Amman

I have a soft spot for Amman not only because it reminded me of Istanbul — a hilly, cosmopolitan city of mosques, pistachio desserts, and rich history — but also because it was in Amman that we could really appreciate the inclusion of immigrants for which Jordan is so famous. Jordan is a tiny country surrounded by much larger, much more powerful countries. Despite its inevitable vulnerability to regional turmoil, Jordan has graciously welcomed refugees, i.e., cleaned up other countries’ messes. 60% of Jordanians are of Palestinian origin, mostly refugees who fled the Arab-Israeli War and Six-Day War. Jordan is the only Arab country to fully integrate the Palestinian refugees of 1948. It has not been easy; schools must operate on double shifts, with teachers working both shifts, and since 2011, Jordan has also been taking in Syrian refugees fleeing the  Syrian civil war. Yet Jordan remains one of the most generous places I have ever visited, and its immigrants have only added to its tapestry of cultures.

We didn’t have much time in Amman, but we made sure to take a cooking class, smoke shisha at a rooftop bar, hike up to Amman Citadel for the best view of the city, eat the best kunafa of my life, and cautiously climb the steep steps of the Roman Theater.

We always take a cooking class or food tour in every country we visit. In Jordan, we took a cooking class at Beit Sitti, run by three sisters who want to keep their grandmother’s recipes alive. We learned to make maqluba (meat, rice, and vegetables cooked upside-down), mutabal (eggplant dip), shrak (flatbread), fattoush (salad), and basbousa (baked semolina and coconut soaked in rose water). Beit Sitti means “grandmother’s kitchen”, and after our class in the outdoor patio, we went inside to eat in her charming dining room and living room.

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Making maqluba
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The dining table, where we’d enjoy our hard work

Located on top of the city’s highest hill, the Amman Citadel has been inhabited by Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, and Romans throughout its history. The site contains fragments of a colossal stone statue of Hercules that was destroyed by an earthquake. All that remains are three fingers and an elbow. It would have been 42 feet high, making it among the largest statues in the world.

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Hercules’ hand

The Roman Theater is a 6,000-seat theater that dates back to the 2nd century, when the Romans called this city Philadelphia. Unlike other Roman theaters, which are built from the ground up, this one was carved into the hillside. Even the highest section of seats can see and hear clearly, thanks to the steepness of the cavea. It faces north so audiences are protected from the sun. The theater is still used for cultural activities, such as the International Book Fair, marathon prize ceremony, and musical concerts.

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Steep, slippery stairs
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Perfect acoustics

One of the best things we did was take an “Alternative Downtown” tour through Airbnb with a young Palestinian guide named Anas. He led us through the oldest souk in Amman, where he bought us some necklaces when he noticed how touched we were by the legends he told of displacement and resilience. Then he took us to a Palestinian neighborhood, where we ran into his friends who bought us coffee and invited us to breakfast in their tire shop. We wandered around downtown and met the “duke” of Amman, who purchased a historic home that was about to be demolished for a new hotel and turned it into a cultural center instead, and invited us to join him for another breakfast. Anas then brought us to Habibah, where the kunafa is so good that I went back twice that day to get more. Next, he led us to the top of a parking lot for a secret view of the city. And finally, we ended at a neighborhood covered in street art, where more of his friends offered us drinks and welcomed us into their nonprofit restaurant that donates meals to the hungry.

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Overlooking Amman from the Palestinian side of town
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The Duke’s Diwan

Jordan, more than any other country I’ve been to, is proof that it is possible to be surrounded by corrupt countries (e.g., Israel and Saudi Arabia) and war-torn countries (e.g., Syria, Iraq), yet still remain peaceful, civilized, and open-minded. This country is not perfect, but I think it has done as much good as it can and should be a model for the rest of us.

Tips for future travelers:

Eat at Hashem, a popular restaurant that serves Jordanian street food 24-hours a day. Order falafel and a bunch of spreads for a perfect dinner.

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Our first dinner in Amman

Stay at The House Boutique Suites, a hotel that perfectly matched civilized Amman. Our stylish room came with a kitchen and a huge bed we never wanted to leave. The hotel offered a lavish breakfast (make sure to walk over to the Middle Eastern section on the opposite side of the Western food section), free self-service laundry facilities, and a rooftop pool overlooking Amman.

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Our room
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Rooftop pool

Use your Jordan Pass to enter the Amman Citadel and Roman Theater for free.

Try kunafa at Habibah. Kunafa is made of a fine semolina dough prepared in a large round shallow dish, soaked in sugar syrup and layered with a mild white cheese, topped with crushed pistachios. It closes at midnight, which is fortunate because you’ll definitely want to come back after every meal throughout the day.

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Kunafa

Eat mansaf as often as you can. Mansaf is Jordan’s national dish and one of my favorite dishes in the world. Made of tender lamb cooked in a dried fermented yogurt sauce, sitting on rice and a thin flatbread, topped with pine nuts and parsley, and dipped into more yogurt sauce. Also eat maqluba (meat, vegetables, and rice cooked in a pot upside-down), falafel, hummus, ful medames (mashed fava beans and olive oil), and baklava.

The city is built on seven hills, which you’ll notice immediately while walking around. Much to our delight, Amman is surprisingly walkable, though you’ll have to get used to holding your hand up and making eye contact with drivers to stop traffic as you cross the street.

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Petra + Wadi Rum

I knew I’d enjoy Jordan, but I had no idea that it would immediately become one of my favorite countries in the world. We spent the first half of our time in Jordan with a tour company that brought us to Petra, Wadi Rum, Aqaba, and the Dead Sea. If you only have a short time like we did, our two-day tour package is the way to go.

We were exhausted when we landed in Amman after undergoing two red-eye flights in a row — we took one red-eye from New York to Frankfurt, spent the day exploring Heidelberg, then returned to the airport for another red-eye from Frankfurt to Amman. However, between sporadic naps on our three-hour drive to Petra, we couldn’t help but find ourselves intrigued by our guide Hassan, who was born in Amman to two Palestinian refugees. His father came to Jordan during the 1948 war, while his mother came during the 1967 war. He described the Palestine-Israel conflict as a “long, sad story” that he doesn’t think he’ll “see the end of.” Nevertheless, he is a proud citizen of Jordan and was eager to share with us how welcoming the country is to all groups of people.

The Smallest Hotel in the World

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On our way to Petra, we stopped at “the smallest hotel in the world” — a converted Volkswagen Beetle owned by a charming old man who didn’t speak much English but who did introduce us to the generosity of Jordanians. His goal was to bring tourism to his hometown of Al Jaya because this overlooked desert village has some of the most beautiful scenery in the region. The hotel has been open since he retired in 2011 and was furnished by his daughter, who adorned it with handmade embroidered sheets and pillows. Even though we weren’t staying there, he let us take photos in the hotel, served us Turkish coffee in the lobby (located in a small cave across the street, where he also sells fossils and coins that he found in the area), excitedly showed us a photo of Eliot Spitzer visiting his hotel when he found out we were from New York, and then gave us some fossils to take with us.

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I think we just fit!
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The lobby/shop in a cave across the street

Petra

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The Treasury at Petra

After that heartfelt stop, we continued on to Petra, the main reason I wanted to visit Jordan. Hassan found us a fantastic guide named Shuayb, who was funny and incredibly knowledgeable about the site since he was born and raised in Petra. He helped us appreciate many things that we wouldn’t have even noticed and knew all the best angles for photos with the Treasury.

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Shuayd found this spot for us
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Wearing a keffiyeh, which I purchased from one of the vendors outside Petra
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Incredible rock carvings

Obviously we came for the Treasury, but we hadn’t realized how impressive the rest of Petra was until we started exploring. Petra was once the capital city of the Nabataean Kingdom in the 4th century B.C. and was an important trading hub. Shuayb led us through the Siq, a narrow gorge leading to Petra’s famous buildings carved out of the cliffs. The Siq made the ancient city one of the most protected in its time. Petra is also called the Rose City due to the color of the stone out of which it is carved. Some of the stone patterns were so stunning that they look like paintings. Every so often, Shuayb would point up at a rock and exclaim “Monet!” or “Van Gogh!” or “That’s definitely a Picasso”, and the natural patterns on the rocks really did look like an artist painted them.

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A whole city carved into rock
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Royal tombs
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Great for framing!
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Those colors are not painted — they’re natural!
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Surrounded by camels

To top off our trip to Petra, Hassan took us to a picturesque restaurant called My Mom’s Recipe, where I had mansaf, the national dish of Jordan. Made of lamb cooked in a sauce of dried fermented yogurt and served with rice over a layer of flatbread, topped with pine nuts and parsley, mansaf is one of my new favorite dishes. It’s comforting but refreshing, something only a place like Jordan could master. Anthony had maqluba, another traditional dish, consisting of meat, rice, potatoes, tomatoes, cauliflower, and eggplant placed in a pot, which is then flipped upside down when served.

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Mansaf
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A close-up of my mansaf, with Anthony’s maqluba in the background

Wadi Rum

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Stretching on Mars

We drove an hour and a half to Wadi Rum, which is what Anthony was looking forward to the most, since Wadi Rum has served as the setting for Mars in pretty much every Mars-related movie and TV show. Hassan said good-bye to us as we joined two women in the back of a pickup truck. Two years ago we rode camels through the calm Sahara Desert, so it was a nice change to ride in the back of a pickup truck without a seatbelt through the rugged Wadi Rum. We quickly made friends with our truckmates, Loes from the Netherlands and Anna from Belarus, who ended up joining us in Aqaba, the Dead Sea, and Amman!

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So grateful to be here
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With our friends Anna and Loes

Wadi Rum is stunning. I was skeptical because I didn’t think Wadi Rum could compete with the smooth orange dunes of the Sahara, but the two are incomparable. Wadi Rum means “valley of the moon” and is red due to iron oxide. Exploring it is a voyage through the geological evolution of Earth.

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The truck dropped us off at a bedouin camp with about twenty private tents, a large dining tent, and separate bathroom tents. Our first bed in three days! We joined the rest of the campers, most of whom were European, for a buffet dinner cooked by bedouins. It was April, so by nighttime the temperatures dropped to almost freezing, but the plush blankets in our tent kept us toasty.

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Bedouin tents
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So cozy!

The next morning we had a buffet breakfast (which included my favorite, za’atar!) before the four of us left the camp and took a guided tour of Wadi Rum. We drove past massive plateaus that had popped straight up from the sand due to tectonic movement. We climbed natural rock bridges that were shaped by blowing sand and winter floods. We took photos of hieroglyphs, which trace human existence back 12,000 years.

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Hiking up sand dunes
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My astronaut
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My astronaut
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Climbing through gorges
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My astronaut

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Aqaba

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Water, at last

After being surrounded by desert for the past 24 hours, Hassan drove us about an hour to Aqaba, the only coastal city in Jordan, located on the tip of the biblical Red Sea between the continents of Asia and Africa. Aqaba is the only seaport of Jordan so pretty much all of Jordan’s exports depart from here. From the beach, you can see Israel, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia (if you really crane your neck). Hassan knew thow much I love food so he led us through a market to watch goat meat being chopped for mansaf, into a crowded bakery where he bought us some fresh shrak (flatbread), and to a lovely lunch spot for our only seafood on the entire trip. We tried sayadiyah, a dish consisting of grouper fish, rice, onions, turmeric, cumin, paprika, coriander, cinnamon, garlic powder, and pine nuts.

Dead Sea

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Floating in the Dead Sea

From the Red Sea, we drove three hours to the Dead Sea, the lowest point on Earth (1,410.8 feet below sea level!) and nine times as salty as the ocean, which means anyone can easily float in it owing to natural buoyancy. Due to the saltiness, plants and animals cannot flourish here, hence its name. The mineral content of the water, low content of allergens, and higher atmospheric pressure have positive health benefits especially for people with cystic fibrosis, psoriasis, and osteoarthritis. Though it’s constantly sunny, UVB rays are weaker in the region, so it takes longer to sunburn. The Dead Sea is receding at an alarming rate, and experts worry that it may be completely gone by 2050. Considering we had just left Mars, and now we were floating, Jordan has to be one of the most extraordinary places on Earth.

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Mud mask
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Hmm… what’s on our itinerary today?

After a long day, Hassan finally dropped us off in Amman, where our time in Jordan was about to get even more extraordinary.

Tips for future travelers:

  1. Buy a Jordan Pass in advance. It will waive the expensive visa fee and will allow you entry to all the sites you want to see, like Petra, Wadi Rum, and the Amman Citadel. You can buy it online, print it out before you leave, and show it to customs before receiving your visa.
  2. Our tour was through Jordan Private Tours and Travel and I couldn’t recommend it more. It was organized, efficient, and led us to Hassan, whom we loved so much that we hired him again in Amman to take us to the airport.
  3. If you want to wear a keffiyeh (it looks great in photos!), don’t pay more than 5 JOD and get the salesman to teach you how to tie it on your head so you can wear it the next day, too.
  4. Aim for Petra in the morning or late afternoon. If you go midday, you’re going to experience rush hour in the Siq. We arrived at 10am, and by the time we were leaving around 1pm, it was noticeably more crowded.
  5. Always have some spare JODs for tips! While Jordanians aren’t obnoxious about tipping like Egyptians, you’ll want some extra cash to tip people because everyone here is so darn helpful.