"The Center of the World" by Brian McCann
When you're going through Amman in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, it's very easy to get a sense of the city's scale. From any street on one of the city’s steep hilltops, you can look out upon a vast landscape of four- and five-story buildings, white like the desert, curving with the earth until they become small and blue on the horizon. Poking out from this landscape are cell phone and radio towers, and the minarets of mosques which at night light up with LED trim.
My first day there, a class tour took us up to a place in the center of the city known as the Citadel. It was my first time getting this hilltop view; it seemed to me you could just keep going on forever and ever, everything from here to infinity covered in those white apartment blocks. In reality, it probably ebbed out into suburbs just beyond what I could see – the horizon is only a few kilometers away, even at high altitude. But still, this visage gave me a feeling I'd never felt before, one that try as I might, I couldn't place.
I arrived with my class at the Citadel – I’d never heard of this place before. I was expecting a castle like the one in Tyrone Park in New York City: clean, maintained, but no longer inhabited. When I stepped off the bus, however, I found myself among ruins. Saturating the site were a crisscross of stonework foundations that seemed to incorporate every era from the ancient to antiquity. Rising above it all on the crest of the hill were three pillars of a Roman temple that I later learned was dedicated to Hercules. Beyond the crest, there was a building in the style of medieval mosque. Below it all in the valley, there was a Roman amphitheater.
I began to wonder how old this place was, as the tour started. The guide told us of the first people who settled here, called the Ammonites. They lived in caves and emerged 12,000 years ago. We toured one of the caves they called home. This hill had attracted them due to its proximity to a now subterranean river, and the particular vista it gave thanks to its status as the tallest hill in the region. Light filtered in from side entrances to the cave, and the rocks above our heads were stained black from the smoke of thousands of campfires. Never in my life had I been somewhere this old.
Over the centuries these Ammonites had built settlements on top of settlements as they were occasionally destroyed by earthquakes. Eventually larger expansionist powers started to come into the region, with the Romans founding a city called Philadelphia (now part of modern Amman) and building the Temple of Hercules in 162 CE, concurrently with the amphitheater below. Later, the Umayyad Caliphate would come into the region, and build the Umayyad Palace in the 8th century CE. Then came the Ottomans, then the British, then the Hashemites, then the modern city that stretches into the horizon, and then came me, a tourist from a city named after Philadelphia in the United States. I was finally able to identify that feeling I'd had since I first landed here. This place had continuity.
There is something about living in a country that has largely erased any history that was there before 1500 CE. There's no connection to anything ancient. They tell you this place was settled 400 years ago, and don't worry about the many millennia of civilization that was here before that. We have erased it. You are not part of it. It makes everything feel alien, temporary. It was started a blink of an eye ago and will be gone in another blink. But in Amman, you can feel the past. You can feel the weight of the region’s history, from antiquity to the modern day, with its light-trimmed mosques and cellphone towers. No longer ancient, but knowing, unlike I did until now, what “ancientness” is, and knowing how to build on it.
The Citadel's status as a place of ruins had largely to do with the earthquakes that would come every few centuries. It wasn't worth rebuilding on this hilltop. So newer settlements started to build in the valleys, with the hilltops being reclaimed only as the city went through modern expansion. The Citadel found its new place as a tourist site as archaeologists started to look at the place and realize just how far back things went. The only modern building is a museum displaying artifacts from Amman and Jericho. That was its own timeline. Starting at the entrance with spearheads and crude clay pots, you could walk though time and see the tools become artwork and become more complicated and advanced as our species crafted and perfected over a thousand dead generations. As we were leaving, I looked out across the hilltop, and caught the Temple, the Palace, and the modern city in a single view. Shifting my gaze to the horizon, I swear I could almost see the future.
Brian McCann is a Drexel University student who is studying in the "Conflict & the Struggle for Peace: Explorations in Ireland & the Middle East" summer program, which is co-organized by AMIDEAST and the Foundation for International Education.