Exploring Downtown Amman – Al-Balad

Slept like logs and got up about 845 for our included breakfast.  Well… we were very pleasantly surprised. A real feast of a meal: boiled eggs, olives, cold meat, white cheese, humus. tabbouleh, foul medames, tomatoes, different breads, cakes, jams….. all spread before us – not a buffet.

Today we explored al-Balad, the historic downtown that lies in the wadi (valley) created by the ancient Sayl Amman (Amman River).  The surrounding countryside is very biblical, well…. I suppose as you would expect.  Rocky outcrops, dry wadis… yet amazing fruit and vegetables grow.  We saw some of the largest cauliflowers ever being sold from the roadside.

Amman is both an ancient city and a modern urban metropolis. In its wide valley floor, which was once fed by a regular flowing river, inhabitants of the oasis planted crops and hosted long distance trade arriving from the north, west and south. The history of the area now known as al-Balad can be traced back through the millennia and it was inhabited at least as far back as 6,700 BC.

Tomb and temple remains from the Middle Bronze Age (1700 BC) indicate on-going habitation of the floor of the wadi. The Ammonite city-state, centred around what is now al-Balad, emerged after 1200 BC. As you stand in the midst of downtown and look around you, it is clear why the Ammonites built a ring of fortresses on the mountain tops (jabal) around their valley home to protect it from surprise attack.

Looking up from al-Balad, the domineering acropolis on top of Jabal Qala’a (the Citadel), which served as the holy site for worship and sacrifice for the people of the city for more than 2,000 years, can be seen. Stairs linked the downtown area with the acropolis, so that worshippers could easily ascend to the temple complex.   We will explore The Citadel and the Roman sites tomorrow.

During Hellenic, Nabataean and Roman times, what is now al-Balad was the site of a thriving oasis trading city known as Philadelphia, (City of Brotherly Love). It was part of the Roman Decapolis city network where traders, acting troupes and soldiers passed through the oasis on their way to the cities in the west or north to Damascus. Under the Byzantines and then the Umayyads the city expanded to cover much of the valley floor, with regional bureaucrats ruling from the heights of the acropolis overlooking it.
From the 12th to around the 17th century, however, the city slowly dwindled and died as trade routes and imperial attention shifted elsewhere.

In the 19th century modern Amman sprang, phoenix-like, from the scattered ruins around the valley floor. In 1878 Circassian refugees from Russian military advances in the Caucasus were resettled amid the ruins of al-Balad, thus starting the settling of numerous refugee arrivals. Mud dwellings were built and by 1905 when the great Hijaz Railway was being constructed many found work building or protecting the new rail link. Amman hosted a station on the line from 1904, and by 1909 the town was large enough (3,000 people) to have its first mayor and municipal council.
The Ottomans built an army base here, and during WWI it became a hub for communications. Overlooking al-Balad, on Jabal al-Ashrafiyyeh, near to where the distinctive black and white Abu Darwish Mosque now stands, Australian and British Desert Corp troops tried, but failed, to take Amman on 18 March, 1918. With Allied advances, by late September 1918 the Turkish 4th Army were forced to flee, and on 26 September the ANZAC Mounted Division captured the village. British troops remained in the town until December 1919.
On 2 March 1921, Emir (Prince) Abdullah arrived in Amman from the Kingdom of the Hijaz with about 500 troops. At that time the town was home to around 6,000 people, who proceeded to decorate the town in anticipation of his arrival and to accompany him to the mayor’s house singing national Arab songs. By April he had agreed with Winston Churchill that he would rule Trans-Jordan from Amman with support from British airpower, a new 750-man Arab Legion force, and two armoured cars located in the city. This was the foundation of the Jordanian state.

Al-Balad quickly grew as a thriving locale of merchants and eateries, places of worship and meeting places. It is still a vibrant area teeming in middle eastern glamour and evocative scents of the spice and fruit bazaars.

We started at the King Hussein mosque at the heart of the area.  Sometimes tourists are allowed in, but not today.  The caretaker, surely the only unfriendly, rude person in Jordan shouted at us and then got into a furious row with the nice shopkeeper who had shown us to the door.  We left them going at it hammer and tongs…..

We explored some of the little souks in the area.  Amazing displays of fruits. vegetables. nuts. sweets, hair ornaments, lamps and kitchenalia….  everyone so friendly and no one remotely pushy.  No one asked us to come into their shop for a “butchers”  although everyone was helpful if we did venture in.  We had a good time in one of the spice shops looking at all the products and tasting different types of dates.  They had some amazing brass devices for spice grinding and roasting.

Our next stop was the Roman Nymphaeum, a huge fountain area built in 191 AD on the site of the ancient river Sayl Amman (no longer visible). The Roman urban plan organized Philadelphia into two main parts: the upper one with the main Roman Temple of Hercules and the lower part, which follows a typical Roman city plan with two colonnaded streets (Cardo and Decumanus) along the major two valleys of the city. The Nymphaeum was located close to the point where the Cardo intersects with the Decumanus. With its monumental structure that used to be richly decorated with carvings, mosaics and statues, the Amman Nymphaeum is a half octagonal building of symmetrical design with a restored length of 68 m. The lower part is the foundation built on barrel vaults. The second floor consisted of three large apses with two rows of niches designed to host statues. The height of the apses is around 12 m in front of which was a gallery with columns of Corinthian order. The apses were terminated in semi-domes, which probably collapsed in one of the earthquakes of the 7th cent AD.

We entered courtesy of the Jordan Pass and were the only visitors.  There was an on site guide who enthusiastically took us round.  It was one of the best I have seen and not cave like as per many ie not imitating a grotto.  It was fascinating to see the holes where the water showered down to the lower levels.  Beside it is the reservoir or cistern that held the water detoured from the stream.  How lovely the pools and cascading waters must have been two thousand years ago.

From there we walked through the area past several landmarks: the Gold Souk, the Arab Bank, el Hashem restaurant, lots of narrow shopping streets and arcades.  Eventually we came to Jafra Café, a well known watering hole and went up the stairs to sit on their balcony and watch the world go by.  They made us amazing Turkish coffees with cardamom – really large ones.  Delicious.

Came back to the hotel for a bit of a rest then out to Nails Take Two.  This time we knew where we were going so no problem.  Two hours later (Bob is obviously a saint!) and they were all pristine again, a bit shorter.  I doubt they will survive diving in Aqaba later in the week so went all in and had a bold colour.

Tonight we ate dinner at the Jordan Heritage Restaurant.  This is a very interesting enterprise that aims to explore regional Jordanian heritage through cuisine and sources all of its ingredients from women owned regional suppliers.  The restaurant is in a lovely old house in quite an upmarket area of town.  In the summer guests eat outside, but this time of the year, we ate inside in a bright room decorated with various pieces of art.  We ordered starters which was probably a mistake given the portion sizes here.  Bob had pumpkin soup and I had a dish called Ekbak Obeidat.  This dish originates in the north west of Jordan, around Irbid.  It is a type of rissole made of very finely minced lamb with bulgur wheat and cardamom.  They were served with a sticky, sour pomegranate sauce.

For main, I had Mansaf, the national dish of Jordan, served at weddings and family gatherings.  It consists of slow roasted pieces of lamb, falling off the bone.  The lamb is served on a bed of pilaff rice and with a sauce of fermented yoghurt.  The sauce is like a sharp, cheese sauce.  It was really delicious, although Bob didn’t like it.  He chose Magloobeh.  This is another generous lamb dish layered with rice and vegetables, and with a bowl of spiced yoghurt and a salad of tomato, onion and herbs.  Really very nice.  We couldn’t finish it all.  It was just soooo much.  We managed to round dinner off with a cup of cardamom flavoured Turkish coffee and they brought us out a complimentary dessert of biscuit balls stuffed with a toffee cream filling.  The pastry was the same as a fig newton.

Liked the restaurant and the staff who were very friendly.  Jordanian food is proving to be amazing so far.  So very many interestingly different dishes and very generous portions.  We were amused by one of them whose sole job was sweeping and mopping the floor after diners left.  He was tremendously keen and could be seen lurking in the service corridor and was out, quick as a flash, as soon as a party stood up.

Came back and I’m writing this waiting for Lucy to arrive from Dubai.  She should be here in a couple of hours now.