An authentic insight into the Arab world
City Slicker - Amman: Don't be too quick to pass through Jordan's capital for Petra or Wadi Rum. Mark Rowe offers ideas for new and returning visitors
Sunday 29 May 2011
Welcome to easyJet's big adventure.
The budget airline has launched its longest flight – around five hours – to the Jordanian capital of Amman, the first no-frills UK flight to an Arab capital city. The airline's reasoning may be that Amman is a gateway to Jordan's headline acts – Petra and Wadi Rum – rather than a destination in itself, but visitors shouldn't overlook the capital.
Amman is no Istanbul, but there's a decent clutch of sights and things to do, a gently throbbing arts scene, and some excellent half-day excursions, including the Dead Sea and the spectacular mountain landscape, amid which Moses is said to have first viewed the Promised Land. And Amman's relaxed, hospitable atmosphere will provide a more authentic insight into the Arab world than you might get from touts selling you camel rides around Egypt's pyramids, or from wandering the shopping malls of Dubai.
Amman is also a light city, built almost entirely from the surrounding limestone hills – with the odd splash of sandstone. That doesn't make it an Arabian version of Bath, but a near absence of skyscrapers amounts to a harmonious appearance, as though the city has been hollowed out of one large rock.
EasyJet may just be banking on the Royal Wedding effect. The two years Kate Middleton spent in Jordan as a child have not gone unnoticed by the country, which plans to invite the couple to spend a second honeymoon there. If the Duchess of Cambridge ever returns, it's unlikely that she'll see much that has changed. Amman feels – and looks – in many ways like an Arab city from the 1970s, a place to read the local English-language newspaper over a cup of ultra-strong Arabic coffee, meander from felafal stall to shawarma stand, and see how people in this neck of the woods go about their everyday lives.
Roman Amman (kinghussein.gov.jo)
Amman also has seven hills, and on top of one of them, the citadel, you'll find the starkly dramatic remaining pillars of the Temple of Hercules and the impressively grandiose post-Roman Umayyad Palace with its newly reconstructed dome.
The Jordan National Gallery of Fine Arts (nationalgallery.org)
Head here for proof that Arabic art extends beyond calligraphy. Displays are split between two equally delightful buildings, linked by a peaceful park. If you're the sort of traveller who finds interest in what modern Omani, Palestinian, Jordanian or other Arabian artists are getting up to, this captivating museum is the place for you.
Abu Darwish mosque (visitjordan.com).
Mosques are frequently aesthetically graceful but this one, built from sandstone and basalt, resembles a chess board – made up entirely of black and white square blocks of limestone, basalt and bitumen. You'll find it to the south of downtown on Badr Street – but at the top of a very steep uphill climb, so it's best to take a taxi.
Ben Hur chariot races (jerashchariots.com)
A chariot race set up for tourists might set the alarm bells ringing on full "tat" alert, but fear not. These races, in the Roman city of Jerash, just 20 miles north of Amman, are reckoned by historians to closely mirror the original events. Chariots were used for sport, not fighting, and actors in full gladiatorial regalia hold sword fights before leaving rivals eating dust in the setting of the Roman hippodrome.
As its name implies, Rainbow Street is a jaunty and colourful collection of galleries, cafés, falafel outlets and charitable foundations. Amman's few tourists make it here, but are outnumbered by Amman's arty set and expats on R&R from the region's more troubled zones. For a gasping smoke on a nargileh, make for Books@cafe (booksatcafe.com) just around the corner on Mango Street. To see the sort of work the local charities get up to, pop along to the Jordan River Foundation (jordanriver.jo) galleries, which has gloriously coloured handiworks and paintings of an extremely high standard.
This much-delayed museum is finally scheduled to open in June. While world-class international exhibitions are promised, the main draw should really be the rich archaeological pickings that have been uncovered in and around Amman – from plastered Neolithic skulls to sarcophagi of baked clay, and what is generally agreed by experts to be the world's earliest examples of pottery. This will be the place to reinforce your understanding of what the Romans – along with the Greeks, Persians and Ottomans – have done for Jordan.
One of the newest restaurants in town, Mijana, is set in a lovely two-storey sandstone building. Book a table on the top floor for graceful views across the cityscape at dusk. Dishes are wildly eclectic, ranging from Arabic shawarma – chicken or lamb in flat bread – to pastas.
Details: Jabal Amman, 1st Circle, Rainbow Street (00 962 6 4620 744).
Until autumn, Friday prayers in the artist's quarter of Jebel Amman will host the open-air Jawa Souk on the corner of Fawzi al Malouf street. Expect music, crafts fairs and plenty of snacks.
Shaumari Wildlife Reserve
Restoration on this wildlife-rich desert landscape, easily visited on a half-day trip into the stony desert, east of Amman, finishes this summer. Where else could guided tours provide you with close up views of wild ostriches, Arabian oryx and wild ass, known as onagers, just one hour from a capital city?
Beit Shocair restaurant
Another charming eaterie, opened earlier this year, is worth visiting both for the food – classic Middle Eastern spreads – and its location, with views over Amman, set within a Damascene house centred on a courtyard that is home to some of Amman's most charismatic artists.
How to get there
Mark Rowe travelled with Royal Jordanian Airlines (08719 112112; royaljordanian.com), which flies daily from Heathrow to Amman, from £199. EasyJet (0843 1045000; easyjet.com) flies three days a week to Amman with fares from £142 return. Mark Rowe stayed at the Intercontinental Amman (00 962 6 4645217; intercontinental.com/amman), which offers double rooms with breakfast for £125 per night.
Jordanian Tourist Board (020-7223 1878; visitjordan.com).
Ahmed Abushiera, Former restaurant manager
"Buy a slice of kunafeh – hot goat's cheese fried with syrup – from Habibi, on a small street by the Arab Bank on King Faysal Street. Whenever Ammanis walk around downtown, they hear in their heads Habibi calling them, like a siren: 'Come and eat kunafeh'."
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