Posts Tagged ‘mosque’

Where’s My Tour?

Sorry for the hiatus – I came down with a bug. Antibiotics have fixed the sore throat, but not the cough and lack of energy.

October 29-30, 2009: Day 1 of my Explore! tour was October 29th, and I treated myself to a taxi ride back to Amman and the tour hotel, the Toledo, which overlooked the Abdali bus station. Although the front desk staff were very nice, and the sheets and towels were clean, the hotel seemed tired: worn carpet, a bath tub that needed replacing and a toilet that had to be babied to stop it from running. I cared most about the lack of soundproofing. I learned, as expected, that I would have a roommate, so I made sure to only mess up half of the room.

View from Amman's Citadel

Amman is a seriously spread-out city, sprawled over at least seven hills and not designed for walking – or, perhaps, designed at all. Although the first inhabitants in the area arrived around 1800 B.C.E., the present city only dates to the early 20th century, its growth fueled by several waves of Palestinian refugees, and, more recently, an influx of Iraqis. Downtown is gritty rather than old, and the current center of gravity, or at least of money, seems to be in the western suburbs. I did start my explorations downtown, at the dirt-cheap Hashem, popular with locals and backpackers, where I lunched on excellent hummus and falafel, before taking a taxi up to the Citadel. The driver wasn’t happy as it was so close, but it was also uphill.

New dome, old mosque, older columns

The walls that crown the Citadel hill encompassed the remains of a Roman temple and of a Umayyad palace, but I spent most of my time in the National Archaeological Museum, which contained some of the earliest statues of humans ever found, and some of the Dead Sea scrolls. I had seen Dead Sea scrolls, dimly lit, in a special exhibition at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, under heavy security, but here there was no security at all, and no effort at controlling the lighting. Then I made the mistake of setting out on foot for the Darat al-Funun, or House of Arts, on the next hill to the west. The downhill stretch was fine, but the shortcut shown on the Lonely Planet map didn’t exist, and I did not enjoy the trek uphill. Nor was the House of Arts worth visiting for the art, although I had a nice chat over coffee with a couple of other travelers.

Fragments of Dead Sea scrolls (at least that's what they say)

When I returned to the hotel I expected to find a notice from the tour company – information on when and where to meet, and helpful hints on Jordan in general and Amman in particular, but I found nothing. No notice in the lobby, no note under my door, no message at the front desk, and no roommate. I might as well not have been on tour. Then, even with help from the hotel staff, I couldn’t find a taxi that would take me to my choice for dinner, the Wild Jordan cafe, run by the Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature and said to have a fine view. Then the taxi that agreed to take me, instead, to the Abu Ahmad Orient Restaurant turned out to have no idea where it was.

After I gave up on the taxi driver, I asked him to drop me at 3rd Circle – in central Amman you navigate by reference to a string of roundabouts – only to discover (thanks to some nice guys sitting outside a barber’s shop) that he had actually dropped me at 2nd Circle. I eventually found the restaurant, and while I missed the view I thoroughly enjoyed the delicious cheese pie appetizers (buraik), spicy tomato salad, and lamb.

My view from the Toledo Hotel - note the church spire across from the King Abdullah mosque

Back at the hotel, still no word from Explore! and still no roommate. I finally remembered that the people using the group air would not arrive until late. I went to sleep in the expectation of being woken up, but in the morning I was still alone. Although there were still no notices posted, the front desk told me the group would meet at 11:00 to go to Jerash. Since the “optional city tour” scheduled for Day 2 apparently didn’t exist, I set off on my own to visit the mosque, the two churches, and the Friday market which were the only sights in walking distance.

The Mosque of the Martyr King Abdullah bin Al-Hussein (assassinated in 1951), almost deserted, impressed me with its tremendous sense of peace, despite its newness. It would no doubt fill up later for the obligatory Friday prayers, but I was surprised to find that both of the nearby churches were already full. It seemed that Sunday services were being held on Friday, in recognition of a differing day of rest. The Coptic Church, with men lined up to receive the Eucharist and their headscarved women seated, was more popular than the Greek Orthodox. The market was a disappointment, all clothes and shoes.

I returned to the hotel with plenty of time for some internet (not free) before 11:00.

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To Beirut via Damascus

October 17-18 , 2009: Outside Damascus’ Khaddam train station, I rejected one taxi driver, who insisted on charging 300 SP for a 5km ride, and took the second, who settled for 100. He had some difficulty getting to my hotel, which we finally found nestled in a web of short one-way streets near a busy flyover. When the directions had mentioned Victoria Bridge, I had not envisaged multi-lane roads below as well as above the span. Still, the City Hotel (aka Al-Madinah) was walking distance from both the Old City and the National Museum and had helpful staff who gave me a big room with a street view. The lobby, with shiny, inlaid furniture was quite a sight, too.

The lobby at City Hotel

Despite immodium and antibiotics, my digestive system still felt fragile, but I

Shops mostly close for Friday in Damascus' souk

set off to explore regardless. A toasted cheese sandwich at the hole-in-the-wall Al-Santir, close to the hotel, went down successfully, so I carried on to explore the souk and the mosque. The souk felt almost formal: I strolled down a wide main street, with two story buildings supporting a metal roof, with few vendors calling out to me. Although all the local women had their hair covered, I noticed more variety than in the north, with fewer women in full black. The biggest surprise, though, was in the open space in front of the Umayyad Mosque, where stalls selling Qur’ans were nonchalantly tucked under soaring Roman arches. I stopped off for a delicious mint lemonade at Leila’s, before donning the required hooded cloak (beige, to distinguish infidels from black-clad believers) and entering the mosque. Although similar to Aleppo’s Umayyad Mosque, Damascus’ was much more elaborate, and I had a lovely time admiring the detailed 8th century gold mosaics.

Damascus' Umayyad Mosque

Mosaics on the western wall in the mosque

For dinner I walked a short distance north to Al-Kamal, noting that Sharia Bur Said was much livelier and better lit than Sharia an-Nasr, which I taken back from the Old City. I dined carefully on lentil soup and a rice and meat dish washed down with a yoghurt drink.

Lonely Planet mentioned that the City Hotel was popular with Iranian tour groups, and when I went down to breakfast I found a big Iranian group in the dining room, with all the women swathed in black. The western tourists were hidden behind a head-high partition. I wasn’t sure who was being shielded from whom.

When I asked the front desk to call me a taxi to go to the Al-Samariyeh bus terminal, they sent a young man outside with me, to flag one down. He had instructions to negotiate for 150 SP, and had a little difficulty. The taxi dropped me at the front of the terminal, but then I discovered that buses and shared taxis to Beirut left from the far rear corner, where I had to put my luggage through a security check.

The actual road distance between Damascus and Beirut is quite short, just 30 minutes to the border from Damascus, and another 30 minutes on to Beirut. But clearing the border took a full 90 minutes leaving Syria, and another 30 minutes getting into Lebanon. I had to buy an exit/entrance pass to get out of Syria, as well as a visa to get into Lebanon. I crossed more than a man-made border when I changed countries. The countryside became quite mountainous, and greener, as we headed towards the Mediterranean coast.

The bus was supposed to go to Charles Helou bus station in central Beirut, but instead it dumped all the people who wanted to go the station at a road junction in the southeast of the city. Fortunately, an equally surprised Japanese tourist shared a taxi into town with me. I had a reservation at the Casa d’Or (http://www.casadorhotel.com) in the Hamra district, just south of the American University. Although my room wasn’t cheap, I was unprepared for its large size, or the fruit basket, or the mini-kitchen (although only the fridge was usable). It looked like I would be comfortable.

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