Amman, in the hills of time
onsidering it is one of the oldest inhabited cities in the world, Amman is surprisingly modern. Built on seven hills – today converted into 19 – the capital of the Kingdom of Jordan is home to over a million people, nearly half the country’s population. It is steadily becoming a connected and modern metropolis, thanks in no small part to the fact that a large proportion of the population is under the age of 25.
Its 7,000-year history brings with it a mixture of civilisations that is reflected in the city’s current contrasts. In spite of centuries of Ammon, Assyrian, Nabataean, Roman, Umayyad and Ottoman settlements, in the 19th century the city was deserted and only inhabited by Bedouin nomads. However, the coming of the railway and Jordan’s independence in the 1920s and 40s revitalised the area, encouraging a flow of trade that enabled it to grow and lean out towards the future from its ancient roots.
Two must-sees: Hashem, a restaurant where King Hussein has eaten, is legendary for its falafel, hummus and ful. And Habibah Sweets, a café well-known for the national dessert, the addictive ‘kanafeh’, made of filo pastry covered in salted cheese, hot sugar-based syrup and chopped pistachio nuts.
The ruins of the civilisations that left their mark coexist in the Citadel, and above all in Jabal al Qal’a, the highest hill in Amman that stands at a height of nearly 900m above sea level. Next to a gigantic hand cut in stone, which used to belong to the statue of Hercules, you can find the remains of Roman temples. The giant hand is accompanied by Byzantine churches and the Omeya Palace, a real desert ‘palace’ that dates back to the 8th century, and which still stands today.
Lying at the foot of the Citadel is the oldest preserved Roman amphitheatre in Jordan, an impressive testimony to when Amman was Philadelphia, one of the ancient cities of the Decapolis. In the surrounding area, young Jordanians on their skateboards mix with tourists taking photos of the skyline. An immense site with enviable acoustics where people sit today on the perfectly preserved seats to watch performances.
Architecture with roots
The ruins of the old civilisations contrast with contemporary constructions. Until the doors of the new King Abdullah II House of Culture and Art, designed by Zaha Hadid, open, there are two sights that stand out: the Wadi Abdoun Bridge and Norman Foster’s Queen Alia International Airport, inspired by Bedouin tents.
Knowing Amman is knowing its streets. The most traditional pulse can be taken in the central neighbourhood of Al Balad, the main bazaar, also known as the city ‘souks’. The place is invigorating, chaotic and full of traders, and you’ll need to use all your senses if you want to move between the stalls. Lanterns and jewellery are sold together with fresh fruit, confectionary and spices.
Mosques, souqs and cafés, the corner stone of life in Jordan, as well as the hospitality offered by its inhabitants, are a permanent feature in the winding streets. Standing in the middle of the city centre is the spectacular King Abdullah Mosque, open to non-Muslims. Its blue dome, cut with geometric patterns and decorated with Quranic inscriptions, blends with the sky and the noise of traffic. Rainbow Street is where young people meet up and there is a profusion of places with an extensive gastronomic offer and modern atmosphere that influences the night life. In the Rakwet Arab Café, one of the places with the best ‘shisha’ tobacco in the city, the air is filled with the smell of the pipes.
The neighbourhood of Jebel Al Weibdeh, which sits on one of the seven hills, has become one of the city’s most popular. Here traditional businesses live side by side with more modern offerings, such as the JoBedu shop, a popular local brand that specialises in graphic design and clothes; or Darat al-Funun, a complex made up of several villas that have been turned into art galleries. A contemporary-art shelter for young creators with cutting-edge video installations, open-air films and live performances that outline the capital’s cultural ensemble.
Any time is good for stopping among the intricate streets and having a coffee with cardamom, accompanied by the traditional ‘kanafeh’, or trying an ice cream made with liquid nitrogen in Four Winters. The old world mixes with the new one. This is Amman, ‘marhaba’ (welcome)!.