Consistently overlooked and underrated by travellers to the Middle East, the Jordanian capital Amman stands in marked contrast to its raucous neighbours, with none of the grand history of Damascus, not a whiff of Jerusalem’s tension and just a tiny fraction of Cairo’s monuments. It’s a civilized, genial city with unexpected charm, bathed in a new spirit of dynamism: investment is pouring in, new buildings are going up, neighbourhoods are being rejuvenated and the city is humming with cafés, galleries and commerce. If you’re dreaming of medieval mosques, gloomy spice bazaars and fading romance, go elsewhere; if you want a handle on how a young, buzzy Arab capital is making its way in the world, Amman is for you.
Amman is a thoroughly twentieth-century invention: it was little more than an unregarded, muddy farming village when Emir Abdullah chose it to be his new capital in 1921. The sense of Amman being a village-made-good is highlighted when you spend some time on the busy Downtown streets. Here the weight of history that is a constant presence in the heart of many Middle Eastern cities is absent; Amman, instead, is distinguished by a quick-witted self-reliance. This energy stems in large part from displacement: most Ammanis identify themselves as originating somewhere else. Circassians, Iraqis and above all Palestinians have arrived in the city in large numbers, voluntarily or forcibly exiled from their homelands – and joined, in the last few years, by post-conflict Libyans and Syrians. The distinctive cultures they have brought are still jostling for living space with the culture of the native bedouin. Indeed, scratching beneath Amman’s amiable surface reveals a whole cluster of personalities jockeying for supremacy: Western-educated entrepreneurs make their fortunes cheek-by-jowl with poverty-stricken refugees, Christians live next door to Muslims, conservative Islamists and radical secularists tut at each other’s doings, Jordanians of Palestinian origin assert their identity in the face of nationalistic tendencies among “East Bank” Jordanians, and so on. What it is to be Ammani is a dispute that shows no signs of resolution.
For the time-pressed ruin-hunter, then, there’s little more than an afternoon’s sightseeing to be done; however, if you’re on a long, slow journey of familiarity you could easily spend days exploring the slopes of Amman’s towering hills, getting under the city’s skin while seeing nothing in particular. The capital’s impressive Roman Theatre and eighth-century Umayyad Palace are the only significant monumental attractions, augmented by the national museum, but of equal, if not greater, interest is contemporary Amman’s burgeoning arts scene. The arts centre of Darat Al Funun, the National Gallery and regular music events can add a surprising perspective to your experience of the city’s life. The city also makes a good base for day-trips.
Amman is a city of hills, and any map of the place can only give half the story. Although distances may look small on paper, the reality is that traffic and people are funnelled along streets often laid on valley-beds or clinging to the side of steep hills: to reach any destinations above Downtown you’ll generally have to zoom (or zigzag) up sharp gradients.
Downtown and Jabal Al Qal’a
The area known in English as Downtown, in Arabic as il-balad (literally “the city”), is the historical core of Amman; Roman Philadelphia lies beneath its streets and as late as the 1940s this small area comprised virtually the whole of the city. Downtown forms a slender T-shape nestling in the valleys between six hills. At the joint of the T, and the heart of the city, is the imposing Husseini Mosque, which faces along King Faisal Street, the commercial centre of Downtown and home to most of its budget hotels. The other main thoroughfare of Downtown – Hashmi Street and King Talal Street, together forming the cross-piece of the T – runs in front of the mosque, passing to the west most of Amman’s street markets, and to the east the huge Roman Theatre. Towering over Downtown are several hills, including Jabal Al Qal’a (‘Citadel Hill’), site of a partly restored Umayyad Palace.
Amman’s wealth is concentrated in upmarket West Amman; other districts to the north, south and east are poorer and more populous. The various neighbourhoods of Jabal Amman form the heart of the city’s rich western quarter. Running along the crest of the ridge is Zahran Street, the main east–west traffic artery, punctuated by numbered intersections known as circles (not all of them are roundabouts, and most feature overpasses and/or multi-level, crisscrossing tunnels that keep the traffic moving). Closest to Downtown, 1st Circle marks a quiet district with some elegant old stone buildings, focused on the cafés and galleries of cobblestoned Rainbow Street. The area around 2nd Circle has backstreets comprising close-knit neighbourhoods with rows of shops and diners. Offices, upmarket residential districts and big hotels cluster around busy 3rd Circle. The slopes around 4th and 5th Circles are where the Prime Ministry and many embassies are located (as well as more big hotels). 6th Circle – overlooked by the Jordan Gate twin towers – lies near the cafés and boutiques of Sweifiyyeh and Umm Uthayna. 7th Circle marks the start of the Airport Road/Desert Highway heading south, and features supermarkets, petrol stations and drive-through fast-food outlets. Busy 8th Circle hosts hard-working neighbourhoods at the western limits of the city proper.
Jabal Al Lweibdeh, Abdali and Shmeisani
The next hill north of Jabal Amman is Jabal Al Lweibdeh, a monied residential neighbourhood that’s home to the National Gallery and several art galleries. Lweibdeh abuts the unromantic commercial area of Abdali, where a large chunk of land is being transformed into a new business district centred on a cluster of skyscrapers. Above Abdali lies Shmeisani, a lively financial district sprinkled with restaurants and pavement cafés. Beyond here, the northwestern suburbs dribble on for miles out to Jordan University.
Sweifiyyeh, Abdoun and beyond
South of Shmeisani, Sweifiyyeh, the city’s most upmarket shopping district, lies below 6th Circle, alongside the lavish mansions of Abdoun, residence of most of Jordan’s millionaires – reachable from 4th and 5th Circles.
Within spitting distance of Abdoun’s villas, the Wadi Abdoun valley marks a division between rich West Amman and poor East Amman – of which Muhajireen and Ras Al Ain are closest to Downtown, the latter hosting the national museum.
The first known settlement near Amman, a Neolithic farming town near the Ain Ghazal spring in the hills to the northeast of the modern city, dates from over nine thousand years ago. This was one of the largest such towns discovered in the region, three times bigger than contemporary Jericho. Artisans from among its two thousand inhabitants produced strikingly beautiful human busts and figurines in limestone and plaster, some of the earliest statuettes ever discovered – they’re now on display in the Amman museum.
Amman during the Old Testament
Around 1800 BC, during the Bronze Age, the hill now known as Jabal Al Qal’a, which overlooks the central valley of Amman, was fortified for the first time. According to Genesis, the area was inhabited by giants before the thirteenth-century BC arrival of the Ammonites, named as descendants (along with the Moabites) of the drunken seduction of Lot by his own two daughters. By 1200 BC, the citadel on Jabal Al Qal’a had been renamed Rabbath Ammon (Great City of the Ammonites) and was capital of an amply defended area which extended from the Zarqa to the Mujib rivers.
Rabbath – or Rabbah – is mentioned many times in the Old Testament; the earliest reference, in Deuteronomy, reports that, following a victory in battle, the city had seized as booty the great iron bed of King Og, last of the giants. Later, the book of Samuel relates that, around 1000 BC, the Israelite King David sent messengers to Rabbah with condolences for the death of the Ammonite king. Unfortunately, the Ammonites suspected the messengers were spies: they shaved off half their beards, shredded their garments and sent them home in ignominy. In response to such a profound insult, David sent his entire army against Rabbah, although he himself stayed behind in Jerusalem to develop his ongoing friendship with Bathsheba, who soon became pregnant. On David’s orders, her husband Uriah was placed in the front line of battle against Rabbah and killed. David then travelled to Rabbah to aid the conquest, threw the surviving Ammonites into slavery and returned home to marry the handily widowed Bathsheba. Their first child died, but their second, Solomon, lived to become king of Israel.
The feud between neighbours simmered for centuries, with Israel and Judea coveting the wealth gathered from lucrative trade routes by Ammon and its southern neighbours, Moab and Edom. In the absence of military or economic might, Israel resorted to the power of prophecy. “The days are coming,” warned Jeremiah in the sixth century BC, “that a trumpet blast of war will be heard against Rabbah of Ammon.” The city was to become “a desolate heap” with fire “destroying the palaces”. In a spitting rage at the Ammonites’ celebration of the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem in 587 BC, Ezekiel went one better, prophesying that Rabbah was to be occupied by bedouin and to become “a stable for camels”.
From Alexander the Great to modern times
After Alexander the Great conquered the region in 332 BC, his successor Ptolemy II Philadelphus rebuilt Rabbah and named it Philadelphia, the “city of brotherly love”. Turmoil reigned following the Seleucid takeover in 218 BC until the Romans restored order by creating the province of Syria in 63 BC. Philadelphia was at its zenith as the southernmost of the great Decapolis cities, and benefited greatly from improved trade and communications along the Via Nova Traiana, completed in 114 AD by Emperor Trajan to link Bosra, the provincial capital, with the Red Sea. The Romans completely replanned Philadelphia and constructed grand public buildings, among them two theatres, a nymphaeum, a temple to Hercules and a huge forum, all of which survive.
In Byzantine times, Philadelphia was the seat of a bishopric and was still a regional centre when the Arabs conquered it in 635; the city’s name reverted to Amman under the Damascus-based Umayyad dynasty. Amman became a regional capital and, around 720, its Umayyad governor expanded the Roman buildings surviving on Jabal Al Qal’a into an elaborate palatial complex, which promptly collapsed in the great earthquake of 749. Following the Abbasid takeover shortly afterwards, power shifted east to Baghdad and Amman’s influence began to wane, although it continued to serve as a stop for pilgrims on the way south to Mecca.
Over the next centuries, travellers mention an increasingly desolate town; by the time Circassian refugees were settled here by the Ottomans in the 1870s, Amman’s hills served only as pastureland for the local bedouin – Ezekiel’s furious prophecy come true. The Circassians, however, revived the city’s fortunes, and when the Emirate of Transjordan was established in 1921, Emir Abdullah chose Amman to be its capital.
Up to 1948, Amman comprised only a village of closely huddled houses in the valleys below Jabal Al Qal’a, with a handful of buildings on the lower slopes of the surrounding hills. But in that year Palestinians, escaping or ejected from the newly established State of Israel, doubled the city’s population in just two weeks. Makeshift camps to house the refugees were set up on the outskirts, and, following another huge influx of Palestinian refugees from the West Bank, occupied by Israel in 1967, creeping development began to merge the camps with the city’s sprawling new suburbs.
A fundamental shift in Amman’s fortunes came with the outbreak of the Lebanese civil war in 1975. Beirut had been the financial, cultural and intellectual capital of the Middle East, but when hostilities broke out, many financial institutions relocated their regional headquarters to the security of Amman. Most subsequently departed to the less parochial Gulf, but they nonetheless brought with them money, and with the money came Western influence: today there are parts of West Amman indistinguishable from upmarket neighbourhoods of American or European cities, with broad leafy avenues lined with mansions, and fast multi-lane freeways swishing past strip malls and glass office buildings. A third influx of Palestinians – this time expelled from Kuwait following the 1991 Gulf War – again bulged the city at its seams, squeezing ever more urban sprawl along the roads out to the northwest and southwest.
When King Hussein signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1994, ending a state of war that had persisted since 1948, many Ammanis hoped for the opening of a new chapter in the city’s life; Amman’s intimate links with Palestinian markets and its generally Western-oriented business culture led many to believe wealth and commerce – not to mention Western aid – would start to flow. Building development burgeoned across the city, but for several years many of the new hotels and office buildings were white elephants, with Amman seeing little economic comeback from political rapprochement with Israel.
Since the early years of this century that situation has changed. Substantial quantities of US aid are starting to have an effect. Jordan’s political and economic institutions are strengthening. With the government’s increasing liberalization of the economy, confidence in Amman as a city on the up is growing. Private sector investment has rocketed, much of it coming from Arab countries. Refugees have continued to arrive – notably Iraqis, following the 2003 Gulf War, and Libyans, following the 2011 revolution – adding to the social mix but putting extra strain on the city’s infrastructure. Horrendous traffic, resulting from the failure to implement a coherent transport strategy, is damaging both business performance and quality of life.
Yet with its carefully nurtured international image as the moderate and hospitable face of the modern Arab world – an image that rings true for visitors – Amman today can be said to enjoy a greater influence in the region and the world than at any time since the Romans.Read More
Day-trips from Amman
Day-trips from Amman
Distances in Jordan are small. It’s easy to base yourself in Amman and make a series of day-trips out to nearby attractions. The main draw is floating your day away at the Dead Sea; you could combine this with a visit to the nearby Baptism Site of Jesus. Alternatively the amiable old town of Madaba is within easy reach – and, with your own transport, you could construct a gentle, circular day-trip from Amman to Madaba, then the Mount Nebo mosaics, then the Dead Sea (with or without the Baptism Site), and back to Amman. If you start early, and maintain a reasonable pace, this circuit is also possible by bus.
A pleasant day-trip into the hilly countryside west of Amman could take in the Hellenistic palace of Qasr Al Abd and the adjacent caves and crafts workshops of Iraq Al Amir, the beautiful old Ottoman capital of Salt and a meal or a stroll in the lanes of old Fuheis.
North of Amman, the Roman ruins at Jerash make for a great half-day excursion, set in some lovely rolling countryside. Combine Jerash with a visit to Ajloun castle – or make a day of it with a walk on Ajloun’s Al Ayoun Trail.
East of Amman, a circuit of roads takes in the fascinating “Desert Castles” – this is easy to do by taxi or private car, but impossible on public transport.
The first people to settle in Amman in modern times were Muslim refugees from Christian persecution in Russia. The Circassians (or Cherkess), who began arriving in the 1870s, trace their origins back to mountain villages above the eastern Black Sea, in the region of the Caucasus around present-day Georgia and Chechnya.
In the 1860s, Russian military offensives in the Caucasus forced 1.5 million people out of their homes into exile in Ottoman Turkish territory. Some headed west towards the fertile lands of the Balkans (establishing Muslim communities in and around Bosnia), while others drifted south into the Ottoman province of Syria. Stories began to filter back to those left behind of life in a Muslim land, and many Circassian and Chechen villages went en masse into voluntary exile. European governments lent their weight to the Ottoman policy of dumping the refugees on ships bound for distant Syria.
Meanwhile, Amman had been uninhabited for virtually a thousand years. In 1877, Selah Merrill, a visiting American archeologist, “spent part of one night in the great theatre… The sense of desolation was oppressive. Kings, princes, wealth and beauty once came here to be entertained, where now I see only piles of stones, owls and bats, wretched fellahin [peasants] and donkeys, goats and filth.” The first Circassian refugees arrived the following year, setting up home in the galleries of the theatre; others founded new villages in the fertile valley of Wadi Seer to the west and among the deserted ruins of Jerash to the north. The presence of settlers caused some conflict with local tribes, but the Circassians held their own in skirmishes with the bedu, and soon a mutual respect and a formal pact of friendship emerged between them. After 1900, Circassian labour was central to the building of the Hejaz railway line, and Circassian farmers became famed for their industry. One of their great innovations was the reintroduction of the wheel: with no roads to speak of, wheeled transport hadn’t been used in Transjordan for centuries.
When, in the 1920s, Emir Abdullah established a new state and chose Amman to be its capital, he bound the Circassian community into his new administration: loyal and well-educated families were the mainstay of both the officer corps and the civil service. Over the years overt expressions of Circassian culture faded: Arabic became the lingua franca, the use of national dress died out and, with the rise in land prices following the influx of Palestinian refugees in 1948, many Circassians sold their inherited farmlands around Amman for the building of new suburbs. However, their internal identity remained strong, and Circassians today form an integrated minority of around 100,000. See w circassianworld.com for more.
Hammams (Turkish baths) are common in Cairo, Damascus and many other Middle Eastern and North African cities, elegant and civilized places to steam the city dust out of your pores. Amman is an exception: its short recent history means that it doesn’t share the centuries-old urban traditions of its neighbours. There is, for all intents and purposes, only one hammam in the city, the modern Al Pasha Turkish Bath.
Al Pasha Turkish Bath
Mahmoud Taha Street, opposite the Ahlia girls’ school; it’s the fifth turn on the right coming from 1st Circle along Rainbow Street t 06 463 3002, w pashaturkishbath.com. Beautifully designed in traditional style, the hammam offers 2hr of soaking, scrubbing, lathering and olive-oil massaging with professional male or female therapists for JD25. There are men-only hours, women-only hours and you can book ahead as a mixed group or a couple; call for details. Afterwards, don’t miss out on herbal tea and/or a light meal of mezze in the beautiful garden courtyard – there are few more pleasant retreats in the city centre. Daily 10am–midnight.
One of the most innovative developments in Amman’s dining scene in recent years is Beit Sitti, a project set up by Maria Haddad and her sisters Dina and Tania in which visitors cook their own meal under supervision. In a spotless modern kitchen installed in a charming historic town house, you get to spend a couple of hours handling ingredients, learning techniques and hearing stories of culinary endeavour from chefs – generally wives and mothers with a lifetime of cooking behind them – as you prepare a three-course Arabic meal. Then, of course, you scoff your handiwork together, often on the shaded front terrace, with a gorgeous view over the Downtown rooftops. Wine is also available. It’s a wonderful, insightful experience – cultural as much as culinary – that has rapidly become a hit among locals as well as visitors.
Reservations – which are essential, at least one day ahead – are very flexible: they can accommodate bookings for breakfast, lunch or dinner, at times to suit you. If you’re booking as an individual or couple, they will try to slot you in with the next available group – or you can pay extra for a private session of your own.
“Souk Jara” street market
“Souk Jara” street market
In the summer months, don’t miss Souk Jara, a popular, easy-going flea market of antiques, crafts, T-shirts and other streetwear, art and food, established by JARA (the Jabal Amman Residents’ Association; w jara-jordan.com). It is held on Fawzi Malouf Street, off the lower end of Rainbow Street, every Friday between mid-May and early September, from 10am to 10pm, and often includes impromptu concerts, film screenings and other activities. The Souk Jara page on Facebook has more details.
Prices for gold jewellery in Amman are some of the cheapest in the world. Not only is there a constant, massive demand in Jordan for gold, used in marriage dowries, but workmanship on gold jewellery is charged by weight here – which turns out to be very economical by world standards. The upshot is that it’s well-nigh impossible to find the same quality of work or purity of gold outside Jordan for less than three or four times the Amman price. In the Downtown Gold Souk, you can be paying a measly few dinars per gram for finished pieces in 21-carat gold (which is very popular, partly because its orangey-yellow hue looks good against darker skin, and partly because its purity and investment value make it most desirable for dowries).
When buying, you have to know, at least sketchily, what you’re looking at and what you want, and you have to be prepared to devote some hours to making a purchase. Browsing from shop to shop to get a sense of the market can be a pleasure: Jordan is mercifully free of the kind of tedious hard-sell haggling for which the Middle East is notorious. Be aware that there are no hallmarks; instead, look for a stamp indicating gold purity in parts per thousand: ”875” indicates 21-carat, while ”750” is 18-carat. When you buy, you will be given two receipts: one for the per-gram market value of the item, another for the cost of the workmanship. The honour system among gold merchants – both in the Downtown Gold Souk and elsewhere – is very strong, and means that it is very unlikely you’ll be misled. Styles of jewellery vary – although everyone will happily make you up a necklace of a gold tag shaped with your name in Arabic – and, with prices as low as they are, commissioning a custom-made piece to your own design doesn’t command the kind of absurd prices that the same thing in the West might do.
Silver is sold in the same way as gold, although it is much less popular and you may have to search for it; prices, though, can be absurdly low. All jewels or precious stones on sale in Jordan are imported.