Jabal Al Qal’a (Citadel Hill) has been a focus for human settlement since the Paleolithic Age, more than 18,000 years ago. Unfortunately, when the Romans moved in to occupy the area, they cleared away whatever they found, including the remains of the Ammonite city of Rabbath Ammon, and chucked it over the side of the hill: Bronze Age, Iron Age and Hellenistic pottery shards have been found mixed up with Roman remains on the slopes below. Of the remains surviving today, the most impressive by far is a huge Umayyad palace complex on the upper terrace of the Citadel, dating from the first half of the eighth century. On the middle terrace below and to the south lies the Roman Temple of Hercules, its massive columns dramatically silhouetted against the sky. East of the temple, Roman fortifications protect the grassy lower terrace, which has no visible antiquities.
The easiest way to reach the summit is by taxi; the ascent on foot (20min from Downtown) is extremely steep. About 150m along Shabsough Street as you head east, and just past the second turning on the left, a side-street has a wide flight of steps leading left up the hillside. Turn right at the top, and head up any way you can from here: there are crumbling steps most of the way, often leading through private backyards, though note you’ll still have to circle around to enter the site at the ticket office. If you’re driving, head east out of Downtown towards Zarqa, come off, pass under the highway, rejoin it heading west, then exit right. At the traffic lights bear left steeply up the hill, along King Ali bin Al Hussein Street. Near the top a hairpin left turn brings you to the car park.Read More
The Temple of Hercules
The Temple of Hercules
The Temple of Hercules, its towering columns visible from Downtown, was built in the same period as the Roman Theatre below. The temple stands on a platform at the head of the monumental staircase which formerly led up from the lower city: the blocks on the cliff edge mark the position of the staircase, and afford a tremendous panoramic view over the city centre that is particularly striking at sunset, when – in addition to the visual dramatics – the dozens of mosques in the city all around start broadcasting the call to prayer almost simultaneously.
The temple’s columns, which were re-erected in 1993, formed part of a colonnaded entrance to the cella, or inner sanctum. Within the cella a patch of bare rock is exposed, which, it’s thought, may have been the sacred rock that formed the centrepiece of the ninth-century BC Ammonite Temple of Milcom on this spot. The Roman dedication to Hercules is not entirely certain but, given the quantity of coins bearing his likeness found in the city below, pretty likely. Look out for the giant marble hand displayed nearby, part of an immense statue also thought to be of Hercules.
The Umayyad Palace
The Umayyad Palace
Climbing the signposted path from the Temple of Hercules, you pass a small ruined Byzantine church on the right, dating from the fifth or sixth centuries, which reused many of the columns from the nearby temple. The church formed part of a Byzantine town which probably covered much of the hill.
The remains of a large Umayyad mosque on the left presage the huge Umayyad Palace complex, which stretches over the northern part of the hill. Part of the palace was built over pre-existing Roman structures, and an entire colonnaded Roman street was incorporated into it. Built around 730, when Amman was a provincial capital, the complex probably combined the residential quarters of the governor of Amman with administrative offices. It was still in use during the Islamic Abbasid (750–969) and Fatimid (969–1179) periods, although much of the brand-new palace was never rebuilt following a devastating earthquake in 749.
The entrance hall
Beyond the mosque you come to the impressive domed entrance hall, reached by crossing the first of four plazas. Built over an earlier Byzantine building (which is why it’s in the shape of a cross), the hall is decorated with stucco colonnettes and Persian-style geometric patterns, set off by foliage rosettes and a houndstooth zigzag. Much renovation has been carried out here in recent years, not all of it subtly – the new stucco around the interior walls deliberately clashes with the original work, and in 1998 a new dome was constructed above the building, though archeological controversy persists about whether there ever was a dome here in antiquity. To one side of the building are the remains of a small bath-house, beside a large round cistern and what may have been an olive-pressing works.
The colonnaded street
Beyond the entrance hall is the second large plaza, from which the colonnaded street leads ahead. This was the heart of the administrative quarter, surrounded by nine separate office or residential buildings (of which only four have been excavated), each in the typical Umayyad style of a self-contained bayt – small rooms looking onto a central courtyard. The bayts were constructed within the pre-existing Roman enclosure, possibly a temple, whose exterior walls are still visible in places.
The residential quarters
At the far end of the colonnaded street, a decorated doorway takes you through the Roman wall into the third plaza and the private residential quarters of the ruler of Amman. Rooms open from three sides, but the plaza is dominated by a huge iwan – an audience room open on one side – which leads through to a domed, cruciform throne room, or diwan. According to Umayyad protocol, the ruler stayed hidden behind a curtain during audiences; the tiny passageway between the iwan and the diwan could have served this purpose. To either side lie the residential bayts for the ruling household. At the back of the diwan, a doorway leads through to the fourth and final plaza – a private affair, looking north over the massive Roman retaining wall to the hills opposite.
Up, up and away
Up, up and away
For an alternative flavour of life on Citadel Hill, consult well in advance with the urban communities project Hamzet Wasel (w hamzetwasel.com). They work frequently with the low-income families living on the Jabal Al Qal’a slopes. As part of an “exchange tourism” outlook, they can bring you along to meet with a group of kids who can take an hour or two to teach you how to build – and fly – a kite, employing the materials and techniques they use every day. It’s a great way to break down the tourist/local barrier and feed a bit of money into these often-sidelined communities – and gives a unique experience of Amman life. Check Hamzet Wasel’s website for details of this and other schemes running in untouristed neighbourhoods of the city.