Sunday, 29 January 2012

Amman's Rich History

   I crossed the room and snatched open the curtains. The sight of the city spread out in front stilled me for a moment, the ragged ribbon of cars glittered in the early morning sunlight, snaking between the stone buildings stacked on the hillsides. A wave of vertigo forced me back. The realisation this was my new home made my stomach churn.
Olives - Page 13
Amman is built, like Rome, on seven hills and the buildings clinging to their sides are split by stairways that form a strange snakes and ladders-like network.

The city is built on the site of the ancient city of Philadelphia and contains some remarkable Roman ruins. It’s home to almost three million people today, but after the collapse of the Roman city was a village among the ruins until it was settled in the late 19th century by Circassians following their expulsion from the Caucasus by the  Russians.  King Abdullah I decided to make Amman, a small town by then, his capital following the Arab Revolt, when the Emirate of Transjordan was established. Or, as Newt Gingrich would likely have it, invented.

It’s a little known historical footnote, the expulsion of the Circassians, but it possibly ranks up there with its Ottoman cousin, the expulsion of the Armenians. Both expulsions can only be seen as genocides, with estimates of over 1.5 million Circassians killed by the Russians either in pogroms or in the forced marches that saw the majority fleeing to the Ottoman Empire in scenes that would be echoed a generation later with the Armenian genocide.

And Amman also has an Armenian community, Orthodox Christians whose churches and services of worship are so rich and so very different to the rather indifferent Christianity I was brought up with. Pal and former colleague Lena was a member of this community and eventually married a gentleman from Aleppo, also known as Halab. The wedding was in a C14th Armenian Orthodox church buried deep in Aleppo's labrynthine Ottoman covered souk. It was like going back in time: a wonderful, rich place, dark and mysterious, with ikons and chandeliers glittering, patinated wood and worn stone floors.

Like Beirut, then, Amman is somewhere you can hear both mosques and church bells. And that is a wonderful thing, believe me.

(BTW, as we're celebrating Amman, today is the birthday of His Majesty King Abdullah II of Jordan! Happy birthday, your Majesty!)
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