A family plays on the ancient stones of the Temple. You can't see into the middle, but there's a pit about 10 feet down. Careful, kids!

A family plays on the ancient stones of the Temple. You can't see into the middle, but there's a pit about 10 feet down. Careful, kids!

When I went to Amman’s Roman theatre a month ago, I could see the towering columns of the Temple of Hercules easily from the top steps of the theatre, at almost eye-level. Although I had originally planned to visit the Temple and Umayyad Palace (collectively located on Jebel al-Qal’a (Castle Mountain)) the next weekend, the events of Ramadan prevented me from doing so until now. More specifically, it was the fact that everything in Ramadan seems to close down early for people to go home and nap before the daily Iftar and it just wasn’t feasible to skip work to go see a pile of rocks.

I went with several teachers from the school, after stopping by Reem’s at Second circle to load up on delicious schwarma. Sometimes I forget that not everyone has the advantage of only living five minutes away from it! Another one of the teachers and I wanted to walk there, but Silas wisely decided that since there was 5 of us, we’d have to take two taxis. He’s been here a lot longer than the rest of us, and it was good that we listened to his advice because it ended up being a lot farther away than I thought. Although Jordan isn’t quite as strict as say, Saudi Arabia in restricting travel options for lone women, Silas and I still split up to take the front seat in each one of the taxis. One thing is definitely true: women, whether Arab or not, will never travel in the front passenger seat of a taxi. Ever. It just isn’t done.

There was a little bit of a worry when we got there. I had apparently not been thinking clearly when I suggested to everyone that we go on a Friday, the holy day, and the place was actually closed (to white tourist-looking people at least; we could see a dozen Arab children playing football on the top of the hill from the entry gate). I thought we would be turned away and was bracing for the heaped derision from my companions, until the guard asked Silas if he spoke Arabic. Hamdilallah! I thought; a good thing Silas came with us! They exchanged a few sentences, and then we were let up the hill without even being asked for the usual charge of two JD’s. “Just keep walking and don’t give them time to change their minds,” I muttered to the girls as we all followed Silas up the tiny service road. “The hill is technically open all the time,” Silas commented, “but suppose they just get tired of seeing disrespectful tourists trash their monuments and wear culturally-inappropriate clothing.”

The view from the top of Jebel al-Qal’a was simple breathtaking. As one of the tallest of Amman’s many mountains, it was chosen by the Romans as an excellent place to build a fortified castle for the Imperial regional government. According to Biblical belief, it’s said that during the 10th century (edit: B.C., thanks dad), King David ordered the warrior Uriah the Hittite to the front lines of a battle on this mountain, with a distinct interest in his death in order to be free to woo Uriah’s wife, Bathsheba. Uriah was killed here, David got his wish and new bride, and so history continues.

A millennium later, the view has definitely changed. Instead of the vast stretches of mountains and desert that the ill-fated Uriah saw, the huge city of Amman seems to almost rise up in vertical walls around you in every direction. Looking to the south (like in the picture below) it’s an almost dizzying sight. Far below us, I could see the Roman theatre. Guess I was wrong; they aren’t quite as much at eye-level as I thought!

Almost literally a \"wall\" of houses

The five us spent last half an hour of daylight romping about on the rocks of the Temple. The lack of railings, historical signs and the general laissez-faire attitude of the few bored security guards present reminded me fondly of my trip to Conwy Castle in Wales last year: do whatever you want; don’t blame us if you do something dumb like fall off a rock and get hurt. Of course, my urge to climb all over things was just too overpowering, and I satisfied the urge by using Silas as a “stepping stone” to position myself on top of one of the broken-off pillars. What can I say? Ever since I was a kid, I enjoyed being in high places and causing my mother to worry about my safety (sorry, mom!) – even at 22, I guess some parts of me never grow up! However, some parts of me apparently grew up when I wasn’t looking; jumping down was more painful than I remember. (sorry, ankles!)

Dear Mom: at least I didn't try to disco on top of it. At least too much.

Dear Mom: at least I didn't try to disco on top of it. At least too much.

Even though the sun was just edging down over the horizon, Silas returned after a moment’s absence with a guard in tow, who conveniently offered to take us to the other side of the Citadel and show us the Umayyad Palace. He talked very quickly though, in heavily Arab-accented Britannic English – it was getting dark and I was trying to take as many pictures as I could, so unfortunately I missed out on a lot of his descriptions. The huge mosque in front of the castle’s ruins is never “open” to any visitors, but the guard told us all that if we came back during the day, whichever guard was on duty would happily let in a group for a bahksheesh – a “small gift.” For now though, we had to content ourselves with wandering about the ruined rooms of the palace, thinking of how impressive the place would have been a few centuries ago during the Ottoman empire, when the place had a roof, the tile floors were still intact, and the place would have been filled with regal regalements (I swear I’m not using a thesaurus to come up with these).

At the end of the impromptu tour, Silas shook the guard’s hand, pressing a 5 dinar note into it at the same time in such a way that only I noticed. “Shukran!” we all chorused, and the guard laughed, bidding us farewell. Behind us, the Temple of Hercules was lit up dramatically in the darkness by a dozen spotlights, a haunting spectacle that made me wish that I lived in one of those dots of light on the mountain to the south, viewing this beautiful site every night.

The next night was a lot less fun. The server at the school committed virtual suicide and I spent the entire night and day backing up 60 gigabytes of user files and reformatting the entire thing, from 9 PM to 9 PM. It was not what I would have chosen for a Saturday night’s activities, although I did manage to catch an hour of sleep accidentally when I keeled over in my chair, head creaking backwards in such a way that I definitely regretted waking up and moving it an hour later. Thank goodness for about 3 pots of strong black tea to keep me going the rest of the time. Did my neck always make popping noises like that?

In other news – I found out that morning that my grandfather, Robert Heise, had just passed away yesterday afternoon as I was working. Although the family had known that his health was declining, and he had been in hospice, it still came as a crushingly sad blow to me, especially since I was mentally exhausted after getting almost zero sleep. My grandparents travelled extensively throughout the world after my aunt and father left home, always with amazing stories to tell the rest of us when they returned. I think that a lot of my love of traveling came from them, and I feel extremely guilty that I hadn’t yet sent both of my bed-ridden grandparents a postcard yet with well-wishes from me. Without his gentle smile and the tight hugs that he always greeted his grandsons with (they never lost their powerful squeeze, even when he reached 90 years) my world is a darker place.