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Friday, November 7, 2014

11/2 & 3: Gold Shopping, Roman Ruins & Border Hopping in Amman, Jordan

We had originally planned to spend an extra day in Petra but had changed our plans about a week ago and were relieved when we realized that the two days had been quite sufficient. On the 2st, we got up early as we needed to get the 8:30 local bus to Jordan’s capital city of Amman – no chariot awaited us this time unfortunately to drive us door to door! Instead the mini bus ride - on which I was the only female of 22 passengers – only cost us a measly 7JD each, about $10, for the 3 hour ride. I loved the bus rides this whole trip as it meant my being able to spend the time writing down the text for the blog posts on a Word document to be saved until I had a wifi connection.

Upon arrival at the Bus Station, we got a taxi for only 5JD for the pretty lengthy ride in heavily congested traffic to the Sydney Hotel, located very close to the downtown core at the 1st Circle. Amman, in my mind, should be nicknamed the ‘City of Circles’ as shops, sights etc are all referenced by their location to a specific traffic circle. We had come to Amman not to see its wondrous sights as there are, quite frankly, not a whole lot of beauteous things in the capital, but as a way station back to Israel via the border crossing about an hour west of the capital.
The restaurant at the Rocky Mountain Hotel in Petra, Jordan.
We had originally planned to arrive in Amman a day later but Steven was very apprehensive about how much time it might take crossing from the King Hussein Bridge (as the Jordanians call the border crossing or the Allenby Bridge as it’s referred to by the Israelis) to Israel near Jerusalem. He had read online about tourists having experienced horror stories with border crossings taking up to 8 hours or even the border suddenly being closed altogether for no apparent reason by the Israeli government. 

Steven had suggested that we give Amman a pass altogether because of the potential issue with the border crossing but I insisted on our spending one full day in Amman. Darlene, you may have guessed part of my reasoning! He wanted us to build in an extra day so that if there were a problem, we could travel all the way to the southern Jordanian border city of Aqaba, then cross over to the Israeli city of Eilat and then go north all the way back up to Jerusalem. What a nightmare that would be but I give credit to Steven for insisting we have that extra day ‘just in case.’
 I had done my research on Amman and knew that prices for gold jewelry in Amman are some of the cheapest in the world. Not only is there a constant, massive demand in Jordan for gold used in marriage dowries, but workmanship is charged by weight here which is very ‘economical’ by world standards. The upshot is that it’s well nigh impossible to find the same quality of gold outside Jordan for less than three or four times the Amman price. In the Downtown Gold Souk, which just happened to be a 10 minute walk from our hotel, we could expect to pay just a few measly dinars per gram for finished pieces in 21 carat gold.

So, after again dumping our bags at the hotel before the official check in time, we wandered down toward the Gold Souk with my dreaming of what I just might want! We looked at a number of small shops, all located within a couple of blocks of each other, each displaying row upon row of shiny gold jewelry in their windows for all passersby to admire and drool over. Almost all the designs were incredibly ornate and even ostentatious according to our sensibilities but were obviously a style favored by Arab women. After much deliberation and haggling, I bought a pair of earrings for myself as well as a necklace and a pair of earrings for a friend. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that you’ll love both items, Darlene, as much as I do!
Hearing from afar the Muslim Call to Prayers being amplified over the neighborhood’s public address system, assured us we had to close to the Al Husnyi Mosque so we walked over there. It was closed to non Muslims then though but it was interesting to see, through the arched doorways, just men praying to Allah. If there were a separate women’s section, we didn’t see one at all.
Guidebooks call Amman the stereotype of a Middle Eastern city loud with traffic and voices, Arabic music blaring from storefronts and having an ‘unmissable street life.’ But for us, the entire downtown Amman area is not a peaceful, serene, or attractive place to be in any way particularly for foreigners. The constant roar of honking horns by impatient drivers wanting, in vain, to advance a few feet on narrow streets not originally envisioned for so many vehicles competing for space, made for an unsettling experience. Taxis, we found out, make up 25% of all cars in Amman. It wasn’t surprising that very few of the vehicles weren’t banged up as the level of driver courtesy and general rules of the road we’re accustomed to was noticeably absent in Amman. I pity new car owners in the city as I can’t envision any cars being dent free for any time at all.
Wanting to get away from all that madness, we ‘escaped’ into the market area on one of the side streets but the noise level and the feeling of being was little better there. But at least the sights of the fresh produce were better! I wonder what the huge leaves are inthe photo below.

Then, consulting our tour information, we walked over to the Roman ruins that have survived and intentionally incorporated into the everyday bustle of the city. Approaching from King Talal St., we first encountered the huge Roman Theater cut into a depression in the hillside and built between 169 and 177 AD during the reign of Marcus Aurelius, for an audience of almost 6,000 people. I read that, just like at the Theater in Ephesus, Turkey, the theater has incredible acoustics. A person can stand in ONE spot in the center of the Orchestra and speak in a normal voice and will suddenly hear a penetrating echo. If you step off that spot, there’s no echo.

We walked past the long Corinthian Colonnade in front of the Theater to the remains of Philadelphia’s Forum or marketplace.

Photos of the Forum.

Saw a number of what could be called antique sewing machines on the street used by tailors.

Then we just wandered the streets for a bit peering through darkened doorways of antique stores, souvenir shops and small take out restaurants. At that point, we didn’t have much time or energy to climb all the way to Jabal Al Qal’a or Citadel Hill so we paid a taxi driver just 2JD to take us to the top. Neither of us realized until we got out of the taxi, that the entire complex had shut down at 3:30, 20 minutes earlier. I spoke to a number of Tourist Police officers pleading that we still be allowed entry as were leaving their beautiful country the next day, etc, etc and we thankfully gained entrance! Luckily a tour group was there too so it’s not as if the area was kept open just for us.

I was so thrilled not to have missed out on walking on Citadel Hill that had been a focus of human settlement since the Paleolithic Age more than 18,000 years ago. We first came across the Temple of Hercules whose towering columns were visible from downtown and, from the Hill, were dramatically silhouetted against the sky. The Temple, built at the same time as the Roman Theater, stands on a monumental staircase which formerly led up from the lower city. From the Temple as sunset was approaching, we had striking panoramic views over the city.

When we reached the remains of a large Umayyad Mosque and saw the guard closing the gates for the day, we again hit ‘pay dirt’ when the guards so kindly allowed us to peek inside for a few minutes. How incredibly fortunate we were.

The huge Umayyad Palace complex, which stretches over the northern part of the hill, was built over pre-existing Roam structures and an entire colonnaded Roman street was incorporated into it. Built around 730, when Amman was a provincial capital, the complex probably combined the governor’s residential quarters with administrative offices.

We quickly climbed the path from the Temple of Hercules to a small ruined Byzantine Church dating from the 5th or 6th centuries which reused many of the columns of the nearby temple. The church formed part of a Byzantine town which probably covered much of Citadel Hill.

A view of the mosque from Byzantine Church.
Panoramic views of Amman from Citadel Hill.

A view of the Roman Theater from Citadel Hill.
After taking more photos of the setting sun over the Temple of Hercules, we took a taxi to the bottom of the hill and walked back to the hotel, grabbing a shwarma at a tiny restaurant on the way. 
Later that night, we tried to find nearby Rainbow St. that I had read about but gave up after climbing flights of stairs, some of which were crumbling, and still not discovering it.The next morning, 11/3, we returned to the Gold Souk looking at several stores until I found a second pair of gorgeous drop earrings that was different from anything I’ve seen in the States. 

Steven the Navigator was able to get us to Rainbow St. pretty easily in the light of day but we both agreed that in the end there sure wasn’t much there of interest.
Photos of our walk down Rainbow St.

Sugar cane stalks
Arab men wear these long coats in cold weather over their caftans.
We had arranged through the hotel for a taxi to take us to the border crossing, located about an hour west of Amman, at noon fearing it may well take us the rest of the afternoon at least to cross over because of the incredibly stringent Israeli security. We had been warned by the Abraham Hostel in Jerusalem that the Israeli government often shuts down the border altogether with no warning at the slightest hint of any possible conflict. That was what we feared the most. 
 Scenes driving from Amman east to the border with Israel.

Most of the delivery trucks in Amman were gaily decorated just like these unlike trucks we’d seen in other Jordanian cities.

I should have taken this photo before this showing a solid line of trucks lining up for at least a mile waiting to cross the border. Once through the formalities on the Jordamian side, we had to get into a shuttle to drive us the 8km through the no man's land to the Israeli border and the lines there. We only received our passports from the Jordanian authorities once we were on the shuttle which was a tad unnerving not having them in our hot little hands the whole time.
But once again, Lady Luck was on our side and we sailed ‘right through’ with the process only taking an hour. Believe me the hour crossing the border seemed quite long and tedious especially being asked to show our passports about a half dozen times. To think what it could have been made us heave a huge sigh of relief though. The craziest thing was that it only took us two hours from the time we left our hotel to be back in Israel BUT we then had to wait 90 minutes for the shuttle to fill up before we could leave for the 30 minute drive into Jerusalem

The infamous wall built by Israel separating the country from Palestine

 Probably not the smartest thing to do to take photos as we crossed the border, especially one as volatile as the Israeli/Jordan one!
What a relief getting back to the Abraham Hostel, above and below, even if we were bunking down in a 4 bed dorm for the next 2 nights.

We only had one roommate the 1st night, the lovely Bianca, 26, from Bamberg, Germany who had previously spent a year on a work exchange all over Australia before spending another  year traveling by herself in S.E. Asia. She and I spent hours chatting about her travels, life and the world around us. Again, we hope that we’ll see Bianca in Colorado someday soon if/when she makes it stateside.

Steven and I were sad saying good bye to Jordan as we both felt that the Jordanians were the friendliest and most welcoming of people we had encountered all trip. Everyone we seemed to come into contact with from Aqaba in the south to the guides in Wadi Rum to those in the capital city of Amman, either on the street as we passed them by or when we stopped to ask directions or in the stores and markets and especially the taxi drivers made a point of saying ‘Welcome to Jordan.’ It didn’t matter that of course we didn’t speak Arabic or even if they spoke little English, they were always willing to help us. The people of Turkey were a distant second but only when viewed in comparison to the outgoing Jordanians.