Amman has a dynamic contemporary arts scene, and some of the best galleries are within walking distance of each other in the charming neighbourhood of Jabal Al Lweibdeh (also spelt Weibdeb, Webdeh, Lweibda, Luwavbida and so on, with or without Al or El), just north of Jabal Amman and overlooking the hubbub of Downtown. The area has a relatively high proportion of Christian (and foreign expat) 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. Its shaded lanes and attractive stone architecture have also drawn in artists, writers, quirky cafés, independent shops and a progressive-minded start-up scene. For better or worse, Lweibdeh is becoming hip.
Aim first for Paris Circle, also signed as Square de Paris, a little roundabout on top of Jabal Al Lweibdeh’s hill that has been prettified (and renamed) by the French Embassy. It serves as a gateway to the area, flanked by small independent shops, while cafés, fashion stores, design outlets and neighbourhood groceries hide among the often-grand, stone-built villas on its side streets. The wonderful Beit Sitti cookery school is also nearby.
An idyllic refuge from Amman's bustle and a centre for contemporary Arab art Darat Al Funun ("little house of the arts") 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 you aren't interested in the art, dropping in is worthwhile to gain a sense of a flourishing side of Jordanian culture that’s barely touched upon by most visitors.
Makan is a small, alternatively minded art centre, started up by the enthusiastic Ola Khalidi. The site hosts exhibitions and events, and also serves as a venue for informal concerts and film screenings – links with the Amman Filmmakers’ Cooperative are strong. The balcony here has a spectacular view out over the city.
Across from the Al Saadi mosque, decorated walls announce Dar Al Anda, a gallery and cultural centre staging concerts, workshops and arts events. The original 1939 building has been beautifully restored, and – along with newer structures around the courtyard – now houses a library for children, a studio, a guest apartment for resident artists, and more. 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.
Ten minutes' walk west from Paris Circle 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 townhouses. 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 and the wider Arab and Islamic worlds, all represented in a changing programme of shows drawing on the permanent collection of the two thousand works. Exhibitions are split between the main building and an annexe in a townhouse opposite; take time to stroll in the pleasant garden between the two.