Crossing Jordan

No meal is complete without hummus, tahini, and baba ganouj.

Jordan was a real surprise. I’d just spent two weeks in Egypt, and, to be honest, I was kind of expecting a poorer version of Egypt—for indeed Jordan does have less income than its North African neighbor. But history has drawn sharp distinctions between the two countries—particularly in their capitals. Cairo has been continuously inhabited for about 5,000 years. Other than a few nomadic Bedouins, Amman was uninhabited for nearly 2,000 years, from after the last Roman legions pulled out until the Circassians (Muslim refugees from the Caucasus) arrived in the 1870s. So Amman dates from about the time people started figuring out that city planning is a good idea. This is evident everywhere, largely because of zoning laws in Amman that keep the town attractive and sensibly organized, but is most obvious on the road. While traffic in Cairo is a snarled lunatic asylum, where people ignore signs, lanes, and speed limits, and things are further complicated by camels, donkeys, horses, and animal-drawn carts piled precariously high with watermelons or hay, the traffic in Amman is well regulated, people actually stay in their lanes and stop at stop lights, and critters are not permitted on busy downtown streets. Less picturesque, but much easier for driving.

This doesn’t mean driving in Amman is always easy. With the town sprawling over seven mountains, there is a considerable amount of winding up and down narrow roads. And not all the posted street signs match what the locals call some streets. But it’s all much more reasonable than Cairo’s traffic. Plus downtown bridges are outlined in blue neon, to make them easy to find. It’s a fun, hip, modern accent in a surprisingly sophisticated yet still-exotic city.

However, that 1870 date doesn’t mean Jordan isn’t knee-deep in history. It’s just that most of the history is either ancient (from Paleolithic and Neolithic settlements to Hittites, Assyrians, Persians, and assorted others, to the Roman Empire) or it’s outside of Amman.

Jordan is small enough that, in five days, I managed to see about 80 percent of the recommended sights—which is not to say one couldn’t use more than five days, but it was nice to be able to hit most of the “hot spots” in the time I had. The Dead Sea was splendidly beautiful, sparkling blue and stretching toward a distant fringe of pale mountains. It was also great fun—and it’s not just that you float; you can’t walk. You get about thigh deep, and the densely saline water actually lifts you off your feet.

The north is quite green, with farms and forests—this is the part of Jordan that was occupied even after the Romans left. In the north, we visited the mountaintop Crusader castle at Ajlun and the remains of the Roman city of Jerash (called Jerasa today). The south is pretty much a desert. In fact, if you saw Lawrence of Arabia, you have a good idea what the place looks like (even though the movie wasn’t actually shot here). In fact, Aqaba, Lawrence’s goal early in the movie, is in southern Jordan. Heading south was like driving through the Old Testament, as we passed from the land of the Ammonites into that of the Moabites and then the Edomites. We stopped at the top of Mount Nebo, where Moses looked across the Jordan River into the Promised Land, and could see Jericho in the distance.

Of course, the real reason I had originally wanted to visit Jordan was Petra, and that did not disappoint. The siq (the long, narrow channel through the mountains that leads into Petra) was actually more astonishing than I had anticipated, with channels along both sides carved by the Nabataeans to carry water into the city, the worn remains of stone guards carved into the walls, and the stone itself, which is wildly colorful and fantastically eroded. But then that moment comes—the payoff—when the end of the siq is in sight, and through that narrow passage you can see the handsome façade of the Treasury, carved into the stone wall facing the siq. Wow. It was even more impressive than I had imagined. But while the Treasury is the most famous and imposing building in Petra, it was by no means the only one, so we hiked on, down Roman roads, past columns and an amphitheater, tombs—and souvenir sellers galore. What an amazing place.

Every restaurant has an oven for bread.

But what about the food? Well, in a word, it was great. Every meal (including breakfast) brought an abundance of hummus, baba ganouj, and tahini. At breakfast, we also had yogurt, fava beans, and local breads served with olive oil and za’atar, a blend of spices (primarily sumaq) and sesame seeds. Lunch and dinner added myriad salads: multiple eggplant dishes, cucumber and tomato concoctions, dishes of cabbage with “black seeds” (a.k.a. black cumin), onions with cheese, chick peas, grilled sweet peppers, and more. For main courses, we indulged in couscous, spiced chicken, lamb (roasted, grilled, skewered, in stews, ground), beef in many forms, and vegetable dishes that tended to feature eggplant, onions, green beans, tomatoes, and cauliflower. And every meal came with abundant, freshly baked bread.

In Amman, at a restaurant called The Windmill, we sat under traditional camel-hair tents and enjoyed local specialties, including a drink blended of lemon and mint, and the most traditional Jordanian dish, mansaf. Mansaf is a mountain of rice and Bedouin bread topped with roasted lamb and rehydrated, dried goat-milk yogurt. (Actually, the tradition, and the surroundings, made the mansaf a treat; the dried goat-milk yogurt made it somewhat less appealing than the mounds of grilled chicken, lamb kofta, and shish kebob piled nearby.)

If you get to Amman, you must stop at Anabtawi/Holy Land Sweets. Jordan, long a crossroads, has adapted the best of Greek, Turkish, and Lebanese pastry into its culture, which means a fair bit of honey and phyllo, but also mountains of almonds, pistachios, and sesame seeds. At Anabtawi, three sides of a long room were lined with huge pans of glorious pastries and confections. We sampled widely, with my personal preferences drawing me more towards nuts and seeds. Barazek, a not particularly sweet cookie rolled in chopped pistachios and coated with honey and sesame seeds, became my instant favorite.

Falafel in Madaba

Falafel was a frequent snack, and we saw it being made everywhere. Cooks use little flare-topped, cone-shaped hand molds to make each falafel, filling it with the fava-bean mixture, pressing it into sesame seeds, then pushing the little plunger to pop the little ball out of the mold into hot oil. In Madaba, we sampled a local specialty of double-sized falafels filled with a spicy mixture of sumaq, onion, and chilies. Yum.

Mint tea was always available, but I also enjoyed the local hot, sweet, cardamom-scented coffee that leans toward Turkish in its thick intensity.

Coffee is kept hot by burning wood in the top part of the pot.

So if you have ever thought you’d like to see Petra, I’d recommend adding a few extra days to your trip to see more of Jordan—and to get to sample at least a few of the culinary delights of this desert kingdom. It’s a surprisingly delicious destination.

(This story originally appeared in a slightly different form in Hungry Magazine.)
Copyright ©2011 Cynthia Clampitt

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Filed under Culture, Food, Geography, History, Travel

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