In an extract from his blog, Thomas of Arabia, Tom Dobin takes us to Jordan’s glittering capital.
Last August, I travelled to Amman. It was with a travel group, a new experience for me, but I had deliberately chosen one which refrained from taking large groups to the most obvious tourist locations. And so, just one week after returning from the Mediterranean, I found myself on a flight to the Jordanian capital, ready to practice my Arabic and explore the Middle-East.
Shortly after landing, I was pounced upon by a zealous taxi driver, willing to take me to my destination. I insisted on agreeing a price before we left, now mindful of the need to be assertive in these situations. The driver reluctantly agreed, and we quickly left. As we drove towards the city, something which I instantly noticed about Amman was its undulating landscape. The city is built upon twenty hills, and the varying level of buildings, soaring into the mountains before plunging into the traffic below, was beautiful – I couldn’t wait to explore the city during the day. Meanwhile, I spoke with the driver. To say that he was persistent and tactless in his sales technique was an understatement.
“Nightclubs are popular in Amman. Come, I shall take you to a nightclub.”
“No thank you, just to the hotel please.”
“Most tourists usually pay me over 40 dinars for this journey”.
“We agreed on 25 before leaving.”
“I know a much better hotel in Amman that you can stay in, for much cheaper.”
“No thank you, I’m happy with the one I’ve paid for”.
Interrogation complete, albeit not with the success that the driver had hoped, we arrived at the hotel. It was adjacent to King Abdullah Mosque, one of the city’s most famous landmarks. From the balcony of my room, I could see the sleeping city of Amman, gleaming in the desert, a bustling city of the sands waiting to be explored. Tomorrow, the adventures would begin.
The next day, armed with a makeshift map and my own curiosity, I headed out into the city of Amman in search of adventure. Every two minutes, a taxi pulled up beside me and offered me a ride into the city; clearly my attempts to blend in had failed. After half an hour of walking through dilapidated suburbs, I suddenly reached a busy, bustling high street. Cars weaved in and out of the crowds of people hastily crossing the road, horns ceaselessly sounding. Hundreds of Jordanians rushed about their daily business. There was an abundance of colourful shops and even more colourful shopkeepers, each attempting to entice me with their products. Out of nowhere, I faced this wonderful explosion of culture.
Soaking up the atmosphere, I saw the opening of a traditional souk, sheets draped across buildings to protect against the sun, the entrance into a grotto of Arabian culture. I only intended to briefly explore, but found myself absorbed into the beauty and scale of this magnificent marketplace. Owners lined the streets, selling fruits and shoes and…well, everything under the (hot) sun. Everywhere I turned, expecting an exit, there would be another long alley filled with products and colours and stalls and people. The atmosphere was enthralling, and I was pleasantly lost in this man-made labyrinth.
For me, this was Jordan. Only here could I interact with the locals and gain a real understanding of how Jordanians really lived. For example, one stall owner happily beckoned me to sit with him, and we had a long conversation about Jordan, myself, and how I came to study Arabic. The warmth and friendliness of the local people was wonderful, and their unstinting kindness towards a foreigner is something I shall always remember. In the middle of the souk, there was a shwarma restaurant, owned by a Jordanian and a Syrian, who told me how a shwarma sandwich from their local stall was a third of the price that the tourists pay elsewhere. And it tasted delicious – standing there, waiting for my sandwich with the locals, remembering the local custom of abandoning a queue and fighting to be served first, I managed to get a slice of authentic Jordanian culture.
Eventually, but reluctantly, I left the souk in pursuit of Amman’s highest point – the ancient Citadel. Caught in the bustling beauty of this hilly city, it was very difficult to find, but after asking the friendly locals, I was told to climb to the very top. It actually reminded me of the journey from Beit Sahour to Bethlehem, walking up and up and up for what seemed like an eternity. Away from the more touristic areas, I saw where the locals lived; children playing in the street, people happily walking along, and eventually, I reached the Citadel.
The view was mesmerising – standing on top of the hill, I could see this winding, magnificent city in its entirety, filled with buildings and people and beauty stretching until the horizon and beyond. The Citadel itself was fascinating, filled with ruins and artefacts which gave an insight into the ancient history of Arabia, whilst some parts, such as the Temple of Hercules, required me to climb and jump across rocks in order to reach the best parts. This was adventure – an exhilarating exploration of an unknown area. I watched as the sun started to set on Amman, and I felt proud, having managed to see the majority of this city in one day…..
‘ALLAAAHHHHU AKBAR!!! BISMILLLAAHHH….!!!’ Wow! The adan (Muslim call to prayer) at 5am! I certainly couldn’t miss that wake-up call. So, whether I liked it or not, the consequences of living next to a mosque meant that my second and final day in Amman had an early start.
There was only one more thing to see – the Roman Amphitheatre, a mini-Colosseum in the heart of the city. To get there, I had to walk back through the souk. After making it through the backstreets and alleys, I found myself staring at the amphitheatre. I was transported back to ancient Roman times, the amphitheatre filled with avid citizens enjoying a bloodthirsty fight to the death. Undeterred by the lack of support barriers, I climbed the narrow stairs of this vast structure to the very top. Standing on the edge of the amphitheatre, I again saw the hilly, vast expanse of this incredible city. I stayed there for a while, gazing over civilisation going about its daily business, enjoying the incredible view. I slowly made my way down the narrow stairs and started to make my way back to the hotel.
However, there was still one more part of Amman to see; I stumbled across an old market, buying a keffiyeh, or traditional Arab headscarf – this would prove handy during the hotter days. In the evening, I finally met with my travelling group – I was the only sole traveller, but the others were kind and friendly, to the extent that I never felt alone. We met our tour guide, Faisal, who took us into the souk at night – gleaming brightly, filled with people, it was even more atmospheric in the evening. After two days of exploring this bustling, incredible city, I was ready to leave and see what memories, adventures and experiences awaited me next. This was Amman, and it was spectacular.
Image Credits: Tom Dobin