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. 


The Phoenicia: A still-seductive reminder of Beirut’s golden age

The hotel was named Lebanon’s leading hotel for 2018 at the World Travel Awards. (Photo supplied)
Updated 21 July 2018
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The Phoenicia: A still-seductive reminder of Beirut’s golden age

  • For those in search of glamor, almost every night the wealthy, the stylish and the overdressed can be seen exiting luxury cars
  • The hotel’s immediate interior is dominated by marble pillars, plush armchairs, fountains and chandeliers

BEIRUT: Of all Beirut’s hotels it is the Phoenicia that looms largest in the imagination. Opulent, brash, sexy, seductive, it is a reminder of what was and what could have been.

It’s hard not to look favorably upon its delicately perforated façades and its shimmering blue and turquoise tiles. It somehow manages to maintain a sense of mystique, a sense of otherworldliness, despite the chaos that frequently unfolds around it.

Much of this, of course, is down to nostalgia. Opened in 1961 at the dawn of Beirut’s Golden Age, the singer Fayrouz performed here in 1962, as did the Egyptian dancer Nadia Gamal. Brigitte Bardot, Claudia Cardinale and Omar Sharif were guests, while the Lebanese beauty queen Georgina Rizk was photographed by the hotel’s oval-shaped pool in 1971.

In many ways the Phoenicia still clings to the remnants of its pre-war heyday, living as much in the past as it does in the present. When the hotel was resurrected from the ashes of civil war in 2000, it clutched much of its original design and character close to its chest, with a further $50 million refurbishment undertaken to mark the hotel’s 50th anniversary in 2011. It is the end result of this later refurbishment that is primarily on display today.

The hotel’s immediate interior is dominated by marble pillars, plush armchairs, fountains and chandeliers, and hovers dangerously close to the ostentatious. Elsewhere it borders on the dowdy or the old-fashioned. Yet a grand and elegant staircase continues to welcome visitors, while lanterns and geometric patterns lend a slight but satisfying sense of location.

Outside, the swimming pool — once an oval-shaped beauty — is set against a backdrop of cascading waterfalls. It is more politically correct than its 1960s predecessor, under which could be found a subterranean bar called Sous la Mer, but it is nevertheless at the heart of much of the hotel’s continued appeal.

From the shade of the pool’s colonnades you can see the old St. Georges Hotel, designed in the 1930s by Parisian architect Auguste Perret, while Zaitunay Bay and the edge of the Mediterranean are a stone’s throw away. It is because of this location and these views that the Phoenicia retains much of its appeal, regardless of its 446 rooms and suites, spa, shopping arcade and banqueting area.

Of the hotel’s three buildings, it is the original, designed by the architects Edward Durell Stone and Joseph Salerno, that is the hotel’s aesthetic pinnacle. Combining elements of high modernism with Mughal and Muslim architecture, it is where you should stay if given the choice.

You buy into many things when you stay at the Phoenicia, which was named Lebanon’s leading hotel for 2018 at the World Travel Awards. History, of course, and location, but also a level of abundance that is not readily available elsewhere in the city.

Breakfast is a fabulous affair. Manakish are freshly cooked on a dome oven, eggs are prepared in front of you, while separate stations serve everything from a dizzying array of olives and salads to cheese, labneh, foul, sausages, honey and smoked salmon. There’s even Oum Ali and kanafeh.

For those in search of glamor, almost every night the wealthy, the stylish and the overdressed can be seen exiting luxury cars and heading to all manner of social gatherings. They dine at the Mosaic and Amethyste restaurants, or at Eau De Vie, a lounge bar and grill situated on the 11th floor. None of this, of course, is cheap. If nothing else, the Phoenicia experience comes at a price.