Thursday, November 19, 2015


After spending a few hours on top of one of Amman's seven hills at the Citadel, we drove into the valley and got an up-close look at the spectacular 2nd century AD amphitheater that we had seen from above.  It seats 6,000 and is thoughtfully oriented towards the north to provide minimum sun exposure for patrons:
We had noticed the green, plastic-looking dome of this mosque from the Citadel. We wish we could have gotten closer:
With a population of four million, and with the basic layout of the city centuries old, traffic in Amman is just what you would expect: horrible.
Amman is considered one of the most liberal and westernized cities in the Middle East, and we saw evidence of that, along with some things we would never see in the West, such as the raw meat hanging up in the butcher shop window:

From the Citadel we had noticed a large, black-and-white striped mosque perched on one of the city's hills:
It turned out to be the mosque our guide Isam, a liberal Sunni Muslim, was hoping to take us to: the Abu Darwish mosque. Built in 1961 on the highest of Amman's seven hills, this mosque was designed and funded by a Jordanian (named Abu Darwish) who was born in the Caucasus area between the Black and Caspian Seas. It reflects Syrian architecture and was built by Palestinians workers from a village near Jerusalem.
It's kind of an odd comparison, but the black stripes of this mosque reminded me of the similarly striped cathedral in Siena, Italy:
Photo from our trip to Italy in December 2001.
Interior of the church, December 2001
Bob had been hounding our guide about getting inside a mosque, something we had done during previous trips to Turkey, Bosnia, Kosovo, and Albania. However, I think we were a little naive about religious tension in the Middle East. Since coming home and reading other travelers' reports, I have discovered that Christian foreigners just don't go inside the mosques.

Nevertheless, Bob's persistence paid off, and Isam led us across a large open square to an administrative building where we waited while he went inside the mosque to negotiate our visit.
We admired the many patterns on the mosque, which felt like a building out of Alice in Wonderland or the "It's a Small World" ride at Disneyland:
We waited through the prayer time, and then for the mosque to empty out, and by the time we crossed the square again, the gate had a padlock on it, but Isam was able to wave to someone who let us in. 

We were surprised by how small and simple it was inside, especially given the grand exterior. We all removed our shoes, and we women covered our heads with scarves we had brought along that day just in case we actually got to go inside a mosque.

There was an ante-room with the customary station for washing/cleansing:
Isam introduced us to the mosque's sheikh, or the Muslim cleric for this Sunni mosque. He gave us permission to take pictures.
The outer room was followed by another small room with a nicely decorated mihrab, which indicates the direction of Mecca, to which Muslims orient themselves when they pray:
I like the electronic board at the right that gives the city-wide times for the call to prayer. We recalled being in Instanbul where it is not quite so coordinated, and different mosques would start their calls at slightly different times, making for some interesting dissonance. Here everyone uses the same recorded call that is blasted from the minaret at the same time.

The plush rug echoed the shape of the mihrab, and it occurs to me that these sections of carpet do not just create spaces for kneeling individuals, but that they also symbolically represent a doorway to . . . . heaven? Mecca? Something. 
Our guide translated as the sheikh spoke with us. They both stressed that he is not referred to as an "imam," a word that has a negative connotation for many of us. The sheikh (and our guide at other times) stressed that the Muslim community of Jordan is liberal Sunni. He said our enemy is not them but the radical Shi'a groups. The sheikh asked us if we thought he looked like a terrorist, and we replied that he did not. He stressed that the Koran is against killing and is for acceptance of all religions. He noted that there is even a verse in the Koran about Mary and the virgin birth. Muslims accept the birth of Jesus but not his death. The sheikh told us that they believe the man on the cross was someone who looked like Jesus but wasn't him as God would never allow His Son to suffer and die in that horrible way because he loves him too much. I was moved by that thought, but I was simultaneously reminded that the fact that God did allow Jesus to be crucified indicates His love for us as well as for His Son.

After talking for a while, the sheikh offered to take us "upstairs," which ended up being the main room of the mosque. Unlike the closed-in lower floor, this room had soaring ceilings and an interior view of the dome. As far as mosques go, it was fairly plain, but there was something about the simplicity that was appealing.

Note the mihrab (the brown door facing Mecca) and minbar (the red steps leading to a green podium) on the wall behind him:
Whoever is preaching or addressing the worshipers stands in the minbar at the top of the steps:
The decoration above the mihrab was very simple, but I couldn't help but think of a 1960s flip hair-do when I looked at it:
Muslims do not generally use representational art to decorate their mosques, but rely on patterns and words. Arabic script is quite picturesque:
Various names for Allah were on display, written in a way that evokes order and harmony:
It was a wonderful experience to have a little private tour of this mosque, and we were grateful to the sheikh for spending time with us. He sent us away with a smile and a few pamphlets about Islam. We felt like honored guests.

On a related note, as we traveled around town we would ask Isam various questions about Islam. At some point Bob asked him if he had been to Mecca. Isam told us a story about how a few years ago he had begun to lose weight for no reason. He went from 90 kg to 60 kg (about 200 pounds to 132 pounds). Medical tests gave no explanation, and every day he felt a little weaker. His sister encouraged him to go to Mecca and drink the water. He did and quickly began to recover, and soon he regained all his weight and strength. He kept saying, "Swear to God! What I tell you is true! It happened to me!"

From the mosque we headed down a hill that made San Francisco's grades seem like gentle slopes:
Note the building on top of the hill on the top right of the picture below. That's part of the Citadel, where we had started the tour of Amman. Also note the roof-top satellites and water barrels. I was impressed by similar water storage all over Israel, Egypt, and Jordan. It is something we drought-stricken Californians could learn from:
Our next stop was the Balad, the old town market squeezed into the narrow valley that ran among the hills of the city. This was another place Bob had to talk hard to get placed on our itinerary. It's definitely not a place Isam customarily takes his tours.  He kept suggesting the upscale shopping area of town, but Bob had done is homework and was determined that we wanted to see the Balad, the "real" shopping area of Amman.

Every country on our trip had some kind of spice market. Rather than being tourist shops, however, these shops in Amman were full of locals buying bags of various kinds of spices. Many of the spices weren't even labeled:
The row of spices below is all different kinds of thyme. I didn't know there is more than one kind. Isn't thyme thyme?
I'd love to have a hotel room with a kitchen somewhere nearby and spend a week trying out all these interesting options:

There were a few things that were familiar, such as Lindt, Milka, Snickers, and Reese's chocolate bars and Trident gum, and of course every country these days seems to have a lottery of some kind:

We loved the crazy hustle and bustle of the market, the noisy crowds of Ammanians (Ammanites?), the honking horns, the shops that ranged from hardware stores to baby furniture. Unlike the markets in Egypt and Israel, this one was smack dab in the middle of the busiest traffic of the city, and crossing the street meant risking our lives. In fact, Isam was very careful about taking us across the street together.

At one point in our walk, Isam stopped at a display of used shoes. He quickly picked out a pair of fancy, pointy-toed Italian-looking men's dress shoes that looked brand new, paid for them (without trying them on), and started walking again. The whole transaction took about two minutes. We could tell we were in his stomping grounds.

I'm not sure what this billboard was selling, but it did a good job catching my attention:
Our brisk walk took us past the Grand Husseini Mosque, built by King Abdullah I (grandfather of the current king) in 1924 on the site of a mosque built in 640 AD that was long gone:
We really, really wanted to go inside, but Isam was emphatic in his denial. The brickwork, though less dramatic than the zebra stripes of the Abu Darwish mosque, was just as beautiful, and from the glimpse we caught through the three front entrances, the interior appeared to be much more ornate:
I love these soaring minarets, the possible inspiration for Christian church spires (according to our guide in Israel):
We stopped for some fresh juice at one of the small shops that Isam frequently visits and had a concoction of orange, banana, and a third fruit that I can't remember. Places like Jamba Juice in the United States are a poor imitation of the nectar we drank in Amman:

Aren't these dresses stunning? I'd like to know how much they cost:

There is something for everyone in the Balad--a store for me on the left, and one for Bob on the right:
It's a good thing we had Places to Go and Things to See and didn't have time to stop.

This was a nice corner bookstore--no Barnes and Noble in sight. I recognized several of the book jackets, including Walter Isaacson's Einstein on the third row, Hitler's Mein Kampf a couple rows below that, I Am Malala bottom row center, and Hillary Clinton's Hard Choices just one row up and to the right of Malala.
We were on our way to this alley. While it may not look particularly auspicious, it is home to one of the best desserts I have ever tasted, and certainly the best we had on our entire trip. The little shop in this alley, Habibah, attracts long lines of locals. Established in 1948, it now has at least three other locations.

Habibah is a sweet shop that includes, among other things, this tasty baklava:
. . . and while the baklava was good, what people were lining up for was the knafeh, a dessert made in a large round pan and consisting of a sweet, silky cheese base topped with some kind of shredded pastry, drenched in syrup, and sprinkled with pistachios:
It's creme brulee on steroids:
There is no real seating in the alley. We all just stood around and stuffed our faces. Maybe this is what manna tasted like and is why the Israelites could eat it every day for forty years.
After knafeh in the Balad, anything else was going to be a let-down, but we had to keep going. We had a few extra thousand calories to walk off.

(Psst. We recently attended an open house at the local Islamic Center, where we met a man from Jordan. It came out that we had just visited Jordan, and in our conversation we told him we had eaten at Habibah, a place he knew well. He told us there is an excellent knafeh place in Anaheim. We're going there. Soon.)

We finally gave in to our guide and let him take us to Rainbow Street, an affluent area of Amman. As we got closer, even the graffiti took on a more upscale appearance:

There was one shop that was especially appealing--no, not the money exchange and Western Union place on the left. If we hadn't just filled our bellies with fruit juices and then with copious amounts of knafeh, that ice cream shop on the right would have had eight customers.
In the Middle East, one must live as Mark Twain suggested:
“We do not get ice-cream every where, and so, when we do, we are apt to dissipate to excess. We never cared any thing about ice-cream at home, but we look upon it with a sort of idolatry now that it is so scarce in these red-hot climates of the East.”   
(From Innocents Abroad)

Christian faiths in a country that is 94% Muslim do not get the beautiful churches that they are used to having in the States:
As we walked along Rainbow Street, we could see trendy rooftop restaurants just beginning to fill with customers:
. . . and families were still out and about, finishing up their shopping trips:
We had a sample of this sweet corn that was not like any sweet corn I've ever had before:
After a fabulous dinner at Reem al Bawadi Restaurant, which I covered in a previous post, our sightseeing was officially over. Our driver navigated the busy streets, past Popeye's (who would have guessed Popeye's is in Jordan) and McDonald's (which is everywhere):
. . . and dropped us off at the Queen Alia International Airport. We were returning home on different flights that left at 2:15 AM (Bob and I), 3:55 AM (the Jones and Haws couples), and 7:00 AM (the Vines). Luckily, someone mentioned to us that Daylight Savings Time was starting at 2:00, which made it tricky since our flight left at 2:15, a time that didn't technically exist that night, but we eventually got it worked out.

The time came to say good-bye to our fellow travelers:
This was our second Humongous Trip with these two, and they are some of our favorite travel companions.  The other two couples who joined us this time were also wonderful compadres. We'd go just about anywhere with these great friends.

I have just a few more words about our flight home. Why aren't hummus, seeds, vegetables, and crackers the standard airplane snack in the US? We should be eating this instead of icky packaged snacks:
Speaking of healthy snacks, we had a five-hour layover in Paris, where even the airport food is exceptional:
I had been missing my daily doses of dark chocolate. There just wasn't much chocolate where we had been. It was also wonderful to pick up a US newspaper:

Seventeen days and six hours after taking off from LAX, we were back in California.

". . . I had always believed that I left a bit of me wherever I went. I also believed that I took a bit of every place with me. I never felt that more than with this trip. It was as if the art of touching these places, walking these roads, and asking these questions had added another column to my being. And the only possible explanation I could find for that feeling was that a spirit existed in many of the places I visited, and a spirit existed in me and the two had somehow met in the course of my travels. It's as if the godliness of the land and the godliness of my being had fused."
                                                                            ~ Bruce Feiler, Walking the Bible 

Amen, Mr. Feiler.


  1. I'd completely forgotten Isam's miraculous story about his healing at Mecca. We so enjoyed this trip and the traveling with all of you. I hope we can do this again someday.

  2. Knafe, great, great dessert. All in all, I rate this trip as the best of our lifetime so far. The incredible history, the varying cultures, the tectonic collision of Christianity, Judaism and Islam, all made for a varying and fascinating experience.

  3. Sigh. I'm tired, now, as I read the decription of your last day, esp. your flight home in the wee hours of the night. Such a trip! Such an experience! Such a perfect ending quote. Thank you for this armchair trip to a place I'll most likely never go.