The Jordan Jaunt: Amman & Jerash
Day 1 – Amman and Rainbow Street
“They say dance like no one is seeing you, I say eat like no one is seeing you”, Omran whispered in my ear while heaping his plate with some delicious Jordanian food after our visit to Jerash.
This was to become a resounding theme during our visit to Jordan with no day complete without a healthy dose of falafel and spiced Jordanian tea. Although it would be slightly cold at the end of February, Neha and I decided to visit Jordan just before the peak tourist season started. Our first port of call in Jordan, as expected, was Amman.
We were hungry as we reached Amman sometime in the early afternoon. Our choice of restaurant for lunch was Sufrah, located on one of the most happening streets of Amman called the Rainbow Street. Here we were introduced to Jordanian tea which then become a fixture in every meal we had or every break we took while on the road. For appetizers we ordered a portion of hummus with well cooked lamb pieces and Khubz – which is a flat-bread. Our main course consisted of zucchini filled with minced lamb in a white sauce. The acidity of the zucchini was complemented by the herb-infused flavours of the minced lamb which also provided some texture, and the slightly sour curd-based sauce did a great job of bringing them together.
Before I reached Amman, I had a picture in my mind of dusty streets and a flat, gritty terrain. My mental image was influenced by multiple trips to the gulf region during the years of 2007-2010 to several cities such as Jeddah, Riyadh, Dammam, Dubai, Muscat, and Abu Dhabi. The terrain turned out to be mountainous and heaved in unpredictable curves and steep falls almost resembling San Francisco. The locals say that Amman is made up of seven hills and the modern settlement has created eight circles which form the spine of its road network.
After lunch, we visited the Citadel which is located in the old part of the city. It was created and conquered by many empires that rose and fell through the years of Amman’s long and troubled history. Much of it, like the other attractions in Jordan was in ruins. It was fascinating to see the Temple of Hercules which is visible from almost all elevated parts of Amman during the day and lit up at night. It had 33-foot tall columns which tower over the city. Some of them had collapsed and broken in perfectly cylindrical pieces and lay in a straight column formation. As we walked back, the azaan was reverberating from the entire city of Amman and it felt very peaceful. Evening was beginning to descend through cold wisps of air and shadows were beginning to win their battle with the sun yet again.
In the evening, we set out for the famed Rainbow Street. It has some great places to eat and drink, but the authentic local places are always tucked away just far enough from the reach of regular tourists. We decided to try a place called Jafra which was located on a parallel street. We occupied a table at the far end of the cafe, which was on the second level, overlooking the busy streets of Amman’s downtown. There were shops selling DVDs, confectionary, luggage and all sorts of goods. People walked by with a purpose and some hung around outside their shops smoking their cigarettes. We ordered a mint flavored sheesha and decided to watch the world go by. A few minutes later, as if on cue, just as the sheesha started doing its trick, live music started. There was only one musician serenading his guitar and playing some bluesy tunes.
In the old part of Amman there are several streets which are situated at different levels and are connected by stairs collectively known as ‘Stairs of Amman’. We decided to walk up the stairs back to the Rainbow street. It bustled with the usual energy of backpackers and wide-eyed tourists who want to take in everything that each city has to offer. The best way to navigate the street is by walking and taking a look at the various eateries and bars. We tried a Falafel Ka’ak (Jordanian variety of bread) sandwich along with a corn on the cob from a roadside vendor. We topped off our dinner with some really flavorful and creamy ice-cream from Gerard’s. While eating the ice-cream we wandered into a little open area on the street from where you can see parts of the old city, a huge flag of Jordan fluttering in the night air, and the Citadel standing in the distance – all lit up.
Day 2 – Jerash and Old Souk
Jerash is about an hour’s drive away from Amman and there are two parts to it. One is the modern settlement of Jerash city and the other is the ancient Jerash which has been excavated by archaeologists over several years starting in 1806. Jerash comprises of the ruins of the ancient Greco-Roman city of Gerasa. Several wars and a strong earthquake in 749 AD led to the destruction of this once beautiful city that thrived with commerce, entertainment and politics.
Columns lay scattered around the ruins in the aftermath of the earthquake. They must have been common in this part of the world as the columns of Jerash had a built in alarm system. The carved beams that lay on top of the loosely fitted solid stone columns were separated by a gap and metal plates on both ends. This meant that whenever there would be an earthquake, the beams would touch each other and the banging metal plates would sound like an alarm.
During the Roman times, chariot races and gladiator fights took place at the hippodrome near the southern gate of Jerash under the title of Circus Gerasa. Continuing its tradition there is a gladiator show that happens regularly even today under the R.A.C.E project (The Roman Army and Chariot Experience). We concluded our visit to Jerash by watching this show which was quite superbly orchestrated.
It was late afternoon when we started back for Amman and the next item on our agenda was visiting the Old Souk! No visit to a middle eastern city is complete without visiting their old markets that sell spices, fragrances, trinkets, garments, sweets and all sorts of commodities that formed a part of their ancient trade routes through India and far out in Asia. Amman is well known for its hand-made soaps and spices. We started walking down a busy street in search of Sumac, Za’atar spices. The market was humming with activity with a constant loading and unloading of wares. The smell of spices mixed with dried flowers and herbs diffused through the late afternoon air. Shopkeepers stood outside their shops lazily smoking cigarettes and nodding their heads in acknowledgement at passersby. Sometimes they shouted out to us asking if we were from India and when we nodded in affirmative they would grin from ear to ear. People are very friendly in Jordan and they especially love Indians – several Jordanians come to India to complete their education from various universities and then of course there is the universal thread of Bollywood movies that make us popular. We absently walked into a sweet shop where they had laid out a local delicacy Kunafeh in huge platters. When we started to inquire about it a short and stubby man came out with a huge smile as if he has met his long lost friends. He said he had studied in India and he seemed unapologetically thrilled to see some tourists from there. He offered any help he could give us and it seemed to me that he could become my best friend in that instant.
We spent the evening with Omran in one of the posh localities of Amman smoking a sheesha and hearing his innumerable travel stories – about how he was creating an Eco-Lodge outside of Amman city, about the queen being from his village and his last name affording him special privileges in some places, about his ex-wife and his kids, about him desperately wanting to marry an Indian woman, about him wanting to visit India and drive to Leh. At 40-plus, he was a bolt of such intense energy that can pass through you and make your old bones infectiously come alive. He had been a driver and a guide for the BBC in wartime Iraq, he had spent time in UAE working construction companies, he had been and was an entrepreneur working several businesses at once in Jordan – and we wondered if he ever slept. He wanted to stay out that evening and keep talking to us as if it was the last time, as if there was no tomorrow and as if it was his last evening in the world. But our souls weren’t as unshackled and carefree and we had places to go. It was our last evening in Amman and tomorrow it would be a brand new day. We were headed to Petra.