878, the Ottomans resettled a colony of Circassians emigrants in Amman and after the Great Arab Revolt (1916-1918) Emir Abdullah bin al-Hussein made Amman his capital, thus reviving this delightfully ancient city in 1921.
The small square in front of the Husseini mosque always bustles with life and energy and its an awesome feeling to just stand there and soak up its bristling expectancy. The nearby Souq Bukharia was the busy market where Lou and I had met the day before and we once again strolled through rows of fruits, vegetables, nuts, pasta and aromatic spices. Because of Lou’s company (its hard to shake off Arab men’s mental image), I had more courage and interacted more freely with the souq merchants. A wizened juice owner with bright blue eyes introduced us to the “Damascus Sweets” industry over sweating glasses of creamy avocado juice and we stumbled straight ahead into the sugarry world of baklava and kanafeh.
The Mamluks (owned slaves of the king, who later rose to great importance) started the thriving sugar cane processing industry throughout the wadi and 13th and 16th centuries saw the region become a major global sugar production site as well as the Jordanian valleys turn into humming trade routes. This gave rise to the sweets industry which made candied fruits and sugar coated “Jordan almonds”, staple of Mediterranean wedding fineries. Wine leaves, nutmeg, dried herbs, smooth dates and lush plums called out as we thanked him and continued with our walk.
We passed by the nearly unknown Nymphaeum. Built in 191 AD it dedicated to river nymphs which supposedly lived in the Amman Sayl, a river which ran through the wadi and was the city’s water source. The Nymphaeum or Philadelphia’s chief fountain was mostly completed in 191 AD and is a bit hard to find, since it is hidden from public view with crowd of houses and shops. It is believed to have housed a 600 square meter pool which was 3 meters deep which continuously got refilled with fresh water. Energized once again by the avocado juice, we followed Quraysh Street and once again landed up at the Roman Theater.
Restored in 1970, Roman Theater is the core of Balad area. Believed to have been built by Emperor Pius, it was designed to accommodate 6000 people, with the elite and military seated closest to the stage in the usual Roman style. The commoners were given the higher tiers and it is still used for concerts and other civic functions. We gave the smaller Odeon, Folklore Museum and Museum of Popular Traditions amiss, because the commanding Citadel beckoned us. According to a popular belief there is supposedly a tunnel leading from the stage to the top of the Citadel which Roman leaders used to ensure their privacy. It was at times steep and lung bursting walk but we ambled on happily up and down the Ammani jabals.
Thankfully most of Amman’s historical sights are clustered in downtown Badal area and the iconic Citadel, sits at the top of Jabal al-Qala’a. The Citadel is the site of ancient Rabbath Ammon and numerous excavations there have lead to unearthing its Romanian, Byzantine and early Islamic remains. The most iconic building of the Citadel is the al-Qasr or the Palace. It dates back to the Islamic Umayyad period and comprises of a monumental gateway, an audience hall and four vaulted chambers. A colonnaded street also runs through the complex and the ruins of Umayyad palace lie to its north and north east.
Remains of a small Byzantine Basilica lie close to al-Qasr and this delightful mix of historical phases and style was so very Amman. Corinthian columns proudly the site of the 6th or 7th century AD church and the temple of Hercules or the Great Temple of Amman stood close.Built during the reign of the emperor Marcus Aurelius (161-180 AD) it immediately added the Roman dimension to this already intriguing mishmash of history. Also housed on Citadel Hill is the Jordan Archaeological Museum which has an excellent and one of the rarest collection of exhibits. Dead Sea Scrolls, Copy of the Mesha Stele and 4 very rare Iron Age sarcophagi are its star attractions and it provides an amazing insight into this region’s timelessness. This was the birthplace of Christianity, Judaism and hot bed of Islam. Everything overlapped there at that sea of antiquity and the present bloodshed in the name of religion had never seemed more senseless. It was as tragic and heartbreaking as a bloody war between blood brothers blinded by hatred.
Lou knew me long enough to sense my spells of mood swings and so he quietly lead me away from the Citadel. Dazzle engulfed us as we walked through the golden daze of Amman’s famous gold souk. Armed with second helping of fresh juice and paper bag of roasted peanuts from the famous Sudani nuts, we explored the street of gold together. Incidentally it turned out that Sudani nuts had more character than the gold souk and we loved the survival struggle tale of its founder Abu Ahmed. Omar Barnawi also known as Abu Ahmed left his home in Nigeria as a young man on Haj trail to Mecca. He got stranded in Sudan for quite some time, till he managed to scramble his way to Jerusalem where he sold roasted peanuts outside Damascus Gate. But the war in 1948 displaced Abu Ahmed again and he fled to Amman, where he set up a small roasted peanut stand near the entrance of gold souk. Abu Ahmed passed away shortly but his family business soon became an iconic fixture of Amman’s cityscape.
The Gold Souk was like a long Alibaba’s cave and dazzling gold and silver jewelry vied for attention in endless rows in tiny alleys. Most Ammanis throng here with resident Indian expats and traditional 21 carat fine gold jewelry is sold there by weight. It was late evening by the time we finished our Amman walking tour and although not exhausting we looked forward to conclude the busy day. We decided on dinner at the famous Hashem restaurant and it was undoubtedly one of the best food experiences we ever had. Founded by Hashem al-Turk in the 1920s, Hashem is more of an institution rather than a restaurant. Although it has a limited menu, Hashem is patronized by everyone in Amman from the Royal Family, to commoners and tourists.
The hottest selling items are everything on the menu and we ordered for one of each. Our dinner arrived as we waited in the small bustling alleyway of tables and plain falafal, falafal stuffed with onions, hummus, fool (tasty fava bean paste), bread, French fries and cups of tea and water jug crowded in front of our hungry eyes. It was just an unbelievable 5 JD and we could not even finish the humongous meal. It was a beautiful day exploring Philadelphia in the heart of Amman and thanks to Lou, it could not have been better.
RESPONSIBLE TRAVELING-BECAUSE I CARE.
Some photos have been taken from the Internet.