Isam Afaneh is 6′10″ and he sports a stubble. At 47, my greying guide is also phenomenally fit. So much so that while touring the Citadel, perched atop one of Amman’s seven hills, I struggle to match his pace and his passion for history. “You know ruins from six empires are present on this site? You excited to explore?” he asks, and then, as if the questions are rhetorical, he starts enlisting them: Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Muslims, Mamluks, Turks. “This was, you can say, the White House of the Ammonite Kingdom.”
The Citadel affords sweeping views of the capital’s limestone buildings. Of the relics here—some restored, others in need of restoration—the three 33-foot-tall columns of the Hercules temple are the most magnificent. They frame Jordan’s skies and the country’s flag. Jordanians love their flag. This becomes clear within hours of landing in the country. I’ve spotted the green, black and white bands fluttering outside plush hotels, mounted inside humble balconies and towering over arterial junctions. To the temple’s far north, beyond the cistern,the seventh-century Umayyad Palace is another monument that catches my eye. Its courtyard is abuzz with toddlers fooling around ancient column stumps, ignorant of the grandiosity their makeshift playground once exuded.
Winding up a hill on Amman’s outskirts, I first lay my eyes on the solitary Ajloun Castle from my car’s window. The closer we inch, the more gigantic it gets. Despite being ravaged by two earthquakes that reduced its five storeys to three, three towers to one, Ajloun remains imposing. “This was actually a defensive castle, a fortress to keep check on crusaders, control trade routes and monitor iron mines,” Isam says of the 12th-century monument. Inscriptions from the Quran, though faint, are still legible on the facade. Inside, all that’s left of the chambers are arched entrances. Traces of medieval Arab military prowess have, however, stubbornly survived. A cluster of cannonballs, for instance, lies piled in one corner.
When we climb up a storey, Isam points to a gap in the floor and says, “Soldiers used to pour down hot oil on enemies from here.” I do not want to imagine charred bodies on a pleasant morning. Thankfully, we move to the terrace. Seeing us, some pretty Jordanian girls in hijabs abruptly stop their line dancing. They disburse, breaking into giggles. Standing on the terrace, soaking 360° views of the Jordan Valley, I think of the pigeons that ferried sealed scrolls to Damascus and Cairo from here. This morning though, stripped off their past glory, they soar above the fortification purposelessly.
Black, green, pickled, raw—the omnipresence of olives and the pride Jordanians take in them is obvious. Restaurants serve them generously, and their popularity is evident on the streets. Ambling along Amman’s bustling downtown, for instance, I notice shopfronts lined with olive-filled glass jars that are as tall as two-year-olds. “We have 10 million olive trees, and families who grow olives each produce 60 litres of oil every year,” Isam says, wolfing down some olives over lunch at Ya Hala, a restaurant in the town of Jerash, an hour from Amman. Having sniffed and savoured so much of the fruit and its oil, I request a factory visit. “It’s not in the itinerary. But I’ll try,” Isam says, and then quickly adds, “You know why I try? Because our olive oil is better than Spain’s or Italy’s.”
En route to Amman, Isam makes a few calls and we get lucky. The fruity, acrid notes hit me even before we step into Jerash Oil Press, a 35-year-old unit. At least 22 men are at work, machine-pressing the fruit, filling its oil into tin cans. On a blue railing separating visitors from workers rests a glass showcasing the bottle green liquid. Isam shoots it down like tequila. I barely manage a sip. Tequila isn’t so bitter.
Rainbow Street is the Bandra of Amman. The 1.6-kilometre street winds up the hills of Jebel Amman in northern Jordan, and it’s where the city’s cool crowd congregates. It is just after sunset on a chilly Friday. Young women in trendy trench coats and men with gelled hair and Gerard Butler beards are just beginning to saunter into artsy cafés and restaurants that line this street. They look so on point that I regret my dusty overcoat and dishevelled hair. They, on the other hand, have stepped out of convertibles that are all blaring chartbusters. Ed Sheeran’s “Shape of You” seems to have gone viral here too.
Walking past a series of plush limestone villas, I stop for a dark chocolate scoop at Gerard, a popular ice cream chain I had earlier read about. Sitting on a bench, I relish my choco chip. Entertaining me, and oblivious that they are, is a group of tweens perfecting the pouting selfie. Suddenly, I hear some commotion that sends me dashing to the nearby public square. A British bagpiper in a kilt is playing alongside a young Jordanian ensemble of pipers and drummers. I join the spectators in their whistling and hooting. Suddenly, a group of teenagers beside me start street-dancing. They moonwalk as if wanting to better the moves of Michael Jackson himself.
Spellbound by the sheer scale of the ruins, I struggle to imagine Jerash of the Roman times. I find it impossible to mentally quantify the labour that must have been employed to erect the mighty Hadrian’s Arch. The 22-foot-tall ceremonial gate was built to honour the Roman emperor’s visit. “Welcome to Jerash, or whatever is excavated of it,” Isam says as we cross the Hadrian’s Arch. The ministry of tourism has been excavating here since 1963, he tells me, but the process has been slow. “These things take time and money,” he reasons.
Inside, tourists glide up and down rocky pathways to explore this strategically located Decapolis, one amongst the 10 Roman cities in the Levant region, and its architectural prowess. Even though only their pillars now remain, the temples of Zeus and Artemis are hot favourites. But I love what was once Jerash’s downtown, an oval plaza ringed by 56 stunning Ionic columns. A business hub and bustling marketplace, the plaza was the city’s pulse. For recreation, there was the 3,000-seater South Amphitheatre, which is also where the annual Jerash Festival of Culture and Arts is held every July. When we stroll into it, two middle-aged minstrels in traditional Arabic attire put up a show in hope of hefty tips. To prove the theatre’s acoustics, Isam starts tap-dancing. The echo doubles back perfectly.
Sprinting down the Citadel and past a clutch of concrete Palestinian refugee camps, we make it to the Roman Amphitheatre 10 minutes before it’s slated to shut. Panting, I tune into Isam’s monologue. “Make no mistake. This amphitheatre was only for entertainment. No gladiator fights. No lion fights,” he says of the 5,000-seater space, built facing north to divert harsh sunrays. The white limestone steps are occupied by locals who are looking for some inexpensive recreation. Women in burkhas are busy chatting. Children race up and down the steep, circular steps. Some cartwheel inside the performance pit that hosts events even today. “The acoustics here are not very strong now,” says Isam. “So we got to use microphones.”
The real drama unravels in an adjoining courtyard. It is as big as a football field. Young boys display their skating skills, suspending themselves midair, hurtling down staircases. Some ride Segway, while others are engaged in b-boying battles, perfecting their pirouettes and headstands. Closer to sunset is when it gets cacophonous in here, with children circling hawkers selling tornado fries, candy floss and masala corn. Strains of azan and Arabic music fill the air, and the dominant fragrance here is a heady mishmash of attar and shisha.
This mansion-like restaurant on Amman’s arterial Wasfi al-Tal Road is ideal for a typical Lebanese-Mediterranean lunch. The portions are gargantuan. Skip breakfast if you intend to do justice to the treats that are served on giant golden brass trays, permanent fixtures on every table. The Middle-Eastern mezze here is as heavenly as the assorted meat platter.
Done touring downtown? Head to Hashem. The 66-year-old restaurant on King Faisal Street, in the heart of downtown, is unpretentious, affordable and serves staples like hummus, moutabal and baba ganoush. But it’s the falafels here that rock. Stuffed with onion and sumac, the heavenly, steaming balls are dispensed to your table with a bowl of fiery chilli sauce and juicy tomato slices and crunchy cucumber sticks. Even though it’s an all-day diner, expect queues. Service, thankfully, is quick, almost robotic.
Rainbow Street is littered with coffee houses and restaurants, but if you are to pick one, Books@Cafe it is. Ideal for lounging, it rustles up great pastas and pizzas, has an attached bookstore, a well-stocked bar, and flaunts modern interiors. Karaoke nights here are legendary, and it’s also where Amman’s queer community chills as often as expats do. A short walk from Books@Cafe is a Gerard outlet. The popular ice cream chain remains open way past midnight. Try their shakes, brownies and of course ice cream. The choice of flavours is mind-boggling and the scoop size substantial.
For a more authentic Jordanian meal, head to Sufra, also on Rainbow Street. The restaurant is done up stylishly, and offers indoor, al fresco and rooftop seating. You might end up spending a few extra dinars here, but it’s worth it. Gorging on Sufra’s rooftop past sunset, overlooking Amman as it winds down, soothes both your stomach and soul.
Humaira Ansari is a certified nihari-lover who travels with an open mind and lots of earbuds. She invests a lot of time and Wi-Fi in planning her itineraries. She loves neighbourhood walks, meals at a local’s home, and discovering a city's nightlife. She is former Senior Associate Editor at National Geographic Traveller India.