Tuesday, April 14, 2015

The Balad - Amman, Jordan

As we planned our trip and I looked at Amman, Jordan, a number of sources said to spend time in el-Balad, the old downtown in a narrow valley between Amman's seven hills. I read that the Balad, or Old Amman, is the bastion of traditional ethnic life and what Jerusalem was like before the Israelis kicked out the Palestinians. It is grungy, busy, has narrow alleyways and is a maze of streets with fruit, vegetables, spices, souvenirs, clothes and hardware. 

When I originally booked the tour with a Jordanian travel company with a list of requests, including the Balad, it came back from them with most of what I requested, but the Balad was missing. Rainbow Street was included instead. Rainbow Street is the trendy, rich part of town. I went back to the tour company and specifically asked for a change and got it. Then, months later when we got our guide and he mentioned the activities for the day, he said we were going to Rainbow Street. I'm thinking, "they really do not want to take us to the Balad" and I was wondering why? Is it unsafe? Are they concerned about us getting a bad impression? With some gentle persuasion our tour guide did take us on a quick tour of the Balad and I was very happy we got at least a taste of it.  

We walked through fruit and vegetable markets. Most of my pictures are blurry because we were walking fast and I was taking pictures while we walked. 

I believe these are almonds.
We also saw some fish.
My favorites were the spice stores with mounds of colorful spices. In particular our guide showed us a row of different types of Thyme, something he personally eats a lot of. 

This row of green is all different types of Thyme.
Then our guide stopped at a second-hand store and quickly bought a pair of shoes he liked that he just saw while we were walking. We stopped in front of the Grand Husseini Mosque and he wouldn't take us inside. "Too many foreigners," he said. I'm not sure if that was a reference to us or that there was perhaps a dangerous mix of patrons. He obviously was uncomfortable to take us in. The mosque is apparently the heart of the downtown. 
Grand Husseini Mosque
We took a look in from outside, but did not enter.
We stopped at a store that juices fruit while you wait, another place he frequents. I had grapefruit juice which was good. Others had a mix that I think was orange, banana and cranberry, or something similar. It was amazing. 
Fruits all waiting to be juiced.
Then the most amazing thing of all. He took us to Habibah sweets. Usually a huge line, at this time just a short line. We bought two kanafe, a dessert specialty of the Levant I'd never heard of before. It is a cheese pastry soaked in a sugar-based syrup. It varies by region. I believe ours had a crust of shredded phyllo dough filled with soft goat cheese and drenched in syrup and sprinkled with crushed pistachios. It was AMAZING! Best dessert I've had in Eastern Europe or Asia. Very, very sweet, a wonderful mouth feel. Our guide mentioned he eats here regularly and can eat a whole one by himself. 

Habibah is a popular spot. People lined up on the other side to get in. Then they line the alley walls eating. 
Delicious, divine, fantastic kanafe. 
We went to Rainbow Street for a list bit of touring in Amman before going to dinner. It was meh, nothing worth spending a lot of time doing. In looking at our experience, the guide regularly went to Habibeh and got kanafe, he regularly gets juice at the shop we visited, we saw him buy shoes while we were with him, and he took us to the spice shop where he shops. So we obviously were in the regular peoples' part of Jordan. That is what we wanted to see. And it was great - dirty, busy, fantastic. 


  1. I'm glad we got to see the "real" city-Balad, and so thankful you did your research. If all we'd see was Rainbow Street, I would have come away disappointed. And that dessert was worth a trip to Jordan in and of itself.

  2. I loved the noise, the fast pace, and the commotion. What a mix of sights, sounds, and tastes! I'm not sure I'd ever want to cross the street there by myself, however. It takes an authoritative presence to stop the traffic. I agree with you about the food we ate there--some of the best treats we've ever eaten anywhere.

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

    1. Mia, when we engaged the guide service we specifically requested the activities we wanted. Is it wrong to expect they will keep to the agreed upon itinerary? If they did not want to take us to a place, they should have expressed their unwillingness to do so.

  4. I pity the guide that attempts to strike one of your anticipated visits from his itinerary. I guess the word among the tour guides of world has not spread to Jordan - Don't tug on Superman's cape, you don't take the mask off the old Lone Ranger, and you don't mess around with Bob.

  5. By the way, I remember the Knafeh Jebneh in Lebanon made with orange blossom syrup - different spelling, but great stuff!