Exploring Northern Jordan: Amman, Madaba, and Jerash

Known to the ancient Greeks as ‘Philadelphia’, Amman, Jordan’s capital, is full of ancient ruins, and authentic markets. I spent a month in Amman, studying Arabic, last January, and ventured down from Jordan University into the Wasat Balad (Amman’s old town center) every chance I got.

Below are some of my favorite spots, as well as the best sites in Amman, and day-trips within an hour by public transit. The nearby towns of Madaba and Jerash are not to be missed on a trip to Amman!

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Doves flying over Amman’s city center

Amman

The Souk

Near the oldest mosque in the city, the grand Jama Hussein, Amman’s souk (marketplace) is a true market experience. This is the place to stock up on dried and fresh fruit, especially dates and figs! The fresh plums and apricots are definitely some of the best I’d ever had, and there are also lots of homemade jams and preserves for sale which make great gifts and souvenirs.

The souk’s central location and inexpensive hot street food make it an excellent place to grab a snack. Make sure to try the manaqish, a Levantine flatbread topped with olive oil and fresh za’atar (thyme, sesame, and mixed mountain herbs).

For something sweet, try knafe, a sweet gooey cheese with phyllo dough, rosewater syrup and diced pistachios. There are dozens of delicately-made Arab desserts, but knafe is one of the most iconic deserts from the Jordan-Palestine region. (Post on Arabic sweets coming soon)

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Fresh fruit and vegetable in Amman’s main souk, near Jama Hussein

The large number of Palestinians, Yemenis, Syrians, and Somalis in Amman makes the city a cultural melting pot, with all kinds of different handmade goods, art, restaurants, pastries, and people from the Middle East and Africa.

In addition to the produce market, there is a gold/jewelry souk, and a clothing souk as well. Be sure to bargain, as prices in the souk depend solely on what you’re willing to pay. Jordan, in general, can be pricey, but the prices at the markets are the best in the city.

Amman Citadel and Roman Theatre

Amman’s two most notable ancient sites are the Citadel, and Roman Theatre, which are close to each other, and near the souk as well. Start here to get a foundation of Amman’s history, and a view over the city.

The Citadel is perched above the city, on the highest of Amman’s seven hills.

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The Temple of Hercules, Amman Citadel

Down below, the Roman Theatre and Nymphaeum (public bath and fountain) are also worth a visit. The massive theatre seats 6000, proof that Philadelphia was a sizeable city in its Roman heyday!

Rainbow Street (Shariya al-Rainbow)

This street and the surrounding area is a more expensive, ex-pat and hipster area with cafes, record stores, photo galleries, and antique bookshops. Hang out on Rainbow street long enough and you may catch wind of an underground party, or pop-up craft market coming soon.

Mosques

Amman’s mosques are small in comparison to other major Islamic cities, however, they are decorated with colorful tile and bricks, surrounded by hillside gardens, and are definitely worth a visit. While staying with my host family, we dressed in traditional clothing and went to a different mosque each Friday. Jordan was the first Middle-Eastern country I visited at the time, and it was a really valuable learning experience for me.

Atop Jebel al-Ashrafiya, the Abu Darwish mosque stands proudly in traditional striped brick. When I was at the Amman Citadel, I noticed it in the distance and decided to visit it. Walking up the hill from Jama Hussein, it took about an hour, but the views of the city and the Citadel are incredible.

 

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The surreal Abu Darwish mosque 

At the top, I met some really hospitable Jordanian guys who I spent the evening with, drinking coffee, smoking shisha, going to the mosque, and meeting their families. There aren’t usually tourists up here, so things are cheap and the people are genuine. I highly recommend visiting Abu Darwish not only for the mosque but for the views and interaction with the locals.

There are several other mosques worth visiting, but Abu Darwish was my favorite by far. I’d also recommend the Blue Mosque, al-Hussein mosque, and Jama Hussein, all of which allow non-muslims in. (At Abu Darwish, you’ll need to enter with a Jordanian if you’re a non-muslim. But if you’re interested in going inside, most mosque-goers will you invite you.)

 

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The Al-Hussein mosque at night

Day Trips from Amman

Jerash (1 hour away by bus)

The ancient Greco-Roman city of Gerasa is considered to be the best-preserved outside of Italy and Greece. In my opinion, visiting Gerasa, Jerash’s old city, was an even better experience.

 

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The old Greco-Roman plaza: Imagine it alive and full of merchants and horse-drawn carts!

 

There were very few tourists, so I spent several hours just wandering around the plazas, amphitheaters, Hippodrome, and wine cellars. The Corinthian columns are so well-preserved, it’s shocking.

There are traditional Jordanian bands who also play live shows in Gerasa, and a few times a year there are jousting matches. I did the dabke, a Levantine circle-dance, with some traditionally-clad workers while bagpipers played some folk tunes, it was a lot of fun.

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One of many somehow-still-standing doorways in Gerasa

 

Madaba (1 hour away by bus)

Only 1hr away from Amman via public transit, Madaba boasts Greek mosaic floor maps and historic churches. I visited for just one day, which was ample time to see the major sites before heading back to Amman.

Church of the Beheading of St. John the Baptist

The story goes that King Herod (son of Herod the Great) promised his step-daughter/niece Salome that for her birthday, she could have anything she wanted. Herod had recently married Herodias, Salome’s mother, who had previously been the wife of his brother Herod II (the Romans weren’t so creative with names).

Salome, under pressure from her mother, Herodius, told him that for her birthday, she wanted the head of Saint John the Baptist. John had recently been imprisoned for speaking out against their marriage, claiming Herod had stolen his brother’s wife.

So, John the Baptist was beheaded.

 

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View over Madaba from the tower of the Church of the Beheading of Saint John the Baptist

 

Saint John is thought to have greatly inspired and baptized Jesus, making him an important figure in Christianity and Islam, and leading to the building of the church in the late 1890’s. There are secret tunnels under the church, that guests are allowed to walk through. I pulled up water from an ancient underground well (Moabite era, roughly 3000 years old) and the water was ice cold and perfectly clean. There’s also a great view of the small city from the top of the tower!

Mount Nebo

A short cab ride from Madaba will take you up the mountain to the national park surrounding Mount Nebo. There is a church which houses a mosaic exhibit on top of the mountain. Entry to the exhibit is included in the small entry fee to the park.

In the Bible, it is said that as Moses was leading the Jewish people through the desert, he looked over Mount Nebo, and there he saw the Promised Land. On a clear day, you can even see the skyscrapers of Amman from Mount Nebo.

 

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View of ‘The Promised Land’

 

Jordan is another underrated but authentic and beautiful country to visit, rich in Biblical, Greek, Roman, and Arab history. A week in this country would be a perfect amount of time to see all of the major sites in Amman, Madaba, and Jerash, and also heading south, to spend some time in the desert. No trip is complete without visiting Wadi Rum and Petra!

Planning your trip

Before going to Jordan, look into getting a ‘JordanPass’, an $80-100 pass to all of Jordan’s major sites including Petra. The JordanPass also eliminates the need for a Jordanian visa-on-arrival. The price of Petra + visa fees alone is close enough to the price of the Jordan Pass that you may as well get it, even if you don’t have time to see everything!

I’d highly recommend staying in the old city at one of the hostels there, most of the sites and museums are concentrated in this area. The nicer hotels and homestays are a little outside of the old town, but still close enough. To get to the Wasat Balad from outside of the old town, you can take a shared taxi for just 50 cents.

If you have any questions or would like any help planning a trip to Jordan, feel free to contact me.

Thanks for reading! For more photos, follow me on Instagram @tristans_expeditions

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