histories collide: a day in As-Salt

Drive about an hour west of Amman, and you will end up in a lovely city called As-Salt. I had the chance to visit in February with a group of friends from my language institute. I was excited to feel the pulse of city life outside of the buzzing capital.

We started our day on the bus with paper cups of coffee and flaky cheese croissants. I watched the tight city streets melt into ambling stretches of highway. The land became more verdant as we traveled west. “A yellow-blue kind of green,” I wrote to myself in the little brown notebook I carry on trips. “It’s greener here. Not Michigan or Maryland green, but green enough.”

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On our way, we pause upon a hill overlooking Palestine. Dusty emerald hills give way to orderly rows of olive trees. The horizon fades from beige to blue. I have taken in views like these before in Jordan, but they never seem to get old. The sun shines bright enough for me to shed my woolen coat. I relish in this reprieve from the winter air.

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We hop back on the bus and soon enough we arrive in the city square. As-Salt traces its history across empires, from Byzantine to Ottoman. It was the first capital of the nascent Transjordanian state, until King Abdullah I moved his government to Amman.

The buildings in As-Salt are much older than those in Amman. Their antiquity conveys a sense of grace, a concern for the aesthetic that I sometimes find missing in my neighborhood. I later learn that these elegant edifices are remnants of the city’s rapid development in the late 19th century, when traders from Nablus came to expand their business. They used local stone to build in the style of their hometown across the Jordan River.

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Our guide around the city was a jovial woman who shared my name: Andrea. She spoke colloquial Arabic like any other local. I had to ask, “Where are you from?” She smiled and explained patiently, and I knew that she must hear this question often. Her parents were Greek and German, and she had married a Jordanian from As-Salt. I remember that although my name is a relic of my mother’s upbringing in Venezuela, its origins are in ancient Greece.IMG_4320

We spend the day exploring churches and mosques, and listening to Andrea narrate the city’s story. Missionaries from Spain. Battles fought between imperial powers, viceroys and pashas. Roman tombs. All of this taking place on a city built upon three hills. I could hardly make sense of the details involved in the collision of histories that is As-Salt. I focused instead on simple things, like how the interiors of buildings are as geometrically stunning as their exteriors.

In the afternoon, we take a walk through the bazaars of al-Hammam Street. It is named for the Turkish bathhouses it was lined with during the Ottoman Empire. We skip the stores selling clothes and household items, heading straight for the sweet vendors. We try fresh qatayef, these delightfully soft and spongy pancakes, and even have the chance to try making our own on the hot griddle. All the while, families come and go, scooping up warm piles of qatayef by the half-dozen. As if this is not enough to satisfy a sweet tooth, our guide offers us a tray of‘awameh. We gobble down these little orbs of fried dough, soaked in sugar syrup until saturated.

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Sugar coursing through our veins, we end our excursion with a late lunch at a small guesthouse. We dig into piles of salad and maqlouba rice with chicken. After we fill out bellies, our hosts gather us into the main lounge. They show us some of the clothing that people in As-Salt wear for celebrations and weddings. We marvel at the embroidered swaths of fabric, ranging from pitch black and royal purple and burnt orange.

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On the bus ride home, the traffic to exit As-Salt is heavy. The headlights of vehicles glow against the dark blue sunset. I wonder where people are going on this Saturday evening. It is the day before the workweek. Perhaps they are making their commute to the bigger city, to the capital that became afterward, to Amman.

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[Originally published on Andrea in Amman, March 2017]

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