Arabian tales

golden age The remains of ‘Temple of Hercules’  photos by author

Amman, the capital city of the kingdom of Jordan is one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Sprawled with limestone buildings, it is built on a set of rolling hills or jabals, as locals say, giving its two million plus dwellers, spectacular vistas at every turn.

“Unfortunately, our city is greatly overlooked by traditional tourists,” exclaimed the concierge at the Imperial Palace Hotel where I stayed during my recent visit. It’s true, despite being the most liberal in the Middle East and far more systematised than neighbours, such as Cairo and Damascus, it still remains only as a gateway for visits to the famed archaeological sites of Petra and Jarash.

Though Jordan is a 20th century creation, emerging out of the detritus of the Ottoman empire after World War I, Amman existed as a city, centuries before birth of Christ and has been ruled since then by the Greeks, Romans, Omayyads, Mamluks and Ottomans till Emirates of Transjordan was formed in 1919 under the British sovereignty for a piece of land between the Jordan River and an arbitrary line through the sands of Arabian desert. Abdullah, the great grandfather of present King Abdullah became head of state and chose Amman as his capital.
Nature, in form of massive earthquakes, around 14th century period has wiped away most of the of city’s ancient architectural marvels and following that, the lively city bowed into a village till start of the Hejaj Railway for trade and pilgrimage between Medina and Damascus through Amman, springing back the domain into life again.
The fate of Amman changed considerably in 1948, when Jordan became totally independent and in chorus faced with huge influx of Palestinian refugees from Israel, which was formed concurrently as new homeland for the Jews. Today the nation’s population includes over 35 per cent Palestinians as more migration took  place after 1967 war with Israel.

“The independence and the subsequent population surge have prompted the city to grow in two quarters — East and West,” said Suleman, our local guide, while taking us through the city’s various attractions.
West Amman is the later addition and obviously modern and stylish in character. It is filled with everything that you can expect in a 21st century affluent metropolis — tree-lined boulevards, packed with speeding Mercedes and BMWs and flanked on both sides with posh bungalows and apartment blocks, modern office blocks, towering shopping malls, lavish hotels, restaurants and nightclubs.

However, it is the East Amman, where some of the refugees settled, draws all the tourists with its mystic charm. It forms the core of Amman’s history with what’s still left over from the glorious past. A strong Islamic culture dominates the precent, crammed with simple houses, ordinary shops, small eateries serving local delicacies, crowded souks and bazaars, way side stalls and street hawkers touting their colourful merchandise. Always bustling with vibrant activities, it is the place to get absorbed in an inviting ambience, something similar that you may find in old parts of Delhi or Hyderabad.

At the heart of the quarter is the Citadel Hill, locally called as Jabel el Qala, from where you get breathtaking views of the downtown. Dating back to Roman, Byzantine and Umayyad times, this place has been inhabited for centuries. The ruins of a temple, basilica and a mosque there, implied to me that the site was used for religious purposes.
 The Temple of Hercules was built by Roman Emperor Aurelius in the second century AD larger than any temple in Rome itself. Standing on a raised platform, the edifice with its massive columns is said to resemble the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus, which was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. The next door church marked with Corinthian columns was built around the 7th century AD during the Byzantine rule.
A colonnaded street runs through the complex to the most impressive building of the Citadel, known as Al-Qaser (the Palace), which dates back to the Islamic Umayyad period in eighth century AD. Its exact function is unknown, but the building includes a monumental gateway, cruciform audience hall and four vaulted chambers.

The complex also houses a small museum, where amongst several priceless and interesting artefacts; the most notable are some Neolithic statues and parts of the ancient Dead Sea scrolls, which were discovered by a Bedouin shepherd in the caves of the Judean desert, now in neighbouring Israel
History testifies that wherever the ancient Romans marked their footsteps, they have always built an amphitheatre as a venue for their cultural and sporting activities, Amman being no exception to that. Located downhill from the Citadel and in the centre of the downtown it stands as the most obvious and impressive relic of ancient Amman. Built around second century AD, the arena can accommodate 6000 spectators and is still used periodically for local events — cultural and sporting, though no more gladiators fighting with the fiery lions.

You will be certainly disappointed if you are expecting in Amman a galore of antique, marvellous monuments, edifices and sites, alike the Taj Mahal in India, Blue Mosque in Turkey or the Parthenon in Greece. The beauty of the place is not in what you see, but very much rooted in its lively and indulging ambience, conquered by its friendly and inviting people, mouth watering cuisine, great shopping and rich culture.
The city is very safe. “Even at the middle of the night, women can move around safely,” said Aziza, our taxi driver. Women in Jordan are very modern, educated and westernised. “They are placed equal against their male counterparts in the corporate and business sector,” commented businessman Syed Amir, while having breakfast with me at the hotel, where the general manager was a very accomplished woman.
As expected in any Islamic state, the city is dotted with several architecturally splendid mosques; the first that draws attention is the blue-domed King Abdullah Mosque. Open to people from all religions, it was built in 1990 by King Hussain in memory of his grandfather King Abdullah I whose family is said to have the origin from Prophet Mohammed.

However, according to Suleman, the old King Hussain Mosque in Amman downtown is where most locals throng for regular prayers, particularly on Fridays.
While leaving the city, I did not pledge to return again, but surely vouched to remember the energy and friendliness of a pulsating city, standing at the crossroad of many civilizations and the taste of mansaf, their national dish something similar to our biriyani.

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