Amman is a striking city of hills, an urban landscape dramatically laid-out on valley-beds and clinging to the side of steep slopes. Like a refuge of relative calm hemmed in by raucous neighbours, pint-sized Jordan is a smash-hit destination, chock-full of head-turning offerings. But before heading down to Petra and Wadi Rum, I thoroughly enjoyed my foray with the Jordanian capital. Despite only being Jordan’s capital for less than a century, pockets of Amman boast a weight of history stretching back many millennia. Before the Romans rolled into town, Alexander the Great first conquered the region and the city was originally named Philadelphia. The name stuck for centuries until the Arabs seized the city in 635AD, recognising it as Amman, although the city’s significance steadily waned over the subsequent centuries.
I started my exploratory in the historical district known as Downtown, where Roman Philadelphia flourished. The Romans constructed grand public buildings, a huge forum and classic arenas. Artfully cut into a depression in the hillside, the wonderful Roman Theatre which has stood the test of time is impressively sized with time-honoured acoustics. The 6000 seater theatre was built 1900 years ago as the showpiece of Roman Philadelphia and it’s still regularly used for concerts. Immediately outside the theatre are the remains of the Roman Forum, with a scattering of stones and a graceful colonnade of Corinthian columns testifying to its past.
Gazing across the city centre from the theatre, I was struck by the towering stone pillars of the Temple of Hercules, silhouetted against the sky. The ruins of this temple crown Citadel Hill, which is also known as Jabal Al Qal’a, and it’s a wonderful location to unpeel the many layers of Amman’s intriguing history. The citadel is situated on the top of one of the city’s original seven hills, steeped in 7000 years of history. It’s an incredibly lofty perch to size up the topography of Amman, it’s incredibly high-density layout, as the evocative call to prayer wafts through the valley.
Every conqueror from the Assyrians and Romans to the Ottomans has left their mark here on Citadel Hill. Highlights include the partially restored and unquestionably imposing Temple of Hercules, the 8th century Umayyad palace and the Byzantine church complex ruins. Want to catch a great sunset? This is a dream spot to take in the solar theatrics, while the city lights start twinkling on the sloping valleys below. Step out on a photogenic stroll through the heart of town on King Faisal St, taking in the traditional shops, bustling markets, ambient cafes and general city vibe which is friendly, frenetic and aromatic.
I saw delivery workers balancing 20 produce trays on their heads, old-school coffee roasters and grinders churning out Arabic coffee, and roadside bakers flaunting their finest filo pastry treats. Want to try some great street snacks? Habiba is a much-loved local purveyor of Arabic sweets, but the best experience is to check out their thriving little outlet hidden down an alleyway beside the Arab Bank building, just off King Faisal Street. This tiny shop is famed for its knafeh – a Palestinian dessert from Nablus made of shredded filo pastry and goat's cheese, served hot, drenched in syrup.
Night and day there's a billowing line of locals outside, leaning against the wall, forking fresh-made knafeh off paper plates – all revelling in this shared, sugar-happy endeavour. True to Jordanian form, visitors are made to feel so welcome, with many locals extolling you to jump ahead of the queue. Don’t miss the steep set of stairs, jutting off King Faisal Street, merrily festooned in multi-coloured umbrellas. But Amman’s most famous thoroughfare is probably Rainbow Street. Don’t be misled by its name, Rainbow Street is not Jordan’s gay mecca, rather it’s a foodie mecca, throbbing traditional coffee houses, swanky bars, cosy hideaways, edgy street-food hangouts and high-end restaurants.
This cobblestoned street takes its name from grand old Rainbow Cinema, which is now fully restored. Amongst this whirl of epicurean temptation, be sure to try what many locals would argue is one of Jordan’s main dishes: Maqlooba. This Palestinian Arab dish usually consists of chicken, vegetables, rice and quality spices, stacked and packed into a saucepan. Maqlooba means “upside down” in Arabic, which is apt, because the entire meal is served upside down, much like a Spanish Tortilla. Just outside Amman, two enriching excursions that can be easily accomplished in half a day, are to Madaba and Mt. Nebo.
The latter is of course heavily wreathed in biblical heritage, as it is from here that Moses, following God’s navigational guidance, cast his eyes on the Promised Land. According to the Bible, having led the Israelites for forty years through the wilderness, Moses finally saw, from this dizzy vantage point, the Promised Land that God had forbidden him to enter. Moses supposedly died and was buried on or near the mountain, while his brother Joshua led the Israelites into Canaan. It was a beautifully bright and clear day when I gazed out westward from the summit, readily identifying the Dead Sea and the hills of Jerusalem.
Also worth a visit, is the nearby ancient town of Madaba. This easy-going market town is feted for its extraordinary Byzantine mosaics. The most famous artwork is the 6th Century Mosaic map of the Holy Land, which woos the world to the Church of the Apostles. During clearance work for a new church in 1884, this treasure was uncovered. It’s a remarkably intricate and detailed illustration of all the key Holy Land sites. What makes it all the more staggering is that despite it being 1500 years old, it is geographically accurate. Archaeologists are still regularly uncovering ancient mosaics, beneath the streets of Madaba.
Using Booking.com, I locked in a fabulous stay at the Landmark Amman Hotel, handily located in the heart of the business district. The elegant boasts six restaurants, while the 13th-floor roost, Ghoroub, serves magnificent mixology to salute Amman with a day’s end sundowner. Global research commissioned by Booking.com signals that one of travels biggest trenders for 2020 will be far more focus on choosing holiday destinations that offer a wide array of enriching experiences and attractions in close proximity to each other. 54% of research participants will be prioritising that as a key destination attribute in 2020. Jordan ticks that box, handsomely. www.booking.com
Mike Yardley is our Travel Correspondent on Jack Tame Saturday Mornings.