The Is and the Was

July 12, 2017

I don't recognize downtown Amman. I can guess when we arrive, the city's two skyscrapers aren't conspicuous land marks, but I don't know the area because it is not immersive. The puns on billboards are in English, the bathrooms all have toilet paper. For the first time, I am truly living abroad, outside the tourist scene. But what is being abroad if you don't fall into a tourist trap or see that one monument that dominated your entire knowledge of the nation before you arrived. Or take a cheesy jumping picture.


There is a balance. Immerse yourself in the real always, but don't forget that some spaces are known for a reason.


Petra, the Dead Sea, those are Jordan's synonyms. But for Amman, the can't misses are the Amman Citadel and the Roman Amphitheater. Class five times a week and our extensive family visiting regimen leaves little room for sightseeing, so our NSLI-Y group knocked out both in a day. If you want attractions to be more than Instagram worthy, to be meaningful, do your research. Know what you are seeing. We started our day at the Jordan Museum where even the most mundane of objects in the most dimly lit corner case turned out to be a revolutionary archaeological discovery. There were bones and clothes and copper scrolls, and a room on linguistic history that our group geeked out in for half an hour (There was a chronological wall map of language development from hieroglyphics to the modern Perso-Arabic Alphabet and a computer setup that allowed you to print your name in Nabataean. It was so cool.). The museum showcased a small desert nation in all its unearthed glory, a reminder of where civilization began.


History fresh in mind, we headed to the Amman Citadel. Like every important thing in this city, its on the top of a hill: Jebel al-Qala'a. First note: This place is big. You will see pictures of the Temple of Hercules, four pillars and a digit-less marble hand are all that remain of the Roman religious forum. But this sight dates back to the Bronze Age. There is a palace complex from the Umayyad rule. It is easy to pretend that you are visiting some failed landscaping project, surrounded by crumbling retaining walls and an occasional block of forgotten marble. But you know better, right? There was that museum. You know that that block of marble was a piece, to a statue or a pillar or maybe just an unhewn block of marble in a courtyard. Build out from there. Imagine the walls rising up, proud on the top of a hill above a supposedly empty desert. See the great domed receiving hall because overcompensating for guests seems to have no historical beginning or current end. Now fill in the people. After all, they lived here. Imagine diversity: age, class, origin, each self-occupied. 


Later, sitting at the top of the Roman Theatre, a slight breeze, a waning sun, it seems the city hasn't much changed. Hundreds of years ago people sat on the same steep stone steps, towering over an open desert, looking for community. Take away the toilets, add some togas, and Amman is living history. What a beautiful thing.




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