Saturday, 11 February 2012

The Amman Citadel

   Lynch picked me up when I walked into the Citadel, Amman’s central hill topped with the ruins of ancient civilisations and one of its big tourist attractions. The guide hassling me to take a tour melted away when Lynch appeared. The Irishman strolled casually beside me as if he’d been there all along.
   We walked up the hill until it flattened out onto the top of the Citadel, stopping by the Roman columns that overlook East Amman in its blue, hilly haze. The Roman amphitheatre was below us, the colourful shops and tenements of the Eastern city spread out crazily around it, stretching up into the hills beyond.
   We stood together in the warm breeze. Lynch lit a cigarette. ‘You been here before?’
   ‘No. Never got around to it.’
   He puffed out smoke. ‘They’ve done a good job here. They excavated it in layers, preserving the best of each age. Roman, Byzantine, Muslim. It’s all here. Thousands of years of history on a single hilltop.’
   ‘Can we get down to brass tacks?’
Olives, Page 74

Paul and Lynch wander around the Citadel, bickering as Paul is unwillingly recruited to spy for the British intelligence agent, Lynch stopping to highlight occasional sightings of ancient monuments, something the Citadel has aplenty, from Roman Cisterns and columns to Byzantine churches and even ancient stone olive presses.

Paul is surprised at Lynch’s knowledge of the history around them, perhaps because he’s a bit of an intellectual snob and saw Lynch as something of a boorish drunk. Lynch, of course, has a couple of surprises up his sleeve, but isn’t going to be taken in by a load of history and doesn’t miss out on the opportunity to shock Paul, either.

The Citadel is one of the most ancient sites of continuous human occupation in the world, with evidence of Neolithic occupation running through into ancient Philadelphia, the Roman era and through the Byzantine and Ottoman empires to the present day. It’s an L-shaped hill (you can just make out the shape on Naeema Zarif’s cover art for Olives, it’s one of the elements she combined to form the multi-layered pattern) that forms the central tumulus of Amman’s seven hills, the Jordanian flag inevitably flapping on the flagpole at its crest.

Amman itself was originally named for the Ammonites (and we’re not talking prehistoric crustacea here), the people who settled the city in the twelfth century BC and who referred to the city as ‘Rabbath Ammon’, or ‘great city of the Ammonites. Their lack of hubris was to lead to their downfall, as the city was taken by the Israelites under David, then the Assyrians some two centuries later.

One of history’s unlucky women, Amman was to be taken many more times – by the Babylonians, the Ptolemies (it was Ptolemy Philadelphus who named the city ‘Philadelphia’), the Seleucids and then, nine hundred years after David, by the Romans in the first century BC. Two hundred years later, the Roman emperor Trajan incorporated Philadelphia into his province of Arabia.

Philadelphia was a prosperous Roman city, the great cistern on the Citadel just one of many important Roman artefacts in Amman and greater Jordan – Amman’s amphitheatre is a remarkable achievement, yet there are others to be found at the remarkable city of Jerash and also in Petra (always celebrated as a Nabatean site, but actually an important Roman one, too) which remain as remarkable testaments to the Roman’s feats of acoustic engineering. Amman also had an extensive and luxurious Roman baths which were, at least last time I visited them and sneaked my way into the site, jaw-droppingly impressive and not open to the general public.

With the decline of Rome, Amman became part of the Eastern Empire, Byzantium, then in the seventh century BC, the tired remains of the once majestic Roman city were wrapped into the Islamic empire of the Ummayads (and renamed with its ancient name, ‘Ammon’). Briefly a part of the Crusaders’ ‘Outremer’, the city entered a long period of decline until the late Ottoman era when the Turkish/German Hejaz Railway transformed the ruined city. Viable once again, Amman saw its final awakening as the capital of the new Kingdom of Transjordan under Abdullah I, part of the settlement of the Arab Revolt that redefined the Middle East after World War One.

Perhaps oddly, the tracks of the old Hejaz railway still traverse Jordan and you can (as I did above) stand and photograph the very railway line that TE Lawrence gave so much time and effort to blowing up.

Much of this history is evidenced on Amman’s Citadel, excavations have so far unearthed very little of what those layers of time still conceal and yet the site already feels almost impossibly rich in history. It’s a fascinating place to wander around, exploring each layer of history even as you gaze out at the vista of Amman around you. It’s all the more enjoyable if you don’t have a British spy with a strong Northern Irish accent and a heap of attitude badgering you...

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