The joy of exploring pedestrian-unfriendly Amman on foot

The joy of exploring pedestrian-unfriendly Amman on foot

Amman’s older neighbourhoods belong to a time when cities were designed for people, not cars.

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Etched in stone: Amman’s archetypal box-like, flat-roofed limestone buildings lend it a golden hue.

Nobody walks in Amman. Just about every guidebook and travel blog rue the pedestrian-unfriendliness of Jordan’s capital. As the cab rolls out of the Queen Alia International Airport, the wide highways come into view, snake through hills and plunge into the valleys, with only the occasional pavement and pedestrian in sight.

From the litter-lined beaches of Mumbai to the dusty roads of Madurai, I prefer exploring a destination on foot. Habituated by the disarray of Indian cities, no measure of heavy traffic or lack of pedestrian facilities can faze my feet. And so, I was determined to leave nothing but footprints all over Amman.

Amman is a city of hills — originally seven, now around 19. An unhindered panorama of the Roman citadel atop Jabal al-Qal’a, the highest hill in Amman, is visible from my friend’s apartment in Jabal al-Weibdeh, one of the oldest neighbourhoods turned into a vibrant artistic district. The surrounding landscape is studded with the city’s archetypal box-like, flat-roofed limestone buildings, which lend it a distinctive golden hue.

In the 1st century AD, it was known as Philadelphia, an autonomous city-state under the Roman Empire. The region remained largely uninhabited after a series of earthquakes in the 8th century AD until Circassians began to settle in modern Amman in 1878. In 1921, when it was declared the capital of the new state of Transjordan, its population was 3,000-5,000. A sustained influx of refugees and urbanisation have pushed this figure to about four million today.

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Temple of Hercules, Roman citadel on Jabal al-Qal’a.

The more I stay, the more I realise that its ill repute is partly undeserved. Besides the roaring roads lie pockets of pedestrian havens, mostly in the older neighbourhoods. On my ramblings in Weibdeh, I find wide pavements and narrow lanes lined with colonial-style villas, soaking in sweeping views, I see stairs. at various points, cutting into the slope, making the ascents and descents less strenuous.

Spread over six houses built in the 1920s and 1930s and the excavated remains of a Byzantine Church erected over a Roman temple, the spectacular house of art Darat al-Funun sits pretty amid a profusion of street art, in a neighbourhood famous for its galleries. A building next to a parking lot bears a monumental painting of a pensive boy with a caterpillar on his thumb and the caption: “What will I be when I grow up?”, while another featured a 23m-tall geometric painting of a deer. The most curious installation, however, was AMMAN1, the “shuttle” of the Palestinian Space Agency.

A short walk ahead of the Our Lady of the Annunciation Church (Weibdeh is a predominantly Christian neighbourhood), I find interlaced pairs of shoes hanging from electric wires. I ask around for what I presume must be a curious local tradition, but nobody has a definitive answer. Finally, Wikipedia comes to my rescue. It tells me that “shoe tossing” is a “folk sport” across the world “for recreational or trivial purposes”. It doesn’t get more hipster than that, I think, but am proven wrong on a visit to Rainbow Street in neighbouring Jabal Amman. Here you can see the swish set munch on camel burgers, purchase quirky posters (of Palestinian solidarity or Amitabh Bachchan!), browse a manual of morals at a Christian bookshop, buy local handicrafts or enjoy alcohol and alternative literature at the queer-friendly Books@Cafe. There’s even a restaurant called Lumberjack!

From Weibdeh, it is a comfortable, downhill stroll to downtown, the heart of Amman. Despite its name, it resembles an Indian marketplace rather than a Western city centre. A plenitude of souks, stores, monuments, historical buildings and restaurants make for a vibrant street life that is best experienced on foot. Sift for souvenirs and antiques at Souk al-Bukharia, marvel at humongous vegetables (cabbages the size of footballs) in Souk Al-Sukar and buy Nativity sets featuring characters clad in Arab attire. Admire the architecture of Husseini Mosque, Arab Bank and Duke’s Diwan and queue outside the iconic Hashem Restaurant, which reputedly serves the best falafels in Jordan and counts members of the royal family among its clientele.

At the eastern end of downtown is the Roman Amphitheatre, which can seat close to 6,000 people. My guide demonstrated the site’s excellent acoustics — when you stand at a point close to the centre of the stage, your voice resounds so powerfully that even people at the top can hear you clearly. If you are at one end of the bottom of the amphitheatre and speak into the stone, a person at the other end can hear you clearly, as if you were talking over a telephone. Other Roman ruins here include the Odeon theatre, Nymphaeum fountain and, of course, the citadel.

Most of Amman’s tourist attractions are in or within walking (albeit uphill) distance of downtown. However, on its fringes, pavements disappear abruptly, as it does when I head east of the amphitheatre, along Al-Hashmi Street. Besides, all over Jordan, taxi drivers are convinced that the only reason you would walk is because you haven’t yet found a cab and will honk at you until you do. The newer suburbs of Amman and their tangle of freeways remain difficult to navigate on foot, though. But you can amble contentedly in the neighbourhoods that belong to a time when cities were designed for people, not cars.

The article appeared in the print edition with the headline: Walk to Remember