Amman’s amazing citadel: A cluster of culture in the Jordanian capital

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Updated 07 July 2018
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Amman’s amazing citadel: A cluster of culture in the Jordanian capital

  • I might not like Amman’s choice of adhan orchestration, but the city’s citadel, smack in the middle of modern Amman and littered with ancient ruins, I do like. 
  • The Umayyad Monumental Gateway once led to a stunning palace from which Islam’s earliest dynasty ruled over Amman. The palace is in ruins now, but the impressive gateway offers a glimpse into the beginnings of Islam’s very first artistic movement.

LONDON: “Listen!” Mahdi Hanini, our guide, has both hands outstretched as the faint cry of “God is Great” quickly increases in proximity and volume, enveloping Amman — the capital city of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. 

“Amman is the only city in Jordan where you will hear the voice of just one muezzin,” he says.

We listen, spellbound. Sure enough, a split-second delay is all that separates the same voice calling out the maghreb adhan from one minaret after another, as the sky slowly turns a crimson red with the setting of the sun.

Hanini explains that the call starts at the King Abdullah I “Blue” mosque where the country’s “most-famous” muezzin makes the call, which is then transmitted to every other mosque in the city — hence the fractional real-time delay. The aim is to synchronize the exact time of prayer.

It’s certainly a phenomenal experience listening to the adhan set to a 360-degree-panorama of Amman — as the melodic voice cascades into the valley of houses and bounces through downtown Amman, off the ancient walls of the 6,000 seat amphitheater and odeon, and past the old Roman road, still as straight as an arrow — but I am not sure I like it. I still prefer the chorus of a multitude of muezzins. There’s something magical about the sound of several adhans all imperfectly following one another, something raw, and very real.

I might not like Amman’s choice of adhan orchestration, but the city’s citadel, smack in the middle of modern Amman and littered with ancient ruins, I do like. 

The modest L-shaped mound, the highest point in town, offers the most wonderful snapshot of Jordan’s vast cultural heritage in one tiny area. Much of it has been mapped inside the country’s oldest museum, the Jordan Archaeological Museum, using a host of exhibits and smaller artefacts. It too is atop the citadel, but the real fun is outside, literally on the museum’s doorstep. 

Here three huge, beautifully carved stone fingers — the remnants of a giant hand — and an elbow lie discarded in the shade of several Corinthian pillars that have seen better days. They were once all part of a temple dedicated to the Roman hero, Hercules, The limbs belonged to a colossal statue of him back in the middle of the second century CE. 

Along with the giant oyster-like amphitheater that dominates central Amman, the Temple of Hercules is the most visible reminder of the city’s Roman period, which began in 63 BCE. Before that, Amman, as the name suggests, was the capital of the Ammonites, an ancient race that lived close to the Jordan River. At that time, the city — founded in the 13th century BCE — was known as ‘Rabbath Ammon’ and was a part of the important trading route now known as the King’s Highway.

Few remnants of the Ammonites have survived at the citadel, where the most impressive monument dates from the beginning of the Islamic period.

The Umayyad Monumental Gateway once led to a stunning palace from which Islam’s earliest dynasty ruled over Amman. The palace is in ruins now, but the impressive gateway — dating back to the 8th century CE — offers a glimpse into the beginnings of Islam’s very first artistic movement. Byzantine inspiration is clear in the cross-shaped layout of the hall and carved arcades with geometric patterns held aloft by romanesque pillars on the walls — an early take on the horseshoe arch synonymous with Umayyad architecture across the globe. The greatest Christian legacy though, is a reconstruction of a huge wooden dome over the hall. This acknowledges the Umayyads were the first Muslims to experiment with the dome in their designs, a feature that would dominate later Islamic architecture but traces its roots back to Christian monuments.

Close by are the ruins of an actual Byzantine church and later Ottoman buildings. Both are a part of Amman’s fascinating cultural makeup, as is much of this hilltop where visitors can also hear one of the most unique adhans anywhere in the Muslim world, even if they don’t necessarily like it. 


Mass tourism threatens Croatia’s ‘Game of Thrones’ town

Updated 21 September 2018
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Mass tourism threatens Croatia’s ‘Game of Thrones’ town

DUBROVNIK, Croatia: Marc van Bloemen has lived in the old town of Dubrovnik, a Croatian citadel widely praised as the jewel of the Adriatic, for decades, since he was a child. He says it used to be a privilege. Now it’s a nightmare.
Crowds of tourists clog the entrances to the ancient walled city, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, as huge cruise ships unload thousands more daily. People bump into each other on the famous limestone-paved Stradun, the pedestrian street lined with medieval churches and palaces, as fans of the popular TV series “Game of Thrones” search for the locations where it was filmed.
Dubrovnik is a prime example of the effects of mass tourism, a global phenomenon in which the increase in people traveling means standout sites — particularly small ones — get overwhelmed by crowds. As the numbers of visitors keeps rising, local authorities are looking for ways to keep the throngs from killing off the town’s charm.
“It’s beyond belief, it’s like living in the middle of Disneyland,” says van Bloemen from his house overlooking the bustling Old Harbor in the shadows of the stone city walls.
On a typical day there are about eight cruise ships visiting this town of 2,500 people, each dumping some 2,000 tourists into the streets. He recalls one day when 13 ships anchored here.
“We feel sorry for ourselves, but also for them (the tourists) because they can’t feel the town anymore because they are knocking into other tourists,” he said. “It’s chaos, the whole thing is chaos.”
The problem is hurting Dubrovnik’s reputation. UNESCO warned last year that the city’s world heritage title was at risk because of the surge in tourist numbers.
The popular Discoverer travel blog recently wrote that a visit to the historic town “is a highlight of any Croatian vacation, but the crowds that pack its narrow streets and passageways don’t make for a quality visitor experience.”
It said that the extra attention the city gets from being a filming location for “Game of Thrones” combines with the cruise ship arrivals to create “a problem of epic proportions.”
It advises travelers to visit other quaint old towns nearby: “Instead of trying to be one of the lucky ones who gets a ticket to Dubrovnik’s sites, try the delightful town of Ohrid in nearby Macedonia.”
In 2017, local authorities announced a “Respect the City” plan that limits the number of tourists from cruise ships to a maximum of 4,000 at any one time during the day. The plan still has to be implemented, however.
“We are aware of the crowds,” said Romana Vlasic, the head of the town’s tourist board.
But while on the one hand she pledged to curb the number of visitors, Vlasic noted with some satisfaction that this season in Dubrovnik “is really good with a slight increase in numbers.” The success of the Croatian national soccer team at this summer’s World Cup, where it reached the final, helped bring new tourists new tourists.
Vlasic said that over 800,000 tourists visited Dubrovnik since the start of the year, a 6 percent increase from the same period last year. Overnight stays were up 4 percent to 3 million.
The cruise ships pay the city harbor docking fees, but the local businesses get very little money from the visitors, who have all-inclusive packages on board the ship and spend very little on local restaurants or shops.
Krunoslav Djuricic, who plays his electric guitar at Pile, one of the two main entrances of Dubrovnik’s walled city, sees the crowds pass by him all day and believes that “mass tourism might not be what we really need.”
The tourists disembarking from the cruise ships have only a few hours to visit the city, meaning they often rush around to see the sites and take selfies to post to social media.
“We have crowds of people who are simply running,” Djuricic says. “Where are these people running to?“