Amman beyond the first blush
There are two ways of looking at Amman, the capital of Jordan, from a traveler’s perspective. I’ll elaborate on both and let you decide.
Amman is a lousy city for traveling
Amman is little more than a large Arab suburb. The political stability that makes Jordan stand out among its neighbours seems seems to mirror its cultural life: it’s subdued, colourless, indifferent compared with other Middle Eastern capitals.
A grey city that once had an exciting past, Amman is a cluster of cinder-block homes with a marginally interesting historic citadel, which can be seen in little more than one hour. It may have a Roman amphitheatre, but what historically significant Mediterranean city doesn’t?
Its souk can hardly be called that. It’s just a strip of shops selling the same old: perfumes, headscarves, spices, sheeshas, and bootleg DVDs. It’s a city that has renounced an identity, and is content with Levantine mediocrity in its older quarters and Western mediocrity in its newer neighbourhoods.
Amman is a fantastic city for traveling
The bane of the adventurous traveller is a city that makes everything too easy. Signs pointing to the main attractions and little sidewalk arrows may seem helpful but they betray a kind of civic insecurity. It’s as if the city is saying: Hey, my only nice parts are these old stones here. Please don’t look at my other features.
Amman is a nice reversal to that way of thinking. It’s a city that invites aimless exploration in the hope of finding hidden jewels. And the rewards are there.
Let’s start with the Jabal al-Qal’a , the citadel, its most prominent attraction. It may seem unremarkable compared to citadels in other Middle Eastern cities, but the charm is in the details. For one, it’s the best-curated old city. Every little feature has a plaque describing its history and function. For the budget traveler who can’t afford a human tour guide at each stop, this lets you marvel at its importance, rather than dismissing it as just another pile of old stones.
The archaeology museum therein is also elegantly arranged and packed with impressive artifacts dating back 4,000 years or more.
And before you have a chance to think it’s all too tidy, it tosses in a touch of chaos: you might turn a stone wall and happen on a musical duo of two Palestinian men. One with a drum, the other a bagpipe. Playing Yankee Doodle and other local classics.
If coming from neighbouring countries, the commercial strip in central Amman is a faint echo of the massive souqs in, for example, Syria. But again, it’s in the details. Amman’s souvenir shops are the biggest and most complete, giving you a single stop for ornaments, rugs, coffee makers, fabrics, furniture and sheesha.
Speaking of the narguileh, Amman specializes in creative tobacco blends. Beside the classic flavours of apple, lemon, mint, and melon, you’ll find shops with dozens of mixes: fruit cocktails, mojito, bubble gum, anise-infused concoctions.
Honest spice mongers anywhere in the Middle East concede that Jordan makes the best zaatar, a spice mix of thyme, sesame seeds, and sumac, popular on savoury breads or as a dip with olive oil.
And Amman has impressive zaatar shops, some boasting a dozen or so unique blends.
Like any city that’s serious about being a commercial contender, Amman is working to boost its entertainment offerings. The city has recently launched a cultural incentive program to increase the number of performances.
You might get lucky, like we did, and catch a free show with musicians, dancers, and orators.
From the First Circle and down Rainbow St. you see Amman’s young creative forces at work. Nowhere else in the Arab countries we visited we saw restaurants that do fresh twists on old classics: shawarmas with Greek, Indian and Mexican flavours at Shawarmize It!
Bookshops, crafts galleries and cozy cafés cater to the expat crowd with Western touches, and it’s all worth exploring.
And when you reach the end of the street and Amman’s blocky hills and valleys come back into view, a serendipitous right turn takes you to Beit Shuqair, a restaurant that roomates with crafts shops and whose classic Arabic dishes rival the best of Syria. A baker that pumps out fresh bread and an oud bard make this a perfect setting to watch the city from above.