The Many Sides of Amman

Amman at Night

I started travelling alone in 2002, straight off a year of studies in France that had me thirsty for more movement. France gave me a masters degree and a newfound appreciation for solitude, but also reinforced a need to be elsewhere for longer periods of time. I went to Uruguay as a legal volunteer in sustainable law, ending up in a tiny town in the South where the only grocery store was several kilometers away and my office was filled with a noisy gaggle of chickens, easily tiptoeing in from the entrance – which lacked a door.

I went back to New York after many months of chickens and chivitos, but I’ve never forgotten the wonder in those initial days of total culture shock and confusion. After all, I grew up in Montreal, a fairly large city by Canada’s standards, and then worked for years in the bustling concrete madness that is Manhattan. The wonder was earnest and the memory almost tangible. Ever since, this fascination with small microcosms of society (and a way of life so different from the one I knew) has persisted in my current adventures. I’ve explored tiny villages and South American pueblos and Asian seaside towns, each replete with mini markets and random farm animals and dusty roads of their own. But in the end, I keep coming back to the cities.

Exploring of Amman, Jordan

There’s something about learning your way around a new metropolis that feels like a real milestone. But more importantly, within each of these large and chaotic cities are dozens of different communities encapsulated in miniature, a Jenga-like stacking of different cultures. You can take one away, and the city stands. Take away too many and the city risks collapsing in on itself.

Colorful AmmanAmman

Having come from months in Chiang Mai, Amman was an adjustment. Gone was the bamboo scaffolding from construction sites, the curries and mangoes and motorbikes with at least 5 people (and a dog!) casually riding by. Gone were the umbrellas in the sun, the tiny plastic bags of sticky rice, the wai’ing and the ribbon of saffron through my days as Thailand’s monks went about their rituals. Instead, with the same backdrop of honking and bustle as Chiang Mai, Amman was a feast of delicate silks and veiled faces, of pungent spices and piles of fresh dates and a loudness and brashness that was almost comforting after tiptoeing through Southeast Asia. Which is why it remains a big shame that most people skip Amman.

Home to almost 3 million people, the city’s pulse was a contrast to the limestone houses piled upon sandy, monochromatic facades. Municipal law requires that the buildings be faced with local stones, affording the city a strange and calming continuity. From afar, shades of faded yellow and white. From the streets, a dizzying array of colours and patterns. Of course, the square sandstone and limestone buildings surround ancient ruins, many of which remain unexcavated. Much like my very rushed ruin-hopping in Rome, the idea that one can drive by a Roman amphitheatre or Byzantine ruins while on the way to work never fails to amaze me.

Ancient Theatre in the Center of AmmanAmman’s Roman Amphitheatre in the centre of town, built between 138 and 161 AD, seats 6,000 people.

Like many cities in the region, Amman went through a very impressive Rolodex of rulers, from Ammonites to Assyrians, then Persians and Macedonians. Renamed Philadelphia by the Macedonian ruler of Egypt, the city eventually folded into the Nabatean kingdom until it joined the Decapolis under Roman rule in 106 AD. Christianity became the official religion during the Byzantine era, with many of the region’s churches dating back to Byzantine days. Though post-Byzantine years were quiet (earthquakes ravaged the region and Amman never recovered) the city resurged once the Hejaz Railway was built, linking Damascus and Medina. After the Ottaman empire splintered, Jordan (then Transjordan) became a territory under British mandate, eventually becoming the independent Kingdom of the Hashemites in 1946, ruled by King Abdullah I. Like Rome, Amman was spread over seven hills but with the influx of new people and damming of the Al-Zarqa river, its boundaries expanded and now takes up over 19 hills, each pushing outward from al-Balad (downtown) area of Amman. The highest of all is Jabal el Qala, the Citadel Hill of Amman and perched atop it is the impressive Citadel and surrounding ruins.

Hand from colossal statue found near the temple of HerculesTemple of Hercules, with the hand and elbow from a colossal Roman statue that was excavated nearby. Archeologists estimate that the statue stood over 13 metres high, making it one of the bigger Hercules statutes from the era. I really loved the contrast between the colossal fragments and the remnants of the old Temple.

Amman's CitadelLate afternoon at the Temple of Hercules

Bronze cannon in the Jordan Citadel MuseumBronze cannon dating from the 13th century, excavated in Amman.

Stone carvings from the Citadel museumStone carvings from Nabatean period at the archeological museum near the Citadel.

* * *

There’s a nice feeling of awe that settled with me after seeing the Citadel and the Temple of Hercules. It was one of the first things we did in Amman, and it proved an excellent macro view of the city. “Here! Ancient ruins and a view over the teeming masses of people below!”. But sights alone are rarely sufficient to get more than a superficial taste of a new place, and in the case of Amman the Citadel was subsequently complimented by a whirlwind afternoon in al-Balad, adding a brief layer of understanding to a city I’d only begun to digest. It was nice to just walk and watch and (of course) eat.

Roadside coffee in AmmanRoadside coffee in downtown Amman.

Dates for sale at a market in AmmanThose piles of dates I referred to earlier? Not a lie. And they were delicious.

Lotto tickets in JordanLottery tickets for sale near the King Hussein Mosque in Amman.

Shoes for sale in downtown AmmanShoes for sale on the street near the old souk (market)

Sweets for sale on the sidewalk in AmmanBuying roadside sweets in downtown Amman.

Spice store in AmmanSpice store in downtown Amman.

Clothes for sale in ammanClothes for sale in downtown Amman.

And, after hours of wandering and ruins and sensory overload, the sight of the city etched against the inky black sky was the perfect end to a long day. As the sun set, the many facets of Amman each faded into the horizon until all that was left was the ancient Citadel and the Temple of Hercules, standing guard over the city.

Amman at Night

Most tourists skip Amman, arriving in Jordan and heading straight out to the ruins at Petra or to the Dead Sea. But I think that does Jordan a disservice – to get a real feel for a country, you need to dig into the jumbled markets and the flow of its capital. With old and new souks to discover, an ancient Citadel overlooking the city and a fascinating history, you owe it to Jordan not to forget Amman. I know I won’t.


As a guest of the Jordan Tourism Board, I visited Jordan for 10 days in early May, eating piles of delicious food, learning about history and hugging baby camels. While my trip and accommodations were sponsored, the opinions expressed herein and photos used in this post are solely my own.

29 thoughts on “The Many Sides of Amman”

  1. I loved Amman too. Because of the way my trip to Egypt worked out and that my flight to Hong Kong left from Amman, I ended up spending nearly two weeks there in total. It’s a great place to kill some time and I agree that travellers shouldn’t be quick to leave!

    I also found it surprisingly modern. I had expected Cairo to be more so but Amman was definitely the more cosmopolitan (not to mention cleaner!). I was definitely surprised (and secretly delighted) to find more than a few familar chains at the huge shopping mall, as well as the local funky cafes that would be at home in the inner city suburbs of Sydney. Was the most modern place I visited in the Middle East, I think.

    1. I agree that it is quite modern, especially in West Amman. Like any city, the patchwork of different areas taken together are part of what makes it so enticing. It’s got the older downtown core and the more affluent suburbs. The difference being that in the West public transportation would be set up to handle the infrastructure sprawl (usually, at least) whereas getting around Amman remains more chaotic than not. All part of the adventure :)

  2. We also really loved the downtown area of Amman – the spice shops, markets, friendly people and street food. The small taste of the city that we got on our Jordan trip made me want to spend a lot more time there. My Peace Corps buddy has a flat in the downtown area with a view of the Citadel for something like $350/month – told him to let me know when he leaves and maybe we’ll take it over :)

  3. Jodi, wow, great post. Beautifully written, great photos, and I appreciate the sentiment and your willingness to explore. I often gravitate towards cities for similar reasons. Many people don’t allow themselves a chance to like it. Their first impression is jarring and after that they simply shut themselves off to the idea. A lot of people go to East Africa for safari trips. Typically, they land in Nairobi and before having a chance to see the city they are whisked off to some safari lodge. Their impression of Nairobi will likely involve traffic and diesel fumes. But if they take their time, explore the city, eat some food, talk to people, their impression will be much different. Anyways, you have definitely sold me on Amman :)
    Take care,

    1. Thank you Phil. I agree that you can’t just rock up and expect to like a big city – it often takes a bit of reconnaissance work to get a feel for what it’s truly like, and get past the dirt and the noise. But, like you, I think it matters to get a clear picture of where you’re traveling. Hope you’re well in Mali!

  4. Nice writeup. I wholeheartedly agree that cities hold a magical allure, teeming with people and their lives and stories. And Jordan of course holds a key advantage over most countries in the region, namely that you can go there and not get killed (at least for now). It’s a shame Damascus is off limits at the moment.

    How good is the locals’ English by the way?

    1. I actually met a group of Argentines who had come from Damascus (we crossed paths while at the dead sea). But I doubt insurance would cover you :)

      English was much more common than I expected, actually.

  5. Jeremy Branham

    Jodi, what a beautiful city! It seems they picked a great ambassador when they chose you to come to Jordan and share your thoughts and impressions on this country.

    It’s amazing to think what a role bloggers can play. Can we actually play a role in peace and unity in the Middle East? While a bit laughable at the undertaking of a task this big and meaningful, I’d like to think you, Shannon, and others have take a small step forward in doing so.

    While I haven’t read your blog for as long as others, I have to say this is the best written post you’ve ever done.

    1. Thank you Jeremy! It’s definitely an innovative programme and also interesting for me to see how people I know and follow as they travel write about the same places I’ve seen, but in their own voices. Taken together, it’s a really great cross-section of memories from Jordan. I’m glad you enjoyed the post.

  6. Beautiful Jodi!

    We were in Amman for three nights and really enjoyed it too and since most of the people of Jordan live in Amman I agree it does tell you a lot about this diverse country. We saw it at the end of our 10 days and loved experiencing it after Wadi Rum, Dead Sea, Petra etc …and watching Laurence of Arabia while in Amman…especially seeing the Citidel and grasping the amazing history.

    I think rural areas and small towns around the world suit families ( and boomers who have mellowed from city slickers to country folks as they aged) more than cities, but we enjoy exploring cities too and the cultural advantages and wisdom they give.

    Glad we got to do a breakfast meeting while in Jordan..too short..maybe next year in Asia! ;)

  7. Gorgeous writing and wonderful photos. I know just what you mean about passing history every day like that. I tend to think I could never take it for granted if I lived somewhere history was so immediate! I swear when you touch old stones or buildings you are connecting to the universe and all that went before! OK that sounds mushy, but it always gives me goosebumps.

    You know how, if you love travel, there isn’t anywhere you wouldn’t go, but some places are more enticing than others? Even with all that Petra has to offer Jordan has never been that high on my list, but you have changed that with this post. Cities, I guess, are truly where “real life” is to be found.

    1. Thank you Linda. It doesn’t sound mushy, it’s true – that connection is a special thing and I think something we should all keep in mind when we travel. Jordan was definitely somewhere I wanted to go, but more for the food than for Petra or Amman. Instead, happily, I’ve found I enjoyed the whole package and would seriously consider going back for a few months. I’m glad that my enthusiasm comes through in these posts.

  8. Maria Alexandra

    Try Cairo, Egypt – now THAT’S a REAL challenge!! I remember crossing the street was like playing “Frogger”!! (and yes, please do research Frogger if you have never played it!)

  9. Beautifully written, Jodi. Amman sounds like such a mesmerizing place.
    One of the best things about travel is the connections we make. I’m still amazed by how strongly I feel a certain places -even after years have passed. Although I have yet to explore Amman (or anywhere in the Middle East), I plan to go. Someday.
    Thanks for sharing.

    1. Thank you, Pam. I wish I had more time to explore Amman, but with only 10 days in Jordan there was much more to be seen! It’s true that certain places, even those we connected with fleetingly, stay with us – even years later. As I say to those who ask me why I haven’t yet gone to X place: “time is finite and I’m not dead yet” – you’ll get there someday! :) See you in Vancouver in June!

  10. Great post on Amman! I found the city to be fascinating. I loved the all-white buildings and the ancient ruins that are right in town. I didn’t have much time to explore the city, but I’ll be back.

  11. Pingback: The Many Sides Of Amman, Jordan – history, markets, and more — TravelBark

  12. Jodi, Great post. As you, I’ve been a frequent traveler to Thailand and other SE Asian countries, with only one one trip to the Middle East (Egypt) about 10 years ago. Your post has inspired me to venture out to the Middle East again. Thanks! John R.

  13. Pingback: Sunset in Wadi Rum, Jordan | Legal Nomads

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