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.
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).