Amman’s beauty is not of a classic sort. It doesn’t have the flashy buildings of Dubai, the ancient architecture or Cairo, or the breathtaking sea views of Istanbul. It’s a scruffy, pockmarked city in shades of brown and grey, defined by the sand and rock on which, and of which, it is built.
Yet Amman is ruggedly magnificent. The range of hills grounding the city are scarred by small quarries gouged into the stone. The view from any given hilltop is of tightly clumped stubby buildings, three or four storeys high, forming a tight curtain over the activity below. It speaks of the persistence and endurance that it must have taken to build a city in these inhospitable conditions.
Jordan is one of the few Middle Eastern countries that allow South Africans to enter without a visa, making this an easy choice for my journey to the region. Before long, I found myself in downtown Amman with no idea where to go. So I got in a taxi.
Though most people in the hotel and tourism industries speak English, the little Arabic I speak served me well when getting around by cab. The driver took me to the hotel where his “brother” worked. In these parts, “brother” simply means there’s a commission to be received, but at this point I had little choice.
There are three sites in Amman that demand a visit.
The Citadel was once an Old Testament fort. Perched on one of Amman’s original seven hills, it guarded the Silk Road but now lies in ruins. In the museum there, I browsed through the rooms of ancient pottery, weapons and coins. Then, unexpectedly, there in front of me were the original Dead Sea Scrolls, carved in copper and green with age. These priceless artefacts, strangely, sit in a dingy cabinet with little publicity or information.
No photograph of The Roman Theatre can do it justice. A massive 6,000-seat stadium built nearly two millennia ago, its size is startling. Try testing the incredible acoustics if you’re with someone – stand centre-stage on the podium and speak toward the top tier of the amphitheatre. It’s surprising to realise how well the voice travels through the theatre without shouting.
Floating in the Dead Sea, looking across at Israel, was one of the strangest experiences I have had. Like gravity, the consistency of water is one of the constants of life. To lie on top of the water and read my book without sinking was both exciting and unsettling.
You can get to the Dead Sea by public bus, which is tricky, but hiring a taxi is more convenient and no more expensive than public transport if you are in a group. Once there, you have three options to get to the sea. Have the taxi take you to a fancy hotel, which might let you use their facilities for the price of a meal. You can also try the private beach for 15 dinars ($35). Or use the public beach next door for free. It’s a little more rustic but has open showers to get the salt off your body. However you do it, floating in the Dead Sea, looking across at Israel, is a priceless feeling.
The most amazing Jordanian attraction is not Amman, however, but Petra. And for good reason. The drive itself through the Jordanian desert is beautiful. When I rose early and started my walk to Petra proper, following a dry riverbed with orange cliffs looming on either side, I passed aqueducts and temples carved into the rock, giving me a taste of the architectural marvel that I was heading towards. Through the one-kilometre passage, I could imagine myself in the shoes of the Petrans of old, and the clatter of the horse carts racing past like Roman chariots.
If you’re not up to the walk, a horse and cart can be hired for most of the journey. However, the horses did not look as though they were treated very well. Slipping on some comfortable shoes and making the trek not only felt like the ethical choice, it also helped me to appreciate the experience more.
Upon arrival in Petra, this ancient city literally carved from rock, I was greeted by one of the most breathtaking examples of architecture I have been privileged to see – an imposing edifice, completely moulded out of the sheer red sandstone. The Petrans used the existing stone rather than build from scratch, and fashioned it to their liking, as a sculptor would chip away at a block of marble. It is a phenomenal achievement, just as impressive today as it must have been two thousand years ago.
The structure looked familiar – that’s because it was featured in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Yet even seeing it on a cinema screen did not prepare me for its sheer size or the intricacy of the carving.
This is the highlight of Petra, but there is plenty more to explore. Wandering through the double and triple-storey caves that served as ancient homes was particularly fascinating, as was the city view from the vantage of the royal tombs. Petra requires plenty of time to do it all justice. It is an entire day’s trip, and if you are into archaeology, even worth a second visit.
Tired and stiff after my long day’s walk, I recuperated in one of the local restaurants in Petra. Jordanian food is typical Arab fare, mainly comprising grilled lamb and chicken, as well as plenty of bread and dips such as hummus (chickpeas), babaganoush (eggplant) and, my favourite, moutabel (smoked eggplant). There is also ample Western food in Petra and in the smarter areas of Amman, although it can get pricey.
Keep in mind that if getting to the area by taxi, you must agree on a price beforehand. Also, because of the problems in the Middle East, tourism in Jordan has unfairly suffered. The streets of Petra are quiet at night; the restaurants are mostly empty, and the many souvenir shops look deserted. It doesn’t feel like a place you want to spend a lot of time in.
When I reflected on my week-long experience in Jordan, I knew that I had hardly scratched the surface of this country. There is much more to tempt my return, such as the place where Jesus was baptised in the River Jordan, and the desolate Wadi Rum, a valley of sandstone not too far from Petra.
Jordan is certainly a satisfying spot for travellers looking to expand their cultural and archaeological horizons.