AMMAN, Jan 30: Blankets of snow brought the Holy City of Jerusalem and other cities across the Middle East grinding to a halt on Wednesday as icy weather conditions gripped the mainly desert region.

Snow blocked roads to the Jordanian capital Amman and schools, universities and banks were shut in the desert kingdom, while freezing winds swept through the Mediterranean island of Cyprus and severe storms battered much of Lebanon.

Beirut was hit by torrential downpours and hailstorms on Wednesday, while heavy snow blocked roads in mountainous regions.

Residents of the region, more used to heat than freezing temperatures, complained about the cold, but weather forecasters welcomed both snow and rain to replenish almost empty dams and reservoirs.

In Beirut, one security official also welcomed the cold snap and rain saying it could at least discourage a repeat of deadly riots that shook the capital last weekend.In Syria snow fell overnight on the capital Damascus, taking temperatures seven degrees Celsius (up to 12 Fahreinheit) below seasonal norms. State television reported the closure of secondary roads in the south of the country.

The first snowfall of the year covered Jerusalem — and its famed Dome of the Rock in the heart of the Old City — with several centimetres of heavy snow and slush.

The streets of the Holy City were deserted during the normally hectic morning rush-hour, with few cars on the roads and isolated pedestrians making their way through the puddles of slush and snow on the sidewalks.

Classes were cancelled and public transport was not operating on a normal schedule.

“It was very difficult to get to work. Cars were sliding on the road,” Aid Lezy, a 29-year-old bank worker, said as she queued for coffee at one of the few cafes open in central Jerusalem.

Ravit and Motti Fitousi travelled together with their three children from the coastal town of Rishon Letzion, south of Tel Aviv, to see the snow.

“We come to Jerusalem every time it snows. We love it and the kids get a day off school,” said Ravit, as the family played in the 6-7 centimetres of snow on the ground at Sakher park in the centre of Jerusalem.

Schools and offices were closed, as snowploughs cleared the streets. Most shops and schools also stayed closed in the nearby West Bank town of Ramallah.

Jordan’s government declared Wednesday a public holiday because of the freeze. Delays hit Amman international airport but it remained open despite heavy snow since the early morning, according to a Royal Jordanian spokesman.

Meteorologists expected the cold front that hit Jordan and other regional countries to last at least through Thursday.

Snow covered high-lying areas of western Amman, which is built on seven hills with the highest point at 1,100 metres, trapping residents at home in many high-altitude areas. Several centimetres of snow largely paralysed the capital and officials urged people “to stay home and refrain from driving except for emergencies,” the state-run Petra news agency reported.—AFP

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