It is normal and natural to have a “fixed notion” of a destination before you visit it, and equally normal to not know exactly where and how to start to get “inside” the destination. To some extent this is true of Amman, especially if you have never visited a non-Western city. However, what is especially pleasurable about the city of Amman is how easily and how quickly you will feel and become integrated into the place. This is primarily because of the very genuine welcome with which visitors are met. This is a city where the local residents smile at you, greet you with frequent salaams, and are actually curious about you. “Where you from? Welcome to my country!”
Amman is a Middle Eastern city, there is no doubt about that. It is somewhat of a sprawling city — at times cacophonous — that can appear initially somewhat overwhelming; as you might expect in the Middle East. This rambling city in which most of the buildings are built of white stone — most of the year this is a hot desert climate and of course white reflects those intense rays from the sun — flows over and around a series of 19 hills. Originally the city only covered seven hills, like that other Roman capital on the other side of the Mediterranean. It is of course the capital of Jordan, both politically and commercially, but has been a “capital” city of one kind or another for many centuries and through many cultural incarnations including Assyrian, Persian, Byzantine, Hellenic, and Nabataean. In addition to be quite a modern city, its multi-dimensional heritage is inherent in its history.
The city traces its name to the Ammonites, a people who lived east of the Jordan River. Their origins in turn go back to Lot, the nephew of Abraham who is the patriarch of the three great religions of this Biblical land. Today Amman is a city of over two million people and one of those something-you’ve-never-seen-before-around-every-corner types of experiences. For those of us who have to work a little bit at adjusting our ethnocentric predispositions, even the beautifully calligraphic Arabic on billboards and storefronts is exciting and visually fresh.
Amman is also a feast for the senses. If you like Middle Eastern food — what must be one of the healthiest diets on the planet — you will dine well in Amman. Grain, cheese, yogurt, fresh and dried fruits and vegetables, and a little bit of meat that goes a long; that in a nutshell is Jordanian cuisine. The national dish is Mansaf, which is lamb seasoned with aromatic herbs and cooked in yoghurt. It is served with large quantities of rice. And the other gastronomic delight that, like the city of Amman itself, will give you a taste of the diversity of this Middle Eastern cuisine is the multi-dish mezze. A meal of many taste sensations, mezze is essentially a table full of appetizers, many of which (to the Western ear) have quite musical names: Hummous, Baba ganoush, Foul moudamess, and my favourite Tabouleh, to mention a few. And to accompany a good meal, there is the traditional Arabic tea or shai.
And your other senses will also be fully engaged, sometimes to the point of sensory overload; but a good time will be had by all. If you are a night life aficionado, you will find what you want in Amman, and it may surprise you as well how (dare I say “hip”) this city can be? These three travel guys of a certain age, can attest to that fact, having spent time among the young and mellow at Blue Fig. And for a glimpse of the traditional side of Amman, an evening at Kan Zaman is highly recommended. Popular with tourists, it is also a very “authentic” experience in that the restaurant presents classical Arabic music and waiters in traditional dress. The décor of Middle Eastern rugs, wall tapestries, and bronze decorations add to the atmosphere. The evening we visited, the place was full of locals and visitors from other Middle Eastern countries. I was invited to share a nargileh (water pipe or hubble bubble) with a group of medical doctors from Lebanon who were attending a conference in Amman. Given the bombs that were falling on their country at the time, they were doing their best to have a good time before heading home. And because I was from North America, they invited me to join them and even complimented me on my attempts at Middle Eastern dancing.
The hot desert sun of Jordan (and the Middle East in general) creates more of an interior experience than in cities in colder climates. And this is one of the delights of discovery in Amman: the courtyards, the small shaded street markets, the quiet and cool restaurants within the sensible stone walls, or en plein air under brightly-coloured canopies made of a wide variety of materials. (One travel “trick” I learned in Amman was to look more closely at the delicate shapes and shadows as they were projected through various fabrics or cast upon the white stone walls.)
The “must-do” sites of Amman are not as numerous as in, say, European cities; but sites such as the ancient Citadel where the columns of the Roman Temple of Hercules still stand out dramatically against an equally dramatic blue sky, or the second-century Roman theatre whose 33 rows can and do accommodate 6000 spectators, or the King Abdullah Mosque with its rich patterned carpet and decorous dome are not to be taken for granted. Amman is not a “been there, done that” travel experience.
What may in fact be the most enjoyable experience in Amman is to just wander its streets and markets, and stop every now and then just to listen to the muezzin’s call and say to yourself, “Well, I’ll be darned. Here I am in Amman, Jordan!”
And speaking of markets, there is nothing to compare with a stroll through the souq in Old Amman.
This article is part of a six-part series on Jordan. For more in-depth information on other specific travel sites in Jordan, read the following:
Amman is a vibrant and modern city but one that, at the same time, has preserved many historical and cultural treasures.
The Many Lives of Jerash
One of the best-preserved Roman ruins in the Mediterranean area, Jerash is notable especially for its openness and visual beauty.
The Silence and Serenity of Wadi Rum
To travel through — and to spend the night in — this vast and monumental landscape is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Another once-in-a-lifetime Jordanian experience
The incomparable “rose city” of Petra is one of the greatest and most beautiful archaeological sites in the world.