Walking through the hot, sultry streets of Al Balad in the heart of Amman, feels like an assault again the senses. The smell of a potpourri of spices tickled my nose while my eyes danced around the endless array of shops in every direction. Colorful handmade embroidered dresses called thobes dangled from the open storefront walls. Plastic China-made toys scrambled across the already congested sidewalk pavement. Giant fabric buckets of frankincense, dates, olives, and figs baked in the hot afternoon sun while cars sped by stopping abruptly if a pedestrian dared to cross the street in a city without any noticeable crosswalks. The sound of cars honking, the dance of Arabic words and the distant call to prayer by the Muezzin reminded me that I was in a place unlike anywhere I’d ever been before. It was my first day in Jordan and I was struck with some serious culture shock.
I had arrived at the ultra-modern newly renovated Queen Alia International Airport only eight hours earlier after almost 24 hours of travel from my home in Minnesota to the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. I recall landing at almost midnight in the blackness of the night wondering where on earth I was. I had never been to the Middle East before and the suspense would have to wait a few more hours until sunrise to see what it was all about.
I was met by a driver from my hotel and was instantly welcomed into the Jordanian culture of warmth and hospitality. Despite my fatigue, we talked the entire thirty-minute drive to the hotel and I received my first introduction to the welcoming, open culture of Jordan. I checked in at the Grand Palace Hotel close to one in the morning, fell into a deep, luxurious sleep and rose with a start by seven. It was my first day in Jordan and I didn’t want to waste a minute sleeping (even though my body would have preferred it).
By nine o’clock I was met at the hotel by my hired local driver and guide for the day, Mustafa. Although I could have done the tour of Amman by myself, I preferred to hire a local to bring me around and introduce me to Amman. As a middle-aged solo Western woman traveler, I felt more comfortable traveling with a guide, even though Jordan is an extremely safe country. Whether or not it mattered was hard to say as a few other women in my group had done the exact same itinerary as me on their own without ever feeling uncomfortable. Since I tend to be directionally challenged at times and often get lost, it just felt more relaxed to have a local showing me the way.
As we left the hotel, the first thing I noticed about Amman was how everything was white. Almost all of the buildings that spread through Amman’s many hills are made of whitewashed stone to keep the heat out and in, depending upon the season. There is no need for air conditioning or a heater when you can have it all done for you thanks to the construction of your home. I also instantly noticed the juxtaposition and contrast between tradition and modernity, old and new, that is a metaphor of Jordan that can be seen through almost everything. Brilliant ultra-modern bridges and skyscrapers next to ruins of stone dating back centuries to the days when Amman was called Philadelphia. The past and the present are everywhere and can always be felt.
Jordan has experienced so much history it was hard to comprehend. From the earliest settlers around 10,000 BC to the Greeks, the Romans, the Nabataeans, the Ottomans, and the Bedouins, the ancient civilizations of Jordan is laced with history and change. Straddling the ancient Holy Land and the epicenter of three of the world’s big religions – Christianity, Judaism and Islam, the religious history and significance of Jordan makes it all the more fascinating and surreal. I remember reading in my Lonely Planet that history is a “living, breathing part of everyday life” and I held on to that thought as I explored the country for the rest of my stay.
We began our day tour of Amman at the Mosque of King Abdullah Ibn Al-Hussein, built in honor of the late King Hussein. It was an appropriate place to begin my education and understanding of Jordan being inside the very heart and soul of the Islamic faith. While there are Christians in Jordan and a lot of Biblical significance throughout the nation, Islam is truly a huge part of the country and has been practiced in Jordan since the death of Prophet Muhammad in 632.
As we entered the mosque, I was told to put on an abaya, a full-length black cloak with a head-cover, that Muslim women wear outside of the house and in the mosque. After slipping on my abaya over my American dress, we entered the mosque where Mustafa showed me the electric sign listing the five daily times for the call to prayer, and how all prayers are said in the direction of Mecca. This famous blue-doomed mosque can house up to 7,000 worshippers with even more in the courtyard. Hours later, we would arrive at another mosque just as it was time for the call to prayer and it was mesmerizing. Although I’ve heard it before in other Muslim countries, it still astounds me. It is almost as if time stands still when you hear the melodic call to prayer, bouncing and echoing off buildings across the land. Then as soon as it is done, everything springs back to life once again as if nothing happened.
After the mosque, we went to the ancient ruins of the Citadel located high above Amman on Jebel Al Qala’a, the city’s highest hill, with sweeping views of the entire city of four million souls. Occupied since the Middle Bronze Age (1650-1550 BC) by a diverse range of inhabitants (the Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, and the Umayyad and Ayyubid dynasties), there is a lot of history packed into this space. It is best to head there early in the morning for the best light, to beat the crowds and the hot desert heat of Amman.
The panoramic view on top of the Citadel is fantastic as you can see how massive Amman is and truly get a perspective of the city. The fortification walls surround the city and were built circa 150 AD. In 730 AD, the Umayyads completely rebuilt the fortification walls, incorporating sections of the Roman walls into their defenses.
There is no need for a guide as there are placards located all around the Citadel informing history buffs and tourists alike of what everything means. You can easily spend a good one to two hours wandering around and exploring the ruins before walking down to see the Roman Theater, the next must-see in Amman.
Had I known better, I would have worn pants that day as, despite Jordan’s modernity, women in Jordan do not show their arms, legs, or neck. Although it is generally accepted for foreigners to not follow the Islamic dress code, it is more respectful when you do, especially for women. Although I had asked for advice from previous travelers to Jordan and I did see some travelers wearing shorts, it was the last day I wore shorts. I wanted to be respectful so pants would have to do. The t-shirt, however, would have to stay as it was just too darn hot.
After the Citadel, we headed down to the Roman Theater, the largest theater in Jordan which accommodates 6,0000 spectators. It dates to the reign of Roman Emperor Antenios Pius (138-161 AD) and is still used today for artistic performances. It is very well-preserved and I could imagine how amazing the acoustics must sound during a live concert.
The views looking up at the Citadel were pretty spectacular as well as you could truly get a sense of the size of it all.
Just when it hit the peak temperature of the day, it was time to seek shelter from the sun in the world-class Jordan Museum (hours 10 am -2 PM so great to go during the hottest time of day). I loved the museum and had almost the entire place to myself. I spent a little over an hour stepping through century after century of Jordan’s amazing history and could have been there longer if it wasn’t for my growling stomach. The Jordan Museum set the historical stage for the rest of the trip and for understanding the layered history of the nation and culture. The exhibit on Petra was one of my favorites as well as seeing the Dead Sea Scrolls (the only known surviving copies from the Old Testament that date before 100 AD) and the oldest known human statues of Ain Ghazal dating back 9,500 years.
By 2:30 PM, I was absolutely famished and exhausted from the heat. It was time to have some lunch and of course, I had to go to the highly recommended Hashem Restaurant on Al Malek Faisal Street where I indulged in two plates of freshly made hummus, falafel, and pita bread. I had desperately wanted time to wander around the various neighborhood souqs where I could discover Amman’s true culture but I was so incredibly tired and jet-lagged that I knew I would have to get back to the hotel and rest.
I had seven fun-filled, jam-packed days of adventure in front of me and I would never make it if I didn’t take a moment to rest and reflect on what I’d seen. Despite feeling a little disoriented and culturally confused, I knew one thing for sure: I was bound for quite an eye-opening, mind-changing trip. After a week in Jordan when we were back in Amman before heading home, it didn’t feel so foreign to me and I wished I had more time to explore. I guess it is yet another place I will have to add to my growing list of places I must return to someday.