From the rooftop restaurants on the cobblestoned Rainbow Street in Jabal Amman neighbourhood, one can get a picturesque view of downtown, the pulsating heart of the old and the traditional in the capital city of Jordan. Thick clouds of fog hung over the city, in layers, dimming the old-fashioned limestone buildings that make up the adjoining downtown area, while sheathing whatever Amman holds beyond. In mid-March, the city witnessed intermittent showers, exacerbating Amman’s already chilly winter temperatures.
If to be lost is to be born again, then walking along the narrow streets in downtown Amman is symbolic of several rebirths. The move from the bustling streets filled with spice sellers, fruit-juice vendors and coffee shops to the serene terrains that accommodate the city’s friendly natives and their kite-running kids would appear seamless. Yet, during these walks on the numerous stony stairs that one inevitably encounters, one is constantly reminded of Amman’s place, which is among the hills.
Amman’s contemporary history is closely intertwined with the burgeoning of settlements in the several hills that make up the city today. Taxi drivers and city’s natives claim that over the years, life has expanded well beyond the initial seven Jabals or hills in order to meet the city’s ever-growing developmental needs.
But the broad well-paved roads beyond downtown, the numerous traffic signboards and the everyday intra-city commute lexicon used by city’s inhabitants best describe Amman as made up of eight circles, a reference to the traffic circles that once accompanied each of the seven hills of the city. If we drive westwards from the first circle in Jabal Amman towards Zahran Palace, where the current royal couple got married, and continue through Zahran street to Wadi Al-Seer located in the outskirts of the city, we pass through all the eight circles that sprawl across these seven hills.
Contemporary Amman is liberal, cosmopolitan, “cool”, and is loaded with a rich dose of history. A short but uphill stroll from downtown will take you to the Amman Citadel, a site of historical ruins from where one can get the best view of the city. A visit to the Temple of Hercules, the Byzantine Church and the Umayyad Palace, all housed within the Citadel, is, in itself, an experience in time-lapse, which sums up the story of how the Iron Age city of Rabbath-Ammon transformed into the Hellenistic city of Philadelphia, and, later, became part of the Rashidun and Umayyad Caliphates.
It was not until the final decades of the Ottoman empire that we can pinpoint to the making of the city we see today. The Russian empire’s ethnic cleansing of Circassians in the aftermath of the Caucasian wars resulted in a forced migration of hundreds of thousands of Circassians, from their homeland to the Ottoman empire in 1860s. And, along with these Circassians, migrated several other ethnic Caucasian Muslim groups, who together were resettled by the Turks in Amman.
The city flourished because of these refugees and the agricultural economy that sprouted out of their resettlement. And, its story continues to be intertwined with the lives of the displaced. Amman hosts one of the largest contingents of Palestinian, Syrian and Iraqi refugees, and it is unlikely that we return from Amman without encountering them or meeting the numerous Egyptians, Filipinos or South Asians who have migrated to this city in search of a better life.
To experience upscale Amman, we need to travel westwards from downtown towards Abdoun, Sweifieh, Weibdeh and Al Abdali neighbourhoods that house Amman’s thriving expat community, mostly employed in the corporate and humanitarian sectors. The city’s global aspirations are written all over the Abdali project, a $5 billion project aimed at creating a state-of-the-art smart district that primarily caters to the needs of global corporations and high-end tourists. Though the project is still under construction, a quick visit to Abdali Mall and the surroundings give us a taste of what is to come — corporate offices housed in tall shimmering glass buildings, premium apartment highrises and a network of world-class hospitality infrastructure ranging from humongous shopping malls to five-star hotels.
The copious amounts of Turkish coffee, the numerous Uber rides which provide an opportunity to merely stare through the window at the city, vacant movie theatres, sparsely occupied cafés, long strolls, uphill climbs, early morning chill and the afternoon showers provide enough avenues to find what we are seeking. Between these old limestone buildings in the east and the glass and glitter in the west, memories are forged, and selves are reinvented. Whether travelling to establish some form of continuity between my self at home and the self I encounter momentarily during these travels, or to merely disrupt such continuities, my mind will always find shelter in this city.
Sreejith Sugunan is a Delhi-based writer.