Amman is hilly, it goes up and down and after 2 days of city walk, climbing up hills and downhill slopes, I can feel my legs aching. As a result of all these ups and downs the city is difficult to orient in for a first time visitor, therefor we designated the silhouette of the Hercules Temple as our guide for orientation. The Hercules Temple is on top of one of the seven peaks Amman originally was built on and is lit at night. Today the town Amman is spread over at least 20 peaks. Fairly uniform buildings with low brick houses in pastel colors from cream white to light yellow and pink are clinging to the steep hillsides, sneaks into the narrow valleys and spreading through more gently sloping hills. Only occasionally are the low silhouette broken by high-rise buildings and tall cranes.
Amman is Jordan’s capital and largest city with over 4 million inhabitants. The town is, after Dubai and Doha, one of the Arab world’s most popular cities for multinational companies to invest in. We see clear signs of that when we count the number of banks. Yet the city has preserved a certain character. The most characteristic are the slopes and the stairs which act as shortcuts for us pedestrians.
Refugees from Palestine:
When Jordan became an independent kingdom in 1948 Amman was no big city. Jordan and Amman’s history and development are inextricably linked to the establishment of Israel and the Palestinian refugees. The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan has always been open to refugees from Palestine and today all of the refugee camps in Amman are integrated neighborhoods with buildings like the rest of the city. But it started with tent camps in 1948. As we all know, It was quite quickly clear that the refugees would not be able to travel back to their homes and they were assigned barracks. Eventually barracks became brick houses and camps evolved into neighborhoods with all the amenities such districts should have.
Our guide Aref and driver Auni are both Jordanians with Palestinian background. On our tour of the city, Aref is pointing out the areas in Amman that are former refugee camps and still inhabited by Palestinians. He also alleges that Amman had not been a city at all, if it had not been for all the Palestinians. Most Palestinians in Jordan today, have Jordanian passports, except for some who came from Gaza in 1967. In 1988 Jordan renounced all rights in the West Bank (which Israel occupied in 1967) and after that some groups of Palestinians had their passports revoked and others have received passports with restrictions. It is estimated that approximately half of Jordan’s population is originally Palestinians.
Hawa Guesthouse in Amman:
We are staying at a guesthouse in the area Jebel Al Weibdeh around the roundabout Paris Circle. This is considered a hip area with small cafes and restaurants. In addition it is only a short distance to most sights and only a steep downhill to the town center and the bazaars. The alternative to the downhill is the elevator inside the large parking garage, a tip we got from our guide Aref. But I have to admit, it was bit scary to move into the darkness at the end of a mall and take an elevator with only Arab directions.
Hawa Guesthouse got good reviews on Trip Adviser, especially for its location. We arrive early in the evening and will be staying for 6 nights. Our room is spacious with private bathroom, small, very small, but clean. We have paid for heating and the bed is big with both duvet and extra blankets. The guesthouse is simple, but nice and the charm factors, which I always attach great importance to are convincing. The house is 107 years old and was originally built for the Ottoman army, as officer housing.
Hawas young owner is clearly concerned with ecology. Garbage is sorted and all food scraps are given to the sites many animals. In the small garden behind the high walls live in peace; chickens, pigeons, geese, parrots, rabbits, and not least the 5 cats that wander wherever they want. Should you want a chair for breakfast, you risk having to remove a cat or two before sitting down. The garden “gazebo”, a popular place for water pipe smoking also have breathtaking views of the Citadel and the Hercules temple.
Jebel Al Weibdeh, district in Amman:
The area Jebel Al Weibdeh is popular with foreigners and young people in Amman. It is a safe area to walk in, even at night and is considered Amman’s cultural and intellectual center. Fashion Shops are open until late at night, as are hairdressers and small grocery stores. There are also bakeries with western bread in addition to the flat Arab bread and sweet pastries. Fashionable youngsters are enjoying their coffee latte on the sidewalk restaurants and in one of the alleys we even found a bar serving alcohol. But we choose traditional Jordanian food and ate several times at charming Rakwet Arab Restaurant. The food is delicious, the atmosphere loose and informal, and the interior is pleasant despite the fact that the smoke is dense. Everyone smokes the water pipe, both women and men, young and old.
And furthermore, up the road we find several waffle booths and places that sell sweets and juice. In the absence of alcohol the youngsters in Amman have developed a great sense for fruit drinks in all shapes and colors. On the street corners young girls in hijab and young boys flirts with each other like in any other big city.
A popular gathering place for young couples, are the gardens around the gallery Darat Al Funum. The gallery consists of several houses located on a steep slope above Downtown with all the bazaars and souks. The view is fabulous and it is considered Amman’s most modern and best gallery. We really enjoyed the exhibition “Do It”, which was there in December. It is also a very nice place to grab a cup of coffee or tea during daytime.
Attractions in Amman:
The most important one is of course the Citadel. Here are the ruins of several historical periods and the Hercules temple is one of the main attractions. The view is great and you can look straight down at the large Roman theater, which should be the next stop on your tour of Amman. At the entrance to the Roman theater is the Folklore Museum and Museum of Popular Tradition, on each side. Both are worth a visit, especially if you like me, are interested in folk art and textile traditions.
What made the most impression on me was Tiraz Widad Kawara Home of Arab dress. This is one of the world’s finest collections of Palestinian and other Arab folk costumes and jewelry. The collection is private and you will find it a bit tucked away in a residential area of Amman. It is beautifully exhibited with good explanations in English. They also have a small museum shop with some beautiful books about folk art. Specially relevant is “threads of Identity” by Widad Kamel Kawar herself.
The Jordan Foundation is housed in Rainbow Street in Amman and absolutely worth a visit. This is modern design but with roots back to the Palestinian and Jordanian traditions. Rainbow Street is also a street where it might be nice to stroll; here are several restaurants and other shops.
Jordan Museum is a must for any tourist in Amman. The museum is housed in a modern building in the center of Amman, the end of the bazaar streets. Note that it is closed Tuesday and Friday.
Jordan Gallery of Fine Art is a small but very good museum for modern art. They have a nice collection of art from countries in the Middle East and we had a great time seeing this art that we so rarely see in Europe.
Wild Jordan is a center located on the hillside of downtown and is built with support from the US. They work with information about preservation of nature and wildlife, restaurant, room for studies and a souvenir shop. It’s a nice place for lunch and the great view is included.
The center of Amman, called Downtown is located in the bottom between two of the city’s peaks. Here are souks, bazaars, markets and boutiques. It’s a colorful street life where one can spend many days exploring.
You cannot visit Amman without dining at the restaurant Fakhr El-Din, one of the best in Amman. The restaurant is located in an old mansion near 2nd roundabout. I advise you to book a table forehand and take your time to eat and taste many dishes from the Lebanese cuisine. It also serves exquisite Lebanese wine and have a very authentic atmosphere.
History of Amman:
The Archaeological Museum is located on the site of the Citadel and Hercules temple. The museum gives a nice overview of the various historical periods. Around 1200 BC, this was the capital of the Ammonites and was known as Rabbath Ammon. The city was lying along the “King’s highway” connecting Egypt with Mesopotamia, Syria and Anatolia. Consequently it had a strategic importance.
The city was named Philadelphia in the mid 200 BC when it was conquered by Ptolemy II Philadelphus, Egypt`s Macedonian ruler. With Rome’s progress Amman once again got a strategic importance because it lay along the new road between Ailah and Damascus, which was built by Emperor Trajan.
In the year 630, the area was conquered from the Byzantines by the Rashidun army and the Islamist period began. The town was renamed Amman. Later, the city and the surroundings became the scene of battles between the Crusaders and the Muslims and then placed under the Ottoman Empire in 1516. The Ottomans lost their domination after World War I and the area was placed under British Mandate, called Transjordan with Amman as its capital.
The history is variegated, complex and full of wars and conflicts. I find the history particularly interesting because the area is located right in the current conflict and constitute a big part of our current news and global politics. I find it easier to understand the history when I can visit the places and see the circumstances people are living under. So while we walk around in Amman we discuss the current political situation and the people we meet are equally pleased to participate in these talks. Opinion is divided, some live with a sore bitterness; some with big traumas while others are optimistic on the Middle East’s behalf. Time will tell, but I really hope that Jordan will continue to be a peaceful island in the middle of this confusing world politics and that the Palestinian issue may soon find a solution.