The gentle hills which roll westward from Amman down to the Jordan Valley through the historic Balqa region – of which the graceful old town of Salt is capital – are laced with lush valleys and dotted with quiet, pleasant towns such as Wadi Seer and Fuheis. Near Wadi Seer is one of the few examples of Hellenistic architecture surviving in Jordan – the impressive white palace of Qasr al-Abd, set in open countryside near an ancient cave system known as Iraq al-Amir. All these places are easily accessible by bus from Amman, and could together form an unusual half- or full-day trip by car.
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For many centuries, SALT was the only settlement of any size in Transjordan. A regional capital under the Ottomans, the town – whose name derives from the ancient Greek saltos, meaning “thick forest” – came into its own 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. With open trade to and from Palestine, Salt’s boom continued into the 1920s; the new Emirate of Transjordan was formally proclaimed in 1921 in the town’s main square, but by then the railway from Damascus had reached nearby Amman and Emir Abdullah chose the better-connected town to be his capital. As quickly as Salt had flourished, it went into decline: superseded by Amman, it was cut off by war in 1948 from its traditional trade outlet to the Mediterranean at Haifa, then again in 1967 from its Palestinian twin, Nablus.
As a consequence, Salt has seen none of the headlong modernization that has afflicted the capital: much of its Ottoman architecture has survived, as has a small town’s atmosphere, perfect for aimless exploration.
Standing under one of the huge eucalyptus trees that line the lower end of Maydan Street, you are surrounded by three towering hills: to your right are the bare rocky slopes of as-Salalem, to the left rises the tree-adorned peak of al-Jada’a, and straight ahead is al-Qal’a, named for the Mamluke fortress on its summit which was demolished in 1840 and finally swept away recently for a white-domed mosque.
Historic Old Salt Museum (Beit Abu Jaber)
Stroll first up Dayr Street and through the commerce-heavy, crowded central streets to the graceful arched facade of the Abu Jaber House, one of the city’s most beautiful houses, built over twenty years from 1886 using local sandstone, Belgian stained glass, Italian marble and hand-painted Jerusalem tiles. Newly restored, it is now the home of the Historic Old Salt Museum, with good displays on local history and trade, as well as fine views from the top-floor frescoed salon over the rooftops and a lovely café. Pick up a town map from the front desk showing a heritage trail around the city centre, linking more than a dozen architectural points of interest in a looping walk.
Jabal Al Qal’a
Across Al-Ain square, facing the Abu Jaber House, tiny Khadir Street has several flights of steps leading steeply up the hill. Partway up you’ll see the colonnaded honey-stone English Hospital, its gates still bearing an “EH” monogram; the building is now the Middle East’s first vocational training centre for people with disabilities. The view from Jabal Al Qal’a’s summit, bathed in sunshine, out over the town to the rolling Balqa hills beyond, is worth the hard climb.
From Al-Ain square, dive into narrow Hammam Street (the eponymous hammam was razed in the 1930s for lack of customers). This lane, known as Souk Hammam, is lined with buildings which date from Salt’s golden age, including a wonderful old mosque. The street hosts Jordan’s oldest – and, some say, best – souk, an ordinary little market of food and household goods that nonetheless is full of atmosphere, wreathed in the aroma of spices and lifted by the gorgeous honeystone Ottoman architecture.
Salt Archeological Museum
At the end of Souk Hammam, turn right to reach the arched and pillared facade (on the left) of the Salt Archeological Museum, housing a fascinating modern collection that includes a working model of a Mamluke sugar mill and an impression of a Neolithic dolmen landscape. The Ottoman-era building is equally interesting, known as Beit Touqan, once the stately residence of the Touqan family (King Hussein’s third wife, Queen Alia, was a Touqan). A few café tables in the enchanting upper courtyard entice you to linger.
Set among rolling hills near Salt – and just 15km northwest of Amman – FUHEIS (pronounced “fhayce”) is a prosperous small town, 95 percent Christian, with a scattering of nineteenth-century churches. Its easy-going atmosphere – and, in summer, Jordan’s best peaches – make it a pleasant stop-off if you’re driving; it’s not really worth the effort by bus.
The upper half of town, known as al-Allali (with a large calligraphic sculpture in the central Shakr roundabout), is newer and less attractive; carry on down the steep hill to the older part, known as al-Balad. Between the two lies Jordan’s biggest cement factory, which employs more than seventy percent of the town but which has, for years, inflicted clouds of cement dust and soaring rates of asthma on local people. It remains both a blessing and a curse.
Al-Balad, centred on a roundabout with a statue of St George killing the dragon, comprises a district of quiet lanes and hundred-year-old stone cottages alongside the deep Wadi Rahwa. It makes for an interesting short wander, and the lanes come into their own in the golden light of late afternoon. One of Jordan’s top Arabic restaurants adds to the attraction.
During August Fuheis hosts a small-town carnival, while you may also find music and cultural events staged in the week or two before Christmas.