A historic journey through Al Salt highlighting the architectural significance of some of the most notable buildings in the city.
Built across three hills: Qala’a, Gada’a and Salalem, the city has occupied an important strategic location through Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman eras because it is situated on the trade route to Jerusalem.
Previously known as Saltos under the Roman Empire, Al Salt has been destroyed and reconstructed through the ages and a collage of architectural styles is still evident in the city today through the surviving remnants of previous inhabitants.
The architecture practices of the city have witnessed great changes over the centuries. “In earlier times under the Roman and Byzantine Empires and the Mamluk Sultanate, the buildings were constructed using large, formed stones. As these influences diminished, local inhabitants reverted to building homes from rubble and mud plaster until the mid-19th century,” explains Ayman Abu Jalmeh, Director of Balqa Tourism. “During this time, the homes were simple dwellings, primarily on one level and with only a few rooms.” As the city reached its golden era, from 1870 until 1920, when trade with the Mediterranean world flourished, the residents again began using cut stone and the buildings became more complex.
The architecture became strongly influenced by Nabulsi and Turkish styles including the use of cross-vault ceilings and arched windows as well as expanded into larger buildings with more floors. The city’s signature yellow limestone, which is quarried from Salalem, became the dominant choice surpassing the white limestone sourced from neighbouring Wadi Shu’aib. After World War I, European influences also became more widespread, such as the I-beam structure used for balconies.
During this period the city grew and spread further up the slopes of the central hills. By the mid-20th century, the neighbourhoods of Qala’a, Gada’a, Tal Jadwar and the base of Salalem were booming.
This golden era experienced an influx of merchant families from west of the Jordan River, including the prominent Abujaber household. Arriving to Al Salt around 1845, the family began producing wheat on a large scale, which was exported to France and Spain.
Within a few years, the Abujabers were prosperous and in 1892 they began construction on the ground floor of what is today the Historic Old Al Salt Museum, which houses displays on local heritage. It is also the starting point of the heritage trail that tours the historic buildings of the city.
The house was built by Saleh Abujaber, one of two successful Abujaber brothers. It is approximately 1750-square-metres in size and includes an impressive 52 doors. Arguably the most lavish house in Al Salt at the turn of the 20th century, the home hosted King Abdullah I as the Kingdom’s capital city after the declaration of the Emirate of Transjordan.
The structure was built in three phases over the course of 15 years. The ground floor was carved into the adjacent hill and features one-metre-thick walls. These were characteristic of dwellings of the time as they helped to maintain a moderate temperature inside the house.
Initially, the family lived in one part of this ground level while other areas were used for livestock and storage. In 1896, the first floor of the house was added on and several years later in 1906, Saleh’s three sons built the final, second floor following their father’s death in 1899. At this time, the house was divided into three apartments, one for each family, and the last relative occupied the house until 1965. Afterwards, the house was subdivided and rented out to shop keepers, a school and other entities. The building fell into disrepair until restorations began for the opening of the museum in the early 1990s.
At its inception, the construction of the house was led by famed Nabulsi contractor Abdul Rahman Akrouk. The mastermind employed architecture styles from Nablus, such as the cross-vault ceilings as well as mediated with the family to create a suitable home.
“Abdul Rahman Akrouk was a master builder and mason. We are not certain he had a role in the first floor, but we are certain he had a role in the second and third,” explains Dr Raouf Abujaber, who was born in the house in 1925.
In addition to bringing in architectural styles, many materials used in the construction were sourced from across the seas. The wood was imported from Canada and the coloured windowpanes originally came from Belgium, although replicas from Egypt were used during the renovation.
The red roof tiles came from the port city of Marseille in southern France, making it the first house in Al Salt to have roof tiles, according to Dr Abujaber. Carrara marble was sourced from Italy and Italian-style frescoes adorned the ceilings depicting beautiful landscapes from Europe. The house was a landmark in the city at the time it was built, as it continues to be today.
Also longstanding in Al Salt is the villa of the Tukan family, who emigrated to Al Salt from Nablus toward the end of the 19th century. Now operating as Salt’s Archaeological and Folklore Museum, the house is seen as a significant traditional building of the past century.
Ala’uddin Tukan built the house in two phases between 1900 and 1905. Constructed from the yellow stone of Salalem and white stone from Wadi Shu’aib, the house has two storeys, atop a street-level storage basement with vaulted ceilings.
The main entrance reached by following a flight of stairs from the street and is graced with decorative columns along the landing. The entrance hall and side rooms were elaborately furnished and used to entertain guests.
The first level features Nabulsi cross-vaults and barrel-vaults, while the upper floor (added later) includes iron beams that were also used in constructing the Hijaz Railway. The upstairs was also outfitted with large windowpanes imported from Germany and Britain.
The family lived in the house until the mid-1950s, after which it was converted into a school until being abandoned in the 1980s. During the 1990s, the home was given to the Al Salt municipality and is now open as a museum. This establishment and the entire historically rich city await exploration by architects, avid historians and curious Jordanians alike.
Additional reporting: Ayham Otoom
Photography: Al-Mukhtar Zeyad