Although you shouldn’t leave Amman without having spent at least some time in Downtown, the cramped valleys between towering hills shelter comparatively few obvious sights. Rather, Downtown is the spiritual and physical heart of the city and is unmissable for its streetlife. This is the district that most strongly resembles the stereotype of a Middle Eastern city – loud with traffic and voices, Arabic music blaring from shopfronts, people selling clothes, coffee, cigarettes or trinkets on the street. The handful of Roman ruins that survive here have been irreverently incorporated into the everyday bustle of the city: the banked seating of the huge Roman Theatre is frequently dotted with small groups of locals seeking refuge from the traffic noise.
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The Roman theatre
The Roman theatre
The Roman theatre, dominating the heart of Downtown, was the centrepiece of Roman Philadelphia, and also the initial focus for Amman’s modern settlement late in the nineteenth century. As you approach from Hashmi Street, a long Corinthian colonnade and some original Roman paving are the only physical remains of Philadelphia’s forum, the marketplace which filled the gap between the theatre and the street (this whole area was under redevelopment at the time of writing; it’s hard to tell how the plans will turn out).
Cut into a depression in the hillside, the Roman Theatre itself is impressively huge, and the view, as well as the ability to eavesdrop on conversations between ant-like people on the stage below, definitely repays the steep climb to the top. The structure was built between 169 and 177 AD, during the reign of Emperor Marcus Aurelius, for an audience of almost six thousand, and is still occasionally filled today for concerts. Above the seating is a small, empty shrine with niches; the dedication isn’t known, although part of a statue of Athena was discovered during clearance work.
Standing on the stage or in the orchestra – the semicircle in front of the stage – you can get a sense of the ingenuity of the theatre’s design: the south-facing stage is flooded with sun throughout the day, while virtually every spectator remains undazzled and in cool shadow. To discover the incredible acoustics, stand in the middle of the orchestra and declaim at the seating, and your normal speaking voice will suddenly gain a penetrating echo; step off that spot and there’s no echo. Furthermore, two people crouching down at opposite ends of the orchestra can mutter into the semicircular stone wall below the first row of seats and easily hear each other.
The museums of folklore and popular traditions
Within the Roman theatre, to the sides of the stage, are two small museums, housed in vaults beneath the auditorium. On the right as you walk in, the Folklore Museum displays mannequins engaged in traditional crafts and a reconstruction of an old-fashioned living-room. The more worthwhile Jordanian Museum of Popular Traditions, opposite, enlivens the theme of traditional clothing, jewellery and customs by rooting it firmly in the present-day life of ordinary people. The vaulted rooms are full of examples of national dress, with detailed notes and occasional photographs to set them in context. Other exhibits include pieces of antique bedouin jewellery and a fascinating range of stones used in healing, as well as mosaics downstairs gathered from Madaba and Jerash (and viewable up close).
King Talal Street and Saqf As Sayl
King Talal Street and Saqf As Sayl
To the west of Husseini mosque, the main street funnelling traffic out of Downtown is King Talal Street, lined with stores selling ordinary household goods, fabric and bric-a-brac. A little way down on the left, hidden behind a row of shopfronts, is the city’s main fruit and vegetable market.
Opposite the Mosque, the building on the corner where King Talal Street begins formerly held Amman’s best-loved coffee house, the grand old Arab League Café – a stalwart here for over fifty years, with its fine balcony overlooking the bustle below. In 2002, after a wrangle between the building’s owners (one wanted to keep it as it was; the other wanted to rebuild), the café was gutted – to the horror of seemingly everyone in the city bar the owners themselves. The site has now been redeveloped.
The main street parallel to King Talal Street follows the course of the Roman decumanus maximus, which was formed by paving over the free-flowing stream beneath. The street – officially Quraysh Street – is still popularly known as Saqf As Sayl (Roof of the Stream), but these days the sayl is dry, having been tapped upstream. This is Amman’s liveliest quarter, with cobblers, CD stalls and hawkers of soap and toothbrushes competing for space under the pavement colonnades with a secondhand clothes market.
On Saqf As Sayl behind the Husseini Mosque, excavation and restoration work on the Roman Nymphaeum has been going on for years, seemingly without end. It’s very similar in design to the huge nymphaeum at Jerash, which has been dated to 191 AD; at that time, Philadelphia too was at its zenith. The site is fenced and is usually off-limits, though the guardian may not object to you exploring.
However, apart from the immensity of the building (and its newer reconstruction), there’s not much to see. Nymphaea – public fountains dedicated to water nymphs – were sited near rivers running through major cities throughout the Greco-Roman world. This one, facing onto an open plaza at the junction of the two principal city streets, the east–west decumanus and the north–south cardo, was originally two storeys high and must have been quite a sight. Colonnades of Corinthian columns would have drawn even more attention towards the concave building, which was lavishly faced in marble, with statues of gods, emperors or city notables filling the niches all around.
The Jordan Museum
The Jordan Museum
Southwest of the Husseini Mosque, King Talal Street and Saqf As Sayl meet at a large traffic intersection. To the south rises the hill of Ashrafiyyeh, while dead ahead (west), in the valley of the Sayl Amman, is an area known as Ras Al Ain (“Source of the Spring”). Here, just past an open colonnaded plaza known as Sahat Al Nakheel (“Palm Square”) featuring a public fountain at its centre, stands the Jordan Museum, still in a “soft opening” phase at the time of writing. This sleek building houses the world-class national archeological collection.
From the atrium, adorned with a Byzantine mosaic and a striking Nabatean relief,probably the goddess Agargatis, turn left. The chronological tour begins with one of the highlights – the oldest human statues in the world, roughly 9,500 years old, discovered at Ain Ghazal near Amman and superbly displayed, eerie and spotlit. Displays track the development of flint tools – becoming finer as large-brained homo sapiens evolved – before you reach the mysterious Tulaylat al-Ghassul mural, the earliest-known painting of human figures in costume, engaged in some kind of ritual procession four thousand years ago.
After a room devoted to bedouin culture, the Bronze Age displays are crowned by an exquisite wooden box from Pella, inlaid in ivory (from a species of Middle Eastern elephant now extinct) with a depiction of two Middle Eastern lions (also now extinct) beneath the sun-disc of the Egyptian god Horus. Beside a copy of the Mesha Stele stands the squat, imposing figure in stone of an Ammonite king from the eighth century BC. Displays on communication follow, including charts showing the development of alphabets, and a Hellenistic room discussing the arrival of coinage after Alexander the Great’s invasion.
The Nabatean hall, with exquisite sculpture and delicate eggshell-ware pottery, features a haunting bust of the Syrian rain god Hadad. Roman displays include a winsome statue of Apollo and a beautiful marble panel from a Byzantine chancel screen, discovered in Petra. There’s also a room devoted to the Dead Sea Scrolls. the upstairs galleries, which focus on the Islamic collection and modern Jordan, were still under wraps at the time of writing; fingers crossed they’re open when you visit.
Since 2007 the government and municipality have been engaged on extensive rebuilding and renovation work throughout the Downtown area. The Ras Al Ain district, at the western end of Talal Street, has been transformed by the construction of City Hall, the Al Hussein Cultural Centre and the Jordan Museum, all three buildings designed in an airy, contemporary style by leading Jordanian architect Jafar Touqan. The intention is to bring affluent West Ammanis into a Downtown neighbourhood they might otherwise never visit: the regeneration of what was formerly a traffic island of dusty wasteground in a low-income neighbourhood is one of Amman’s recent success stories.
Then in 2009 and 2010 the access and presentation of the archeological remains atop Jabal Al Qal’a were revamped, centred on a new visitor centre – though people living within low-income communities on the lower slopes of the same hill were left out of the scheme, raising hackles citywide.
Next in line is the area around the Roman Theatre, newly dubbed “Wadi Amman”, which was under reconstruction at the time of writing. As well as new public squares and – perhaps – gardens, plans may involve new hotels, shops, transport links and other facilities in place by the time you visit.