Amman has a dynamic contemporary arts scene, and some of the best galleries are within walking distance of each other in the neat, respectable neighbourhood of Jabal Al Lweibdeh, just north of Jabal Amman and overlooking the hubbub of Downtown. The area has a relatively high proportion of Christian residents, and you’ll find a tangibly different atmosphere from other parts of the city: many women are unveiled, streets are quieter and you might hear the unfamiliar sound of church bells.
Darat Al Funun
On Jabal Al Lweibdeh, a few minutes’ walk above Downtown, stands an idyllic refuge from the noise and bustle. Head for Omar Al Khayyam Street, which leads steeply up behind the Downtown post office; turning right at the first hairpin, you’ll soon come in sight of a high stone wall. With gates to left and right, this wall defines the grounds of Darat Al Funun, a lush haven of tranquillity housing a centre for contemporary Arab art. The “little house of the arts”, as its name translates, comprises a set of three 1920s villas in a beautiful, shaded hillside garden, within which lie the remains of the small sixth-century Byzantine Church of St George. The “Blue House”, at the top of the steeply terraced complex, houses changing exhibitions, and its wooden porch – a common feature of Circassian architecture, added to the building as an acknowledgment of the Circassian presence in the city – serves as a tiny café, Amman’s most beautiful and peaceful. On the same level is the former home of Emir Abdullah’s court poet, now a private studio for visiting artists. Below is the main building, the former official residence of Lieutenant-Colonel Frederick Peake, or “Peake Pasha”, British Commander of the Arab Legion in the 1920s and 1930s. It sports a wonderful semicircular portico and has been superbly renovated by Jordanian architect Ammar Khammash to house well-lit galleries, studios and an excellent art library. Legend has it that, on his stay in late 1921 as a guest of Peake, T.E. Lawrence wrote much of Seven Pillars of Wisdom in this building.
Exhibitions at Darat Al Funun vary from grand overviews of contemporary Arab art to small shows from local artists, with everything publicized on the gallery website. There are also plenty of lectures and performances, often staged atmospherically in the ruined church, and all events are free to the public. Even if art isn’t your strong point, dropping in gives a sense of a flourishing side of Jordanian culture that’s barely touched upon by most visitors.
Makan Art Space
If you turn left out of the top gate of Darat Al Funun, a short walk straight ahead and then behind the Al Saadi mosque will bring you to another of Jabal Al Lweibdeh’s arts centres, Makan. It’s a small, alternatively minded place, started up by the enthusiastic Ola Khalidi, which stages exhibitions and events, and also serves as a venue for informal concerts and film-screenings – links with the Amman Filmmakers’ Cooperative are strong. Its balcony has another spectacular view out over the city.
Dar Al Anda
Further along the same street, ochre adobe walls announce Dar Al Anda, a gallery and cultural centre staging concerts, workshops and arts events. The original building, which was built in 1939, has been beautifully restored, and – along with newer buildings around the courtyard – now houses a library for children, a studio, a guest apartment for resident artists, and so on. Opening hours for both vary (and often include a break in mid-afternoon), but it’s worth popping by on the off-chance to see what’s happening.
Leaving from the top gate of Darat Al Funun, it’s a stiff five-minute climb north past the Luzmila Hospital to the roundabout known as Lweibdeh Circle on top of the hill; the little park on the roundabout has been prettified thanks to the French Embassy and renamed “Square de Paris”. Ten minutes or so from here on the flat along quiet, shady Shari’a College Street, past the Terra Sancta religious academy, will bring you to Muntazah Circle, an oval expanse of green lined with elegant town houses. One of these, on the right, is the Jordan National Gallery of Fine Arts, also reached on a short, signposted walk from Abdali. This is the country’s premier establishment showcase for contemporary art, with artists from Jordan, the Arab world and the wider Islamic world all represented in a changing programme of shows drawing on the 2000-work permanent collection. Exhibitions are split between the main building and an annexe in a town house opposite; take time to stroll in the pleasant garden between the two, which also houses the chic Canvas art lounge and café.