Just ten miles outside of Amman, the town of Salt, or Al-Salt, is one of the last Ottoman footprints in the Arab world. The Ottomans made the town—settled on three hills and the valley that connects them—an administrative headquarters for the lands south of Syria and east of Jerusalem in the early 19th century, encouraging traders from nearby Nablus, Jerusalem, and Basra and the eastern deserts to settle there, thus igniting a construction boom.
Other Ottoman-era cities in the region have since been claimed by war, occupation, modern housing developments, and gentrification. But Salt—due to Jordan’s relative poverty or its lack of geopolitical significance—has retained its character: yellow limestone villas and grand houses standing like castles of sand, arched doorways and windows, and century-old giant oak doors opening up onto markets where Bedouins, peasants, farmers, and merchants meet to exchange their wares.
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I start my visit, as anyone should, with a stroll through Souq Hammam, a 500-meter narrow half-covered alleyway of merchants named after the hammam, or Turkish baths, which once stood at the end of the lane. The baths are no longer there, but there are vendors selling everything from sacks of cracked wheat and lentils to car stereos in column-lined ornate limestone buildings: this is Jordan’s last traditional souq, or market.
At the end of the souk is the Historic Salt Museum, housed in the former mansion of Abu Jaber, a wealthy Salt trader and merchant, who built the palatial residence with the finest materials in the 1880s. It was here where the first King Abdullah, then emir of the Trans-Jordan emirate, set up a residence as he began to build his fledgling kingdom in 1921. It’s easy to see why he picked it: high vaulted ceilings, Italian and Dutch frescoes, kaleidoscope-esque Italian stained glass windows, arched windows and ceramic tiles from Syria and Italy make it a palace fit for a soon-to-be-king.
Room by room, the museum takes visitors through the various traditions and aspects of daily life in an Ottoman Arab town; traditional clothes such as a man’s camel-skin abaya or a woman’s 20-foot khaga gown, a kitchen complete with copper pots and giant wooden spoons, a bride’s gown, and mother-of-pearl inlaid box of cherry wood that brides used to carry their possessions from her family’s house to her new home. But perhaps the highlight of the museum is Abu Jaber’s mudaffa, or guest reception room. Painted in a pastel green, with silk cushions, and a vintage radio, it has a near panoramic views of the city from the Great Mosque stretching to the hills beyond.
Across from the Abu Jaber house, I make my way to the Ain Plaza, a small square at the mouth of the Souk Hammam. The elders of Salt gather here daily for rounds of manqala, a game made popular by Ottoman Turks, in which players drop small polished stones into seven holes bored into a wooden board. Elders meet twice a day, from 9 a.m. to the noon prayer; the second round from 2 p.m. to just before sunset. Today’s game is backgammon, another remnant from the Ottoman era. Mohammed Hiyari makes room for me on the concrete bench to see if I want to join in.
“Even if you don’t know how to play, we will teach you,” he says encouragingly.
Should you manage to avoid the half-dozen or so lunch invitations and are set on paying your own way for a meal, Salt is not short on options. Women at the Historic Salt Museum Café, the Salt Ecomuseum, and a dozen local women’s associations can prepare platters of home-cooked stuffed grape leaves, mansaf, maqlouba, and a variety of other peasant dishes if you order in advance. Al Ghirbal, a restaurant in an 1828 Ottoman building next to the archaeological museum, serves up hummus, falafel, mansaf, and a mean sajiya—slow-roasted lamb and caramelized onions. But really, no visit to Salt would be complete without a stop at Al Amed, Jordan’s first-ever restaurant, open since 1923.
Here, there are only two dishes on the menu: sandwich or meal. Sold by the waqiyya, a half-pound of meat, Amed serves up a handful of skewers of charcoal-roasted lamb kebabs, fresh from the flocks the shepherds bring in from the hills, along with grilled onions and peppers, next to a bowl of salatta harra, a hot salad of pureed tomato with onions and hot peppers. At 3 Jordanian dinar (US$4.20) it makes it one of Jordan’s last few shaabi¸ or working-class meals. I give my order—a waqiyya meal—and make my way to a collection of bare, worn wooden tables and plastic chairs by families. A group of three young men, noticing my camera, wave to me.
“Please, join us,” they insist, pointing to their dishes. “You are our guest.” I place my hand over my chest and say “thank you, but my order is coming.”
After lunch, one has the energy to climb Salt’s hills. Here, the Japanese International Cooperation Agency (JICA) and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) have mapped out walking trails up the hills, through neighborhoods where 19th-century sandstone houses, elementary schools, and churches are still in use today. Up Khadra Street is mudaffa Khalili, a traditional-style familial gathering hall for the Khalili family, complete with Bedouin woven carpets (and where coffee is always served hot), and St George Orthodox Church, built in 1682. Across from St. George is The Corridor, a café and meeting place for the rising number of artists, artisans and folk-music troupes who perform Classical and Arabic music each week.
Down from Khadra Street and past the Ain Plaza is Salt’s Great Mosque, dating to the Mamluk period (15th century), recently restored to its original yellow sandstone structure. Up the stairs behind the Great Mosque some 50 steps Is the English Hospital, a hospital established by the Anglican Church in the late 19th century, which at the time was Jordan’s first medical clinic. In addition to a terrace offering a panoramic view of Salt, the hospital holds a small museum dedicated to the medical instruments and treatments of the time; definitely worth the post-lunch stroll.
Other hillside walks up recently repaved streets and stairways take you past grand estates owned by the Sukkar, Khatib, Muasher, and Touqan families, in addition to simpler peasant homes still lived in today. The paths also pass several Latin and Orthodox churches built in the 19th century, highlighting an interfaith harmony that predates the Ottoman era, and is still strong to this day.
But the highlight of treks in Salt has to be meeting with residents, who put up plastic lawn-chairs on the black cobblestone road, or on their rooftop gardens surrounded by pink majnouna flowers, and set out a pot of slowly brewed black tea for themselves and whoever walks by.
I end my day with a visit to the tomb of Jadour, or Gad, son of Jacob, who is mentioned in the Torah, the Bible, and the Koran and is revered in Islam as a prophet. Set on a windswept hillside cemetary at the southeast of the city, a five-minute walk from the bus station—where taxis and buses await passengers to Amman—is a simple, white mosque. Inside, a long cement tomb draped in a green silk cloth is believed to be that of Gad. Litter is strewn about the cemetery. The shrine looks in disrepair, but the faithful still visit by the dozen.
Gad is not the only holy site in Salt. The tombs Jethro and Joshua are here too, and Christians and Muslims alike revere the 17th-century St. George Orthodox church, built around the cave where it is said St. George appeared to protect a shepherd from wild beasts. They say miracles happen at St. George.
A 19th century Ottoman town still standing in the 21st; that’s the only miracle I need.