Living Heritage of a former capital
As Salt is a picturesque place to enjoy calmly. To stroll peacefully through its alleys and discover corners, houses, balconies, palaces, and squares. To let yourself be carried away by its souk and interact with the locals. To learn about the rich and diverse history of the city in its museums, mosques, and churches. Or to enjoy the views at sunset on one of its beautiful terraces. Do you have the time? Just half an hour’s drive from Amman, As-Salt is worth visiting. You may be on your way to the Dead Sea, Petra, or the Jordan Trail; maybe you have a free morning, or you are now preparing your next trip and feel like exploring a more authentic and genuine urban Jordan. A place so extraordinary that in 2021, it was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List.”
Do you have the time? Just half an hour’s drive from Amman, As-Salt is worth visiting. You may be on your way to the Dead Sea, Petra, or the Jordan Trail; maybe you have a free morning, or you are now preparing your next trip and feel like exploring a more authentic and genuine urban Jordan. A place so extraordinary that in 2021, it was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List.”
“As-Salt became the capital of Jordan for a few months,” Oday Alarabiyat, Salt’s official guide at the new Oqba Bin Nafe Square, tells us. “For a time, it was the most important city in the country, thanks to its water sources, fertile soil, and mild climate.” Oday is one of twenty local guides trained by the Salt Development Association. “We have more stories to tell than the guides from outside,” he chirps before we begin our city tour.
A brief history
“Salt has been inhabited since the Iron Age and became one of the most important settlements between the Jordan Valley and the eastern desert,” Oday continues. “The city benefited from its advantageous location on the Syrian pilgrimage route to Mecca and was the center of profitable trade between the area and the major cities of Palestine in the 19th century when it was under Ottoman administration,” he tells us lively as we stroll along vibrant Prince Hamza Street.
“Salt has been inhabited since the Iron Age and became one of the most important settlements between the Jordan Valley and the eastern desert”
As-Salt grew from a small village to a bustling metropolis between 1865 and 1925 thanks to the influx of merchants from Nablus, Syria, and Egypt. This new business class consolidated a wealthy and tolerant society that respected other religions and invested in representative businesses and houses.
Today, several themed trails run through the city center to explore the city and admire this heritage, such as the “Tourist Trail” or the “Harmony Trail. They allow you to immerse yourself in Salt’s exquisite yellow sandstone Ottoman architecture, connected by a network of stairways, passageways, and shared courtyards. Let’s get to it.
Walking through the old center to immerse yourself in Jordan’s rich history and traditions is one of the city’s great attractions. “As-Salt is a city made up of three hills, Jada’a, Qala’a, and Salalem, with a center located in the valley bed,” Odayal tells us, listening to us chug up one of the city’s staggered slopes. As a reward for the effort, we reach an unexpected viewpoint from which we hear the muezzin’s call to prayer.
Muslims and Christians have always lived together in peace here
We walk discovering houses, doors, patios, and windows of houses, some inhabited and others abandoned, but all with a certain air of lost splendor, waiting to be recovered. “Salt has another atmosphere, another pace, and another way of life different from the rest of the towns in Jordan,” Oday tells us. “Saving the distances reminds me a bit of Jerusalem,” I comment. “Well, the truth is that Muslims and Christians have always lived together in peace here,” Oday replies. “Here, you can see the Great Mosque of Salt and, a little further up, the Church of the Good Shepherd. Or even an Orthodox temple honoring St. George, where Christians and Muslims pray.” I understand why UNESCO highlighted Salt as a “Place of tolerance and urban hospitality.”
“Um Omar became famous for being the first woman to sell organic products from the area,” Oday tells us as we drive down the steep slope towards the Dead Sea, among an orchard of trees, nurseries, and citrus stands. “Eventually, she decided to open her own restaurant that would also use those same products.”
The Myassar Hyari restaurant is located between olive trees at the roadside. A group of people take pictures with a woman dressed in traditional Bedouin clothing. The place has two floors decorated with traditional carpets, tablecloths, and numerous photos of famous people who have passed through the restaurant, including the chef Gordon Ramsey and the queen of Jordan.
“I started the business fourteen years ago,” she tells us as we sit at the table. “At first as a store, then breakfasts and finally as a restaurant.” Soon, Um Omar arrives with a large pot, turns it over, taps the base rhythmically, and… voila! A delicious Maqluba ready to eat. Have you heard of this delightful dish of Palestinian origin?
“I know people from Amman who ask me to bring them products from here; they know that everything is 100% organic,” Oday tells us as we browse the store on the first floor. There are jams, oils, and bottles of vinegars, nuts, molasses, spices… Forty families from the area are the suppliers of all the products. And in the restaurant, fifteen women are working alongside her. “I am proud and pleased about it. When I go to bed, I don’t have any worries. And I’ve done it all without hurting anyone,” she says as we say goodbye.
If you remember, order the lemon ginger dessert. “It’s the queen’s favorite”.
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“We aim to keep that heritage alive, involving as many people as possible. So be it. Inshallah!”
300 meters of sheer life
Right next to the Abu Jaber Museum, at Al-Ain Square, several men wearing shemagh smoke and play Manqala. We head up the famous Hamman Street and let ourselves be carried away by the flow of people along the city’s most commercial street. “It’s called that because this is where the city’s public bath used to be,” Oday tells us as we stroll, taking in the hustle and bustle surrounding us among merchandise stores, shoemakers, leather goods… “It’s no more than 300 meters of street”, he says. But 300 meters of sheer life.
Locals buy fruits and vegetables at a crowded stall filled with pomegranates, radishes, and figs. One woman sells the most oversized eggplants I’ve ever seen. “Most street-selling women come with seasonal produce from the Jordan Valley,” Oday tells me. Tourists try to bargain in a Bedouin jewelry store. A group of children play next to a man who traditionally presses olives with an old-fashioned machine. Men greet each other blowing kisses.
“Although most stores have changed over time, some have remained the same from generation to generation,” Oday says. “For example, this one,” he tells us as we enter a spice store, dazzled by the diversity of colors and smells. The shopkeeper kindly explains the goodness of the spices he sells. But I know what I’m coming for: za’atar, a mixture of seeds and herbs that can be used in many dishes, but when used with bread and oil, it makes a delicious breakfast complement.
Popping into spice stores is always a good idea in the Middle East, as barbershops are a perfect place to socialize. “Everything here is old, even us,” jokes the barber as he shows us tools used by his father, who retired from the business at 94. “We opened in 1952, and we’re still here,” he says with pride as he grooms my beard. In the shop, several locals talk, laugh, smoke, and drink tea in what looks as much like a social club as a barbershop. People wait quietly. There is no rush.
sunset with a view
It’s been an exciting day. And what better way to relax than sipping tea on a panoramic terrace at sunset? Among the many options, we opt for the colorful City Balcony, a recently renovated six-room hotel with a beautiful terrace. “The house was over a century old and totally in ruins,” Khaldoun Khraisat tells me as he shows me photos on his phone that confirm this. Khaldoun is the hotel’s owner and has been working as manager of the As-Salt Development Association for ten years. “it’s not easy to involve the locals; there are different ways of thinking, and not everyone sees tourism in the same or clear way,” he tells us as the lights of the houses and minarets are illuminated in the sunset. “Young people are more proactive about working in tourism but need to understand the heritage around them more. We aim to keep that heritage alive, involving as many people as possible.” So be it. Inshallah!
Explore the old capital of Jordan
Need more help for your next visit to As-Salt? Here you will find information on accommodations, restaurants, experiences and even the possibility of hiring tours guided by certified guides.