Amman: The Middle Eastern Crossroad

For me, when I think of the “Middle East”, I typically think of the desert, sand coloured boxy buildings, and Islam. Places like Istanbul and the Gulf cities are not really representative of that because of their unique locations and histories.

This is why I was pretty interested in visiting the third and last country on my recent trip to the Middle East, Jordan.

Jordan sits at an interesting location in the world because well, just take a look at its neighbours. To its north is Syria, its east is Iraq and Saudi Arabia, south is Saudi Arabia again, and to its west is Israel and Palestine.

It kinda lies in the middle of a very problematic area of the world but somehow it itself is not that problematic. It’s like a small little oasis in the middle of the Levant.

Amman Cityscape II
Amman has one of the tallest flagpoles in the world.

When I first got to Amman, the capital of Jordan, my first impression was that this was exactly what I pictured a Middle Eastern city to look like. It had a lot of rolling hills, there was a slightly yellow tint in the air due to the desert sand, and there were all of those traditionally Middle Eastern styled buildings.

Already I could tell that this was a vastly different place than any other place I’ve been to before.

To me, Amman got more interesting the more I looked around just because of it’s unique place in the world. For example, the two major touristic landmarks in the city are the Amman Citadel and the Roman Theater.

The Roman Theater
The Roman Theater with the Citadel in the background.

Both the Citadel and the Theater are Roman ruins that date back to almost 2000 years ago. I didn’t really put too much thought into it when I was looking into places to go in the city but when I got there I was like, “wait a minute, Rome is so far from here”.

And then that’s when I remembered my religion classes from so long ago when they were talking about how Jesus was arrested by the Romans and all of a sudden I had two simultaneous thoughts:

  1. The Roman Empire really expanded a lot further than I thought
  2. This was literally the area that Jesus was from

The first thought was mostly in relation to where I was. For example, the Citadel is on a hill in the center of Amman so from there you get a really great panoramic view of the city. So when I was there, you’re walking around these Roman ruins in this Middle Eastern city, which is already kinda cool, but then the call to prayer started.

The Temple of Hercules
The Temple of Hercules and the squatting Chinese man.

Now I’ve heard the call to prayer a lot already on that trip, but that one was special.

Since you’re on a hill in the middle of the city, the call to prayer comes up from the city all around you and you’re just, surrounded. It was definitely a really cool experience to be by these ruins looking out into this vast city and then being surrounded by this ambiance.

The second thought I had was a bit more philosophical because regardless of what your religious beliefs are, there’s no denying that religion has played a huge part in shaping humanity.

And three of the world’s largest religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, originated from that part of the world where Jordan is. Even if you just look at Christianity and Islam that’s half of the world’s population right there.

King Abdullah I Mosque
A big blue mosque, but not the biggest or the bluest.

That by itself is a bit crazy, just thinking that this area was where everything began.

It’s compounded by the fact that if you leave Amman, you’re only a couple hours drives from other places like the Red Sea and Jesus’ baptism site. And that’s already like, home of the Greatest Hits of the Old and New Testament.

Speaking of which, I had a great time in Amman but like Taipei, the best time I had in the country was when I left the city and went out into the country. Aside from the before mentioned places, Jordan is home to Petra, a ridiculously cool ruin, the Dead Sea, the weirdest body of water ever, and Wadi Rum, a red desert.

If you ever go to Jordan those are must visits.

The Petra Treasury
The Treasury at Petra.

Anyways, back to Amman. Due to Jordan’s geographic location, it has a mix of people of all faiths and beliefs. As a result it’s a bit more progressive and liberal than other places in the Middle East. They even make their own wine and beer, which is kinda cool.

Some people also celebrate Christmas so it was kinda cool to see a bunch of Christmas decorations being put up when I went to the Boulevard, a large outdoor shopping strip.

It was a bit weird though since when I was walking around there it seemed like there were a whole lot more guys out there than girls. It was oddly disproportionate, especially since the guys seemed to hang out in herds. Like seriously, there were like always groups of like 4 – 10 dudes just hanging out around the shopping center, which felt a bit strange to me.

Christmas in the Boulevard
Christmas in the Boulevard.

In general, Amman is kinda cool to walk around. The city sprawls out over a bunch of hills so it’s really easy to find a restaurant or cafe that looks out over the city. Makes for some pretty cool places to hang out. Certain areas even kinda remind of places in Seoul.

Even just walking around the city doing random stuff is kinda fun. On one night, we went and just bought a bunch of cheap snacks from the convenience store and just sat around some staircase talking and eating. That was fun.

But, considering how everything is on a hill, it makes getting anywhere kinda painful without a car since the hills make it so that you can’t really walk in a straight line anywhere; you always have to go around. Plus, the hills mean that there’s a lot of elevation going on so it’s tiring.

Amman Cityscape III
Amman at night.

One thing that surprised me about Amman was that the city was a lot more expensive than I thought it would be. Before I went on my trip, I figured that Turkey and Qatar would be the more expensive places with Jordan being the least expensive, but it turned out I was wrong.

Oddly enough, Jordan was the most expensive of the three countries that I went to. Even more than Qatar, which was really surprising. Especially so since the average salary in Jordan is lower than the other two countries as well.

I was talking to some locals and it really did seem like cost of living was a really big problem. Coming from Toronto, I get it. Our salaries are of course a lot higher but we also have a lot of problems with things just being way too expensive.

Overall, Amman was alright. I think it was a nice city but for the most part there isn’t that much that’s pulling me back there. On the other hand, Jordan as a country is quite interesting. It’s a land steeped in history and culture and there’s a bunch of really sweet natural spots too. Would go again.

Doha: The Desert Port

As part of my trip to the Middle East, I went to Qatar after my time in Istanbul. My visit to Dubai years ago kinda sparked an interest in the Gulf cities so I was excited to go to a second one.

In general, the Gulf cities are just known for their extravagance and luxury. I wanted to see what Doha had to offer.

My first impression of Doha was.. that it was not Dubai.

The Qatar Islamic Culture Center
The Qatar Islamic Culture Center.

I know that sounds a bit strange considering how they’re different cities in different countries, but when you look at the history of the two cities, there’s a lot more in common than you’d think.

I mean geographically they’re fairly close and both countries turned from being a farming and fishing based economy into one that exports a lot of oil and natural gas. And they both poured a ton of this newfound #OilMoney into building the most ridiculous things. Things are so similar that in an alternate timeline Qatar could’ve even joined the UAE.

Dubai, of course, is famous for its Burj Khalifa and ridiculous skyline. Doha, on the other hand, is visually less impressive. The city is still ridiculous but in comparison, it’s a bit smaller and quieter than Dubai.

Doha Skyline
Doha’s skyline.

I mean, you can tell just from a look at the skyline. Still an amazing and ridiculous one, but the tallest building in the country is only 300 meters and it’s not even in the skyline.

Where Dubai went for the high-end hyper modern luxurious look, Doha went for a bit more of a subtle approach, focusing on creating and enhancing a lot of the more traditional and cultural elements instead.

All around the city you see a lot more architecture that’s inspired by a lot of Qatari culture and Islam. In a way, it’s actually kinda cool how they tried to focus on traditional elements and kind of keep the spirit of what it means to be Qatari.

The Pearl Monument
A callback to Qatar’s old pearling industry.

Doha sits at the edge of the Persian Gulf and at the center of the city sits the Corniche, a crescent-shaped waterfront boardwalk. The south side of the Corniche is where I spent most of my time since that’s where the Souq, Museum of Islamic Art, and National Museum of Qatar is.

Souq Waqif is in the style of a traditional market but like everything in the city, it was built recently. Regardless, there’s a lot of shops and restaurants there and I was really surprised by how busy it got at night.

I didn’t expect people to actually hang out there but once the sun set and people got off work, a lot of people ended up hanging out around the Souq and the waterfront. It definitely added a lot of energy to the place but I’m not sure how many locals actually hang out there; maybe it’s just all the foreign workers and expats.

Souq Waqif Thumb
Some random thumb in the Souq.

The two museums I listed above are also worth checking out. Even if you’re not interested in the museum contents themselves, the architecture of the buildings is something to behold.

The Museum of Islamic Art sits right on the water and not only is it a cool building, but from there you can get a really good view of the financial district of the city, where all the fancy skyscrapers are.

If you’re into Islamic art at all, it’s a nice museum to check out as well. One of my favourite things about Islamic art is the amount of detail and intricate patterns in their work, and all of that is on full display at the museum.

The National Museum of Qatar
The National Museum of Qatar with its desert-inspired architecture and Arabic-inspired fountains.

The National Museum of Qatar is also incredibly unique. It’s shaped like a desert rose and the building looks so organic and beautiful. The museum itself goes into the history of Qatar and it does a pretty good job of explaining how the country evolved over time.

In terms of buildings though, my favourite building I saw in Doha was the Education City Mosque. After seeing so many beautiful mosques in Istanbul, I didn’t think that I would be able to see another mosque so soon that would impress me.

But man, that mosque was really something else.

Education City Mosque
A spaceship that doubles as a mosque.

All the mosques in Istanbul are old and used traditional Ottoman architecture. The Education City Mosque in Doha, on the other hand, decided to say “screw tradition” and went for an aesthetic that challenged what a mosque is supposed to look like.

What they ended up building was this crazy looking hyper-modern mosque that honestly looks straight out of science fiction. It almost looks like a spaceship and despite being there during prayer time and seeing it in action, to this day I can’t believe it’s a mosque.

We were there for sunset and that was one of the most beautiful sunsets I’ve seen in my life. It was really surreal watching the Arabian sun set while standing on this ridiculously futuristic building. That was definitely one of the highlights of the trip.

Sunset from the Education City Mosque
Sunset from the Education City Mosque.

Outside of fancy buildings, Doha has a bunch of other areas that are worth checking out as well. Katara is one of those areas and it’s designated as a cultural village.

It just so happened that they were having the Ajyal Film Festival when I went to Doha and so a bunch of events were being held in Katara. They even had a gaming function going on there. I didn’t really expect to see some small scale esports tournaments going on in Qatar and so that was a pleasant surprise.

The area itself contains a bunch of neat buildings and small shops. It’s also by the water and they had this pretty large and open beach area with a giant open air amphitheater. That area was nice and looked like it would be a really fun place to hang out in too.

Katara
Those are pigeon roosts.

Further north of the city sits the Pearl, an artificial island where all the rich people hang out. On the surface, it’s looks kinda nice. There’s a bunch of new buildings, a lot of nice looking yachts, they even have this fake Venice area.

But, it was so eerie because the entire place felt like a ghost town.

The place was lined with all these artisan stores, fancy cafes, and nice restaurants but there were only a handful of people in the entire area. It was so empty that the entire area felt so forced and unnecessary.

Like some sort of weird movie set that someone built just to say they built it.

The Pearl District
The oddly empty Pearl District.

Speaking of building stuff for the sake of building stuff, I arrived in Doha a day after their second metro line opened. It’s kinda crazy because in 2018, Doha had zero metro lines. The day I got there they opened their second line and they opened their third line like two weeks ago.

I can’t even imagine Toronto opening up infrastructure that quickly.

Anyways, their subways are beautiful and new, as expected. They’re also incredibly cheap and for all intensive purposes, seem like they’re great.

But one thing I noticed was that the metro services the people incredibly poorly. They’re in weird parts of the city and access to the stations is actually somewhat cumbersome. Like, the station closest to Katara is on the other side of this highway that has no pedestrian crossing.

Souq Waqif Station
The Souq Waqif metro station.

You’d imagine that a subway station’s usefulness is directly related to how useful it is to the average person using it, and I think that Doha’s metro is a perfect example of a service being designed and developed by people who don’t care about the people using it.

Alas, I think that’s just a recurring problem with the Gulf cities in general. Everything is a facade and done to look good. At the end of the day, the locals have money and they want to flaunt it to the world.

Overall, Doha was fun but I don’t think you need to spend that much time there. A couple days, or an extended layover (take Qatar Airways), would be enough time.

Doha is a confusing city because on the surface, it seems like a city that is proud of its heritage and culture, which is refreshing. But then you remember that it’s an extremely conservative Gulf city with way too much money and it really makes you question how genuine everything is.

Istanbul: The Transcontinental City

The last couple months have been pretty crazy so I decided to take a vacation once the dust started to settle at work. This year already saw me do big trips to Europe and to Latin America and so I wanted to do something different.

I ended up deciding to go to the Middle East.

I went to the Middle East a couple years ago when I went to Dubai, and I’ve always wanted to go back. There were direct flights from Toronto to Istanbul and I’ve also always wanted to go to Istanbul so I decided to make that my gateway city to the region.

Hagia Sophia x Breakfast
A view of the Hagia Sophia from the breakfast table.

Istanbul is an absolutely beautiful city.

Sitting on both sides of the Bosporus, it’s the biggest city that exists on two continents. In this case, it’s Europe and Asia and when you walk through the city you can really see that Istanbul really is a city that embodies the intersection of cultures.

Certain parts of the city have these small, quaint, and colourful buildings that look like they could be out of any other traditionally European city. But the main distinguishing feature of Istanbul are the myriad of Ottoman styled mosques with their giant domes and tall minarets.

Istanbul from the Galata Tower
Istanbul from the Galata Tower.

In general, I think that religious architecture is incredibly fascinating and beautiful. But the mosques in Istanbul are really something else. It’s hard to put into words how beautiful these mosques are.

For one, they’re enormous. Not only are the bases of the buildings large, but they also have these giant domes and it’s mind-boggling as to how people from hundreds of years ago managed to even construct these things.

The amount of detail that goes into the buildings is incredible as well. There are so many intricate details carved into the stones and there’s so many wonderful patterns layered into the interior of the mosques.

Each and every single one of these mosques are a giant piece of art and it’s just so amazing to experience in real life.

The Hagia Sophia
The Hagia Sophia.

When people think of Istanbul mosques, the two that people normally think of are the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque. Both of these guys are actually right across from each other at Sultanahmet Square and it makes for a really cool area.

The Hagia Sophia is the older building and so it doesn’t look as nice as the Blue Mosque from the outside, but it’s understandable considering how it was built 1500 years ago. Regardless, the Hagia Sophia is an incredibly cool building since it started off as a church and then got turned into a mosque, and so the inside of it has elements of both faiths.

In Islam, depictions of religious figures aren’t allowed which is why you probably don’t have an image of Mohammad in your head. Jesus, on the other hand, is depicted incredibly often in Christianity. This means that the Hagia Sophia is decorated with a mix of Christian murals and Islamic symbols, which is so cool.

The Inside of the Hagia Sophia
The inside of the Hagia Sophia, beautiful even with the renovations.

That alone makes it one of the most unique religious buildings I’ve been to but even if you disregard that element of it, it’s incredibly grand and beautiful.

The Blue Mosque is beautiful from the outside but it was under renovation on the inside so it didn’t really look that great. On the other hand, there are so many wonderful mosques in Istanbul like the Nuruosmaniye Mosque, Süleymaniye Mosque, and the Ortaköy Mosque that you have no risk of not getting your mosque fix in.

The Süleymaniye Mosque
The Süleymaniye Mosque.

Outside of mosques, Istanbul has a lot of really cool areas to check out as well. Honestly, Istanbul is such a large and old city that there are just so many things that you can see or do. I was there for like five days and I definitely think there’s so much more I could do.

Being a port city spanning two continents, the city has a lot of busy piers and harbourfront areas where you can see the city. There are short ferries you can take that bring you from Europe to Asia and vice versa which is kinda nice. Reminds me a bit of the ferry in Hong Kong between Kowloon and Hong Kong Island except you get the novelty of saying you took a boat to go between continents.

Another boat ride I took that I would recommend is the Bosporus cruise. There’s a bunch of them that are offered but there’s essentially just two routes, one that goes halfway down the Bosporus and another that goes most of the way down.

Under the Bosporus Bridge
Under the Bosporus Bridge.

The main differentiating factor here is the amount of marketing and who it’s marketed to. The one you see the most is the one advertised to tourists and it’s something ridiculous like 30 Euros for the boat ride. Sure, you get a dinner in there, but that doesn’t seem like a good deal.

I, on the other hand, went and found a more local cruise which only costed 25 Liras, which is almost a tenth of the price. There’s no food included but there’s a nice and cheap cafe on board and you have a chance to check out the restaurants at Anadolu Kavağı when you get there. The weather wasn’t super cooperative when I went but it was actually pretty worth it, especially considering the price.

The cruise also brings you to the Bosporus Bridge, which is a bridge that literally crosses continents (I’ve seem to seen a lot of famous bridges this year..). There’s no pedestrian footpath on that bridge but you can get under it in the water and you can also get this sick view of it by Ortaköy Mosque.

It’s especially nice at night there since the mosque is beautifully lit up and you have the bridge in the back.

Ortaköy Mosque at Night
The Ortaköy Mosque at night, featuring the Bosporus Bridge.

Like I said, there’s so much to see and do in Istanbul that if I wanted to write about everything this post would end up being like twice as long as it currently is. You have literally everything from pedestrian streets like İstiklal where you can find some nice restaurants and shops and incredibly old markets like the Grand Bazaar.

Both of those places are always filled with people and it really makes the city feel incredibly lively. Definitely worth visiting.

I’ve seen a lot of beautiful cities in my time but I think that Istanbul is in the top three with the likes of Prague and St. Petersburg. It also helps that it’s not as touristy as Prague but still has enough of that going on that it’s still very accessible.

Overall, I think Istanbul is a fantastic city. There’s still so much more for me to see and do there that I would definitely not mind another trip over there. Plus, since Turkish Airways (great airline btw) has direct flights from Toronto to Istanbul, it can also be a transport hub for me. Maybe next time I’ll check out other parts of Turkey as well!