A Walk into Ruins

In early January, I visited The Citadel, the name given to the Roman ruins at the top of Jabal al-Qal’a. It was my first walk through downtown Amman, and there were new things to see everywhere. Overwhelmingly, the overall impression was one of chaotic movement – streets are rarely straight, shops are of different sizes, buildings are multiple stories, not all built at the same time or in uniform style, and traffic moves with determination.

There are traffic signals, but precious few crosswalks. Pedestrians do not have the right-of-way. No one is supposed to use their cell phone and everyone does. I fell in behind some young men crossing the street at a pedestrian crossing during a red light, figuring “safety in numbers,” but was almost run over by a taxi driver (on his cell phone) who started up without thinking at the green light. I literally had my hand on the hood of his car (as if I could stop him.) Someone blared their horn. One of the young men (meaning in their 20s) turned around. He must have guessed what happened and looked at me, who was making the final step onto the sidewalk, thankful to still be upright, as the traffic took off and whizzed by. The young man took a few steps, apparently trying to remember something in English appropriate to say for the occasion, because he then turned to me and, nodding his head in the direction where the taxi had been, said, “Dog.” It was, in the circumstance, touching to have the unsolicited support. “Shukran,” I said and smiled. He smiled back and returned to walking forward.

Amman is built on hills, so while the first part of my walk had been downhill, the second part was uphill, uphill, uphill. In January in Amman, the air is cool but the sun is warm and I was feeling it as I worked my way up the dozens – okay, maybe only eight, but they were steep – switchbacks to the top of the next hill, where the Citadel is. The buildings on the way up were mainly apartments, small buildings, three or four stories high. Each unit seemed to have a small balcony adorned with plants and laundry, or other stuff that I couldn’t identify from my vantage point. The buildings are all light-colored, not stark white, but just off-white, broken by the occasional beige or very light brown. The older houses are built of stone, like Victoria’s place, and newer buildings have stucco or plaster-looking walls. Across the narrow valleys formed by the hills, there were occasional open spaces that had ancient-looking retaining walls built across them.

It’s easy to see why everyone from the Bronze Age onward built at the top of Jabal al-Qal’a. The view is spectacular – you can see forever in every direction. No one will sneak up on you. It has been occupied by human civilization of one form or another since about 1650 B.C. The Assyrians, Babylonians, and Persians all had a turn before the Greeks conquered it in 331BC and named it Philadelphia. It was Philadelphia for about three hundred years until the Romans came around 30BC. (Amazingly, the city almost ceased to exist at one point, but we’ll talk about that later on.)

At the top of the hill, the Romans built The Temple of Hercules, a structure that would be gigantic if it had been finished or if more of what was built remained. The pillars are an iconic image of Amman.

Pillars of the Temple of Hercules

A statue of Hercules for the temple was planned, and would have been about 39 feet tall, based on the size of the fingers and elbow, which are all that is left. Archaeologists speculate that much of the material was hauled away later and used for the Byzantine church that was built on the site.

The Romans occupied the site for about seven hundred years, and during this time, Constantine declared Christianity the official Roman religion. A Byzantine-style church was constructed. Again, not much is left, but the floor of the church and remains of stone rooms for the monks and for storage are still there. The scale of the church is much smaller than the scale of the planned temple.

After the Romans came the Muslims, beginning with the Umayyad Period, which ran from 661 – 750AD. They built the Umayyad Palace, the remains of which also sit at the top of the hill. The Palace consisted of a domed hall for official reception and ceremonies, a series of courtyards, and a variety of buildings to house the officials and other members of the household.

This shows the interior – that’s Mohammed Ali, my guide, at the entrance. He was a colonel in the Jordanian Air Force, now retired, with an interest in history. He was originally from Umm Qais, which is in the far northwestern corner of Jordan.

There is a small museum with artifacts on the grounds, and Greek, Roman, and Umayyad ruins, and spectacular views of Amman. It really is a “must-see” if you visit Amman.

A carving from one of the buildings; the Roman avenue leading to the Umayyad Palace; and a view of Jabal Amman (somewhere, my house is in there!)

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