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Cave restaurant becomes latest attraction in Jordan’s mosaic city

The Jordanian city of Madaba is internationally known for its Byzantine church mosaics, but its latest attraction takes visitors underground.

After deciding to open a restaurant, geologist George Haddadin chose to name the establishment Mrah Salameh, which translates to “Happiness of Tranquility.” Unlike most other restaurants that boast of calmness, his restaurant's ambience stems from being underground, in a cave dating to the Neolithic era. Haddadin turned the Stone Age cavern into a restaurant after initial protests by members of the local community in Madaba, 20 miles south of Amman, who thought it would represent the destruction of their heritage. Instead, Haddadin has transformed the cave into a historical and culinary destination.

“It is an archaeological attraction that provides food, not a restaurant,” Haddadin told Al-Monitor. Haddadin also describes the space, with dim lighting and a touch of humidity, as the perfect place to meditate.

Mrah Salameh is the result of an accidental discovery. In 2010, Haddadin, who headed the Jordanian Geological Association from 1988 to 1992, had wanted to build a house on a piece of land owned by his father. “When we started digging, I discovered these caves,” he explained. Haddadin alerted the Ministry of Culture about his findings, and the experts sent to examine the cave found that it dated to the Stone Age, as they explained in a report.

“I initially wanted to turn the place into a museum,” Haddadin said. “But after a while, I thought I could turn it into a restaurant where the body and the spirit are fed.” He then sought approval for his idea from the Ministry of Culture, with the local branch in Madaba helping him obtain the necessary licenses.

Haddadin laid a glass floor to preserve the cave's natural state and to allow visitors to enjoy the historic nature of the cave. After visitors descend the steps to the restaurant, they can look down into the cave's various openings and small channels where water once flowed.

“Initially, the idea of having food in a cave seemed strange,” Haddadin said. “When we started working on converting the cave into a restaurant, it was met with resistance by locals, but after years of hard work, this location has become a historical landmark, and their attitude has changed.”

Ruba Abu Saleh, a patron at the restaurant, told Al-Monitor, “I had seen pictures of the restaurant on Facebook, and I was curious. When I visited the place, it met my expectations, with a narrow set of stairs that takes you into a historical cave. It is more than a restaurant.”

Reem al-Madan, another guest, told Al-Monitor that she had visited Mrah Salameh during the holy month of Ramadan for iftar, the meal at sunset that marks the end of fasting each day. “I heard about it from university students in Madaba, but the students’ description was nothing like the reality. The cave feels like a time machine.”

In Bedouin culture, “mrah salameh” describes a large space where people can relax. This is part of the reason Haddadin chose the name for his restaurant, which can seat as many as 200 people. The food is simple, traditional Bedouin fare, with dishes recalling the Paleo diet currently trendy in the West.

Mrah Salameh, open since 2015, has become a landmark for locals and tourists in Madaba, which dates to the Bronze Age. The city, whose name means “water and fruit” in Aramaic, is best known for its Byzantine mosaics, especially the sixth-century mosaic map of Jerusalem and other parts of the Holy Land on the floor of St. George’s Church. Also attracting tourists 6 miles from Madaba is Mount Nebo, where according to the Hebrew Bible, the prophet Moses was granted a look at the Promised Land.

Wael Janini, the head of the Madaba Tourism Directorate, told Al-Monitor that when Haddadin came up with the idea of a restaurant in a cave, the office was excited about having a “new and unique tourist attraction.”

“In the last few years, we have had two important accomplishments. The city joined UNESCO’s Creative Cities Network in 2017 and received the World Craft City’s annual award in 2016,” Janini said, the latter being for its mosaics. “We encourage locals to become part of the tourism sector, which is the engine of the Jordanian economy. In Madaba in particular, we can do a lot, as it is a world-class tourist city that contains heritage paths, Christian pilgrimage [sites], adventure trails, environmental tourism and meditation tourism. The number of tourists who visited Madaba in 2017 totaled 220,000. Already in the first six months of 2018, we have hit 224,000.”

Haddadin stresses that Madaba should invest in geotourism, not just tourism focusing on religion and mosaics. “Finding caves from different ages reflects the reality that Jordan is one big museum,” he said. “In Mrah Salameh, you don’t just eat with your mouth, but your eyes feast on mankind’s history.”

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