Missed the Islamic Dress Code Memo

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Middle East » Jordan » North » Amman
June 28th 2019
Published: June 29th 2019
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We’re still feeling very intimidated by this sprawling city and its seemingly grumpy residents, but we decide to be brave and head off to see some of the sights. Our confidence is not helped by the security guard manning the x-ray screening machines at the entrance to the hotel, who tells us as we leave to “be careful”.

We could see the Amman Citadel from the hotel window, and the ever reliable Google Maps told us that it was less than two kilometres away. What it failed to tell us was that Amman is built on a series of hills with deep valleys in between them. We climb the wrong hill, and then need to navigate a series of precipitously steep steps down that hill and then up the right hill on the other side of the valley. Even when we’re on the right hill the entrance to the Citadel is proving elusive. We climb some more narrow steps between some houses, and these lead us to a narrow track through some long grass. Suddenly and miraculously we find ourselves inside the site. We see the official entrance in the distance below us. It has a road leading up to it, and the part of the site near the road is surrounded by a very high and forbidding looking steel fence. The only way of getting past the fence is to pay an entrance fee at a ticket window. Somehow we’ve managed to avoid all this and stumble in for free. I can’t help but feel guilty. I consider going to the ticket window and confessing our crime, but I don’t want us to get arrested. Amman’s intimidating enough as it is without us experiencing it from inside a jail.

There are other western tourists here which feels slightly comforting. We were beginning to think that we might be Jordan’s only European visitors.

The Citadel, or Jabal Al-Qal’a, is on one of Amman’s seven hills, and is widely considered to be one of the oldest continuously occupied places on the planet. It comprises three main structures. The Temple of Hercules dates from the Roman occupation of Amman in the second century AD. The Umayyad Palace was built in the eighth century; its entry kiosk is still largely intact and its roof has been fully restored. The third structure is the remains of a Byzantine church on one side of the palace.

There are no barriers in place around any of the Citadel’s historic ruins, and tourists and locals are free to tramp all over them. Issy says that perhaps if your entire country is covered in priceless historic artifacts it doesn’t matter too much if a few of them get a bit trampled on from time to time.

We sneak casually out the front gate past the ticket collector and hope he doesn’t realise that we didn’t come in this way, and we then make our way down some more precipitously steep steps to the Roman Theatre in the valley below. The Theatre was cut into the side of the hill in the second century AD. It has a capacity of 6,000 and has been extensively restored. We’re told that concerts are held here regularly, and one will be held tomorrow night to mark the twentieth anniversary of King Abdullah II’s ascent to the throne.

Friday prayers are well underway, and it’s a bit hard to ignore the sermon being broadcast from the minarets of the nearby Grand Husseini Mosque in the centre of town. We wander into the fruit and vegetable souk next to the Mosque. Unlike a lot of other souks we’ve been to, this one isn’t flogging souvenirs and trinkets to unsuspecting tourists, so we’re not beset upon by any of the stall owners. I think they’ve worked out from our appearance, our clothes and the cameras around our necks that we’re probably not here to buy bags of potatoes. As we leave the souk by the lane closest to the Mosque our path is blocked by worshippers praying on large sheets of cardboard laid out across the alleyway. We are starting to feel very intrusive. The courtyard in front of the Mosque and the streets leading to it are blocked to traffic and the whole area is packed with neat lines of worshippers. Some have prayer mats, but most are just using the remains of large cardboard cartons to kneel on. It looks like the courtyard is usually used as a market too, and piles of new jeans and shoes lie on the ground between the lines of worshippers in readiness for the market to resume when the prayers finish.

We’re feeling more intrusive than ever, so we hail a taxi to take us back to the hotel. Our taxi driver doesn’t speak a lot of English, and he hasn’t heard of or doesn’t understand the name of our hotel. He stops and winds his window down when he passes random strangers standing on the footpath in the hope that they can translate for him, but to no avail. This is starting to feel very awkward. We’re just driving around randomly and the meter is still ticking. We then remember that we’ve downloaded a live map to one of our phones, so we’re able to guide him through the backstreets to the hotel. The whole experience of us guiding a taxi driver through a maze of streets in a sprawling city that we arrived in for the first time yesterday feels a bit surreal.

Our driver speaks enough English for him to tell us that he is originally from Jerusalem and has been in Jordan since 1967. We very much suspect that he was probably a refugee from the Six Day Arab Israeli War of that year. Jordan has apparently been very generous in opening its borders to millions of refugees from the region’s many recent conflicts. As well as Palestinians, it is currently home to around a million refugees from the Syrian conflict, and half a million Iraqi Christians who fled Isis. Our waiter at dinner last night asked us where we were from. When we told him Australia, he said that he was a Syrian and had been trying very hard but without success to get permission to migrate to our country. We told him we were very sorry. This all feels incredibly sad.

We have a brief dip in the hotel pool. Not that I take all that much notice, but the whole area surrounding the pool is draped with young Arab girls wearing skimpy bikinis. They are mostly accompanied by male companions, and there’s a lot more skin on display here than you’d see on Bondi Beach. This seems to be very much at odds with the very conservative coverall clothing that we see the vast majority of young Jordanian women wearing on the streets here. We wonder whether the pool girls didn’t get the latest Islamic dress code memo, or maybe they’re just part of the small minority of the country’s population that isn’t Muslim.

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2nd July 2019

We enjoyed Amman more than we thought we would. Rich in history.

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