A visit to As-Salt and Beit Aziz, Jordan’s newest Boutique Bed and Breakfast

I’ve realised just lately that I’ve taken living in Jordan for granted.  I love living here and from the very beginning I promised myself that I would explore Jordan.  However, I’ve been busy and almost without realising it I have settled into everyday life and not seen enough of Jordan.  I do daily appreciate the view of the traditional old stone built goat-shed and it’s inhabitants that’s a stones throw from my balcony and I love the view of the Petra mountains that emanates from the same balcony.  But, I’ve found myself dreaming of views and experiences beyond my balcony!  I’ve been thinking about the country that hosts lush farm lands in the north and east near the Palestinian and Syrian borders and the breathtaking western and southern deserts that extend into Iraq and Saudi Arabia. I’ve also been thinking of visiting ancient cities like Amman (the original Philadelphia), Karak’s Crusader Castle and the ruins of the Greco-Roman city of Jerash, often known as the “Pompeii of the East,”.  And for a long time I have been promising myself a visit to all seven of Jordan’s Biospheres … Dana, Ajloun, Dibeen, Azraq, Shaumari, Fifa and Mujib.

I could go on … there are other cities, other castles, other sites and other nature reserves. I also now have a Jordanian drivers license … so there are no excuses!

First stop As-Salt!

For years now, As-Salt, has fascinated me. It was the first capital of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan and pictures of its old stone buildings and stunning views would pop up on my news feed, stirring my curiosity and ensuring it was added to my every growing list of places I dreamed of visiting.

This week myself, my mum and the kids loaded up our pick-up truck and headed north.  Salt, as most people refer to it got it’s name from the ancient Greek word saltos which means “thick forest”.  We were excited to be travelling to Salt to stay at a newly opened Bed and Breakfast “Beit Aziz”. (Beit translating to ‘house‘ and Aziz to ‘something powerful, respected or beloved‘).

Unlike Wadi Musa, which, as a built-up town is relatively new (no complaints, Petra is on our doorstep!), Salt shows its history through its architecture. It is believed that for a long time As-Salt was the only settlement in Transjordan and a regional capital under the Ottomans.

“in the late nineteenth century, when merchants from Nablus arrived to expand their trading base east of the river. Into what was then a peasant village of shacks boxed between precipitous hills, the merchants brought sophisticated architects and masons to work with the honey-coloured local limestone; buildings were put up in the ornate Nabulsi style to serve both as grand residences and as merchandise centres.”     Matthew Teller, Rough Guide to Jordan

Having longed to see Salt for such a long time, I couldn’t help but fear disappointment as we left the busy streets of Amman and headed north west. (Have you ever gone to see a movie everyone said was wonderful … only to walk away thinking ‘what was that all about’ … that’s what I was afraid was about to happen!). In fact, it didn’t take long for the fear to subside, for the journey to As-Salt was absolutely beautiful.  We were experiencing the perfect example of Jordan’s rich and diverse landscape, for in contrast to the dramatic sandstone of Petra, or the bleak expanse of the Desert Highway, we found ourselves driving through rolling green hills and surrounded by an abundance of cultivated farm land. I had long heard stories and seen pictures of lush northern Jordan and it was refreshing to finally see it with my own eyes. And I began to think ‘if the landscape is this wonderful’ then my hopes for Salt just may not disappoint. Descending into the city, I found myself enjoying the adventure and the contours of the surrounding hills while our trusty Google Maps App lead us up the winding, hilly (and sometimes narrow) streets of As-Salt until we arrived at our accommodation

 

A warm welcome and Beit Aziz

Before we had even parked our car, Mohammed, the B&B manager, was on the steps of Beit Aziz to welcome us and help us get two tired yet curious children out of our car. Before heading to our room we sat (over Jordanian coffee of course!) with Mohammed and Laith (the owner) to find out a bit more about the Bed and Breakfast. Originally built in 1905 Beit Aziz was a family home that had been left unused and vacant for twenty plus years until the local council bought the property off the community.  The council then asked people to propose ideas for the space. Laith’s idea of an unique boutique Bed and Breakfast to attract both local and international tourists to As-Salt was chosen and Beit Aziz was born!

 

When we visited in mid May, the B&B had not officially opened. They were putting the finishing touches to the building and after only ten minutes sitting in the dining room and listening to the story of Beit Aziz we knew we were privileged to meet these two men at the beginning of their adventure with Beit Aziz!

 

Hadab…a wonderful handicraft project celebrating Jordan’s heritage

The communal area of Beit Aziz is decorated with traditional items. The most interesting of all the items for me were the variety of Jordanian scarves they had on show. The quality was just beautiful.  I often see so many imported imitations of this important part of Jordan’s heritage that it was rare and refreshing to see an authentic alternative.  We questioned Laith and Mohammed about the scarves origins. It turned out that Hadab was another project run by these guys (along with a few others). Hadab works with over 50 local women to produce traditional scarves. The women are given a variety of authentic fabrics, which they then add white cotton or wool trim to the edges. In Jordan, you will primarily see red-and-white scarves, a recognisable symbol of the country and its heritage. As well as the white trim, this Jordanian symbol also has tassels on each corner. The tassels historically represent the garments value. The bigger these tassels, the greater the value and status of the person wearing it. It is a symbol of honour and tribal identification. Hadab also ensures that the majority of the profit goes directly back to the people who create them.

 

Unplanned invitations are always the best.

We hadn’t planned to eat dinner at Beit Aziz that night, but Laith and Mohammed insisted we not only join them but we hang out in the kitchen to help prepare our meal. Under the watchful, warm, laughing eyes of Nadia, my mum learnt how to cook offal … Jordanian style (Malaag). Meanwhile the kids sat at the kitchen table creating works of art. It didn’t take long to feel at home in the beautiful eighteenth century building.  We had stayed in a hotel in Madaba the previous night, which, whilst nice, we were very aware that it was a place to lay your head and have breakfast.  Beit Aziz, was quite the opposite, we felt at home and we soaked up the atmosphere.

 

The building has been beautifully and tastefully renovated so that you can feel what it must have been like to live in this elegant home in the early 1900’s and beyond. Plus, as we spent time with the staff in Beit Aziz we found that the new, mysterious city of As-Salt was immediately made to feel familiar and warm. They are immensely proud of their successful modern and ancient city, it’s architecture, it’s agricultural history and it’s role in the forming of present-day Jordan. Once our evening meal was finished, our night was made complete when we were served tea on the balcony overlooking Salt City’s buildings, comprised of yellow sandstone, domed roofs, elegant long arched windows and roman columns we relaxed and watched kites flying over the city and listened to the call for prayer reverberating through the ancient valley that hosts both churches (the bells of which would wake us the next morning) and mosques, side by side, in harmony.

Beit Aziz, has two wings, one consisting of three modern light filled rooms that have stunning views of Salt City (built to meet the Ministry of Tourism’s requirements for accommodation) and two original and beautifully renovated rooms. It was a no brainer when they asked which room we would prefer. We opted for the atmospheric eighteenth century room with old stonework and vaulted ceilings! The room was quiet and spacious. The bed was perfect and even though we shared a bed with two wiggling children we were all truly rested by the morning!

After a delicious, relaxing home-made breakfast, while the children played we asked more questions about As-Salt.  We wanted to walk down into Salt City and experience the souk (market) and to see Salt’s architecture and understand more about the city’s ancient history. It was in As-Salt that an important announcement about the country we now call Jordan was made. After World War I in August 1920 it was in Salt that Sir Herbert Samuel, the British high commissioner for Palestine and Transjordan, announced to the Transjordanian sheikhs and notables that the British favoured self-government for the country.

We were given fantastic instructions from Mohammed and we headed into the city to explore. We were offered a city tour by Mohammed and Laith starting from the B&B but with two kids in tow we decided we would head out alone. As As-Salt is built up over four hills, to walk means steps! So we headed down the steps passing beautiful architecture at each turn before finding ourselves at the As-Salt Museum. Originally Abu Jaber mansion, built between 1892 and 1906 with frescoed ceilings, painted by Italian artists, it is reputed to be the finest example of a 19th-century merchant house in the region (King Abdullah I stayed there for three months).

A local shop owner headed in to give us an introduction to the museum and the city. He spoke passionately about As-Salt’s importance not only historically but also as a place of harmony between religions and people. We continued our tour of the museum and sat down to enjoy a drink in the Museum’s coffee shop and found ourselves having a chat with the head of tourism for the Balqa region. They were busy preparing for a visit from the Australian ambassador the following day to celebrate the Great Arab Revolt, which he wasted no time is inviting us to join … I wish we could have stayed longer!

We spent the next hour or so wondering through Hammam Street, a pedestrianised shopping street in the centre of the city. Whilst many of the shops now house modern products there are still signs of what used to be. Shops line both sides of the narrow street. Fresh fruit and vegetable shops are plentiful and we found ourselves buying and eating some of the best tasting sweet apricots.  Spice shops selling fragrant and colourful spices. Meat hangs in the window of butcher shops, chickens wait in cages to be bought, eggs are sold from the back of vans and home made pickles were stacked high on trollies.

Once we had completed our walk down Hamman Street, we sat down to watch the busy market place and the makeshift stalls that were set up to sell home grown produce. Like anywhere in Jordan on a warm day, a refreshing drink was not far away, after seeing a wondering street vendor in traditional clothing serving ice cold hibiscus juice we finished our city tour enjoying it’s aromatic taste and smell. As well as a thirst quencher, hibiscus juice is believed to reduce high blood pressure and is sometimes served hot as a tea.

 

Refreshed and relaxed, we made our way back up the hill and climbed the steps that led us back to Beit Aziz and our car, it was time to say our goodbyes and begin the journey back down south to Wadi Musa. As we drove away from Beit Aziz and Salt City I found myself sad to leave, it truly left a impression on us all and we hope to return to explore again one day soon.

 

 

 

 

 

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