As-Salt: the city of tolerance and generosity in the Middle East
(Image credit: Marta Vidal)
This small Jordanian town where minarets and bell towers share the skyline has been described as a “place of tolerance and urban hospitality” by Unesco.
The sunrise call to prayer echoed in a still sleepy valley as the first rays of the sun illuminated the golden limestone houses clustered on the slopes of three mountains.
“Allahu Akbar“(” God is great “), the voice of muezzin rose above the domes of the city. “Hayya ‘ala-s-salah“(” Hurry up to prayer “), called speakers of the minarets that dot the rugged landscape.
Moments later, the city’s winding streets filled with the sound of church bells announcing morning mass.
We were in As-Salt, the newest Unesco World Heritage site in the Middle East. This small Jordanian town where minarets and bell towers share the skyline was considered a “place of tolerance and urban hospitality”.
Situated at the crossroads of trade and pilgrimage between the Mediterranean Sea and the Arabian Peninsula, As-Salt became a flourishing city at the end of the 19th century during a period of reforms aimed at “modernizing” the Ottoman Empire.
In the historic city center, hundreds of historic limestone buildings – dating from the late 19th and early 20th centuries – with arched doorways, carved columns, and tall windows glistened in the sun.
Thaira Arabiyat embroiders the hems of a scarf in her shop. (Marta Vidal)
“The yellow stone buildings are important, but they’re not the reason As-Salt is so unique,” said Thaira Arabiyat, a store owner who trains local women in traditional needlework, as she was pouring me a cup of cardamom-flavored coffee. .
We sat surrounded by embroidered dresses and scarves in her little downtown boutique, where I first found her sewing the knotted fringes of a shemagh, a traditional Jordanian scarf. She took a break from work to tell me more about her hometown.
“What makes this city so special is the people here, their kindness,” Arabiyat said after refilling my cup a second time. She then asked me: “Have you had your breakfast? Come eat with me.
As I explored the city’s winding streets and narrow alleys, I received repeated invitations for lunch, coffee, or tea. Traditions of hospitality and generosity to visitors have deep roots in As-Salt.
For centuries, the city has been an important stopover for merchants and pilgrims en route to Jerusalem, Damascus, Baghdad or Mecca. Residents would welcome visitors and provide them with food and accommodation.
In the 19th century, As-Salt became the administrative seat of the region, attracting merchants from different religious and cultural backgrounds. Many eventually settled in the hillside town, creating prosperous neighborhoods where local Bedouin tribes mingled with Levantine traders and artisans.
As-Salt has around 650 significant historic buildings featuring a mix of European and Ottoman styles (Photo credit: Marta Vidal)
“As-Salt has become a meeting place between east and west, between desert and urban centers,” said Ayman Abu Rumman, former tourism director of the local governorate of Balqa (one of the 12 of Jordan), adding that the city’s diversity is reflected in its architecture.
The best example of the mix of Ottoman styles, European influences, and the city’s local traditions might be the lavish Abu Jaber House, built in local limestone with ceilings decorated with Italian frescoes, Art Nouveau stained glass windows, ornate columns and paintings. ceramic tiles from Syria. The house belonged to Abu Jaber, a wealthy merchant family who settled in As-Salt at the end of the 19th century. In 2009 the building was transformed into a museum which takes visitors through the history and traditions of the Ottoman city.
When Amman was chosen as the capital of the Emirate of Transjordan in 1928, As-Salt lost its regional importance. Spared by the intense urbanization of Amman, As-Salt has retained its character.
For the Jordanian architect Rami Daher, who prepared the city’s nomination file for World Heritage inscription, the city is unique not only because of the historic limestone buildings, but also because of the way it has been created. preserved the traditions of hospitality and tolerance over the centuries.
Residents of As-Salt have set up a sofa on the road where they gather to play manqala, a popular board game (Marta Vidal)
“The topography of the city has fostered a sense of community and closeness. The neighbors live very close to each other and support each other in different ways,” he said.
A network of interconnected staircases, shared courtyards and public squares encouraged the development of a tolerant, multi-faith society and brought a sense of belonging to a shared space. Most traditional buildings have common courtyards or terraces where neighbors can cook, eat and drink together.
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“People here still live as if they are part of the same family, there is no segregation between them,” said Abu Rumman as we sat together in a room of the Abu Jaber Museum with a panoramic view. on the mountains of the city.
He gestured towards the square in front of the museum, where elderly men from different backgrounds meet every day to play backgammon and manqala, an ancient board game popularized by the Ottomans. He then pointed to the mosque and the church opposite.
Hammam Street is a bustling alleyway full of shops and named after ancient Turkish baths (Photo credit: Marta Vidal)
“The church faces the mosque and they share the same entrance,” he said. “Muslims and Christians participate in the celebrations with each other. They share what they have with their neighbors.
This is perhaps most evident in the oldest church in town. Built in 1682 around a cave where it is said that Saint George appeared to a shepherd, the church is known in Arabic as Al-Khader, an Islamic figure syncretized with Saint George in the region.
The vaulted stone interior of the church is full of icons and mosaics depicting Saint George slaying dragons, and what remains of the cave is visited by people from different backgrounds who come to light candles and leave handwritten wishes. .
“Christians and Muslims both go there to pray, everyone is welcome,” said Sabreen Dababneh, who works at the nearby Orthodox Church, Dormition of the Virgin Mary.
Dababneh told me that this interfaith harmony is what makes As-Salt so special.
“The church keeper who works with me, Ali, is a Muslim,” she said. “There are no differences between us. We live here as brothers and sisters.”
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