Now we’re getting to see some exotic places. Amman itself isn’t that exotic, though it is one of the top Arab cities in the world, but it’s the gateway to a lot we’re looking forward to. We had a quick three-day stop in this city of 4 million people, capital of Jordan of course. And while it wasn’t the most scintillating of cities, there was plenty to capture our interest for those few days.
Here are some quick impressions. The traffic is crazy, some of the worst we’ve seen anywhere (and after traveling as much as we have in Italy, that’s saying something). They seem to pay no attention whatsoever to traffic lanes and aren’t so keen on pedestrians. Crossing streets sometimes felt like a great sport.
Lots and lots of hills. Originally founded on seven hills (shades of Rome, and Jerusalem, and Athens, and apparently lots and lots of cities that claim to have been built on seven hills) today it spans some 19 hills. Steep hills, too. As the modern hotels are in East Amman and the historic sites are in West Amman, we walked a lot across the city. And there are lots of hills.
There are some good ruins here, too, especially a great Roman theater that is still used for concerts (though not this time of year). We spent some time in the old citadel as well, a site used by Romans, Byzantines, and early Islamic rulers where the Temple of Hercules reigns supreme.
The best ruins, though, are in Jerash, an ancient city some 30 miles north of Amman. We took a day trip up there and it was totally worth it. While human settlements in the area date back to perhaps 6,000 BC, the remains visible today are from the classical Roman period, especially the first and second century AD. And those ruins are pretty spectacular: the stunning Arch of Hadrian as you enter, a huge oval forum, a colonnaded main street, a couple of beautiful theaters, a Temple of Zeus, even a genuine tetrapylon. (Yeah, I didn’t know what that was either, but it was cool: a four-sided building in the middle of a major intersection with arches on all four sides for people to pass through. Maybe you had to see it, but it was good.)
Food is kind of a mixed bag. To us, at least, it was nothing short of stunning how a city this big, with this many people and no small number of tourists, could have so few interesting restaurants. That’s probably related to the fact that so few places serve beer, wine, or alcohol. Absent that, who wants to eat out? Clothing stores? Thousands of them on the main street. Even a lighting district, an area of four or five blocks where nearly every establishment on both sides of the street sells lighting fixtures. But restaurants that are nicer than fast food falafel? Good luck.
There were basically two nice Lebanese restaurants near the old part of the city, both of which were quite good. Lonely Planet says of one of them, a place called Sufra, that “if the royal family are fans, we’re hardly ones to argue.” Sure enough, not long after we sat down for lunch an elegant group of maybe six women came in along with secret service protection. I can’t say for certain that there was royalty in the group but I would certainly guess ordinary citizens don’t travel in limousine caravans with secret service protection. And yes the food was great even though there was not a drop of wine to be had.
You certainly can’t talk about traveling in Jordan without mentioning just how friendly people are. Really, genuinely friendly, not just trying-to-sell-you-something friendly. Any time you were out and about in the city people – OK, men – would greet you, ask where you were from, and welcome you to Jordan. Pretty nice, though perhaps not too surprising. After Alexander the Great conquered the region one of his successors renamed the city Philadelphia – Brotherly Love – a name it maintained throughout the Roman and Byzantine eras. So naturally they’re friendly!
And finally, we liked our hotel, a Le Meridien in the newer, upscale part of the city. Since it’s part of the Starwood chain and we spend a lot of nights in Starwood hotels, they upgraded us to a spacious suite that felt so nice after multiple weeks in single rooms. And a not-too-bad bar and steakhouse off the lobby that was a nice alternative to catching a taxi into the old part of town for dinner.
All in all, then, Amman is a good stepping off city to see more of Jordan. From here it’s down to the Dead Sea, Petra, and then the Gulf of Aqaba.