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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.
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.
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.
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.