A New Amman, for Better and for Worse
Urban Crossroads #81

Referring to Amman as a city of seven hills is a worn-out cliché usually repeated in tourism publications about the city. Moreover, I am not sure anyone can identify all seven hills, which in Arabic are referred to as “jabals” or mountains. I can think of six of the seven jabals (the Jabals of Amman, al-Ashrafiyyah, al-Husayn (al-Hussein), al-Jawfah (al-Jofah), al-Luwaybdah (al-Luweibdeh), and al-Taj), but am not sure of the seventh (al-Nasr, al-Qal’ah, al-Nuzhah?). I have asked older residents of Amman about the seven hills and they also can recall only five or six of them. I am almost certain that the notion of Amman as a city on seven hills is more an urban legend than a reality. Exploring how this legend came into being would make for a very interesting topic of investigation, but that is another subject for another time.

This seven hills legend still involves an element of truth. Until the early 1970s, much of Amman was located on a group of hills (definitely more than seven) that surrounds its downtown area, which brought the city together, geographically, socially, and economically. One usually had to go through the downtown area to get from one jabal to the other, primarily using the shared taxi (locally known as “service”) system. Also, many of the city’s important commercial establishments and public institutions were located in the downtown area. It was there where Amman’s residents would shop for a wide variety of goods, go out to eat, or go to the cinema. And it was there where the country’s Central Bank, the elegant headquarters building of Jordan’s largest bank, the Arab Bank, the central post office, and a number of government ministries were located.

The western hills of Amman (the jabals of Amman, al-Husayn, and al-Luwaybdah) generally were its more affluent parts, but Amman’s residents did not think of the city exclusively in terms of relatively affluent western hills and less affluent eastern ones, but also thought of Amman as a ring of hills surrounding a shared downtown core.

This began to change during the 1970s as Amman experienced a phenomenal wave of growth and began to spread beyond those hills. As a result, the downtown core and the surrounding hills were diluted within a much larger sprawling metropolitan area. Many of the public institutions located in this older Amman were moved to the newly-emerging surrounding districts. Also, a good segment of Amman’s commercial establishments, especially its upper-end ones, now were to be found outside this traditional zone, and sizable shopping areas emerged to serve the city’s new districts. A number of these new districts even came to be associated with specific commercial or business activities. The city’s banking district, for example, came to be situated in Shumaysani (Shmeisani); and al-Suwayfiyyah (Sweifieh) emerged as the city’s major shopping area, particularly for clothing.

While Amman previously could be understood as a city of hills surrounding the downtown area, by the 1990s, it became very difficult to draw such a tidy mental image of the sprawling city. In turn, the new Amman that emerged was conceived as consisting of two zones: Eastern and Western Amman. This division not only expressed a geographic distinction, but, more importantly, also referred to two entities with differing socio-cultural characteristics: a more affluent, rather cosmopolitan Western Amman, and a less affluent, rather conservative Eastern Amman. The division of course is not a clear-cut one, and characteristics generally associated with one may be found in the other, but it nonetheless expressed the reality of a dual Amman that materialized beginning in the 1970s.

For the longest time, anyone living in Amman or familiar with it came to view it through this polar system of division, and most still do. While this may have oversimplified the physical as well as socio-economic makeup of the city, it remained a more or less realistic and relatively accurate way of describing Amman.

During the past few years, Amman once again has entered a new phase of drastic change. The city has been growing and expanding at an unprecedented rate. Monitoring this new wave of growth is probably beyond the capacity of any single individual, and while drawing a mental map of Amman became a very difficult exercise beginning in the 1970s, it has now become impossible. The newly-emerging Amman is too complex to simply describe as consisting of an eastern and a western zone.

It seems that Amman’s relentless physical growth will continue as long as there is a glut of petro-dollars in the region searching for investment opportunities in real-estate development, and it is anybody’s guess as to what kind of urban fabric Amman will end up with after the current building craze is over.

One way of attempting to understand this new emergent Amman involves moving away from concentrating on the physical changes taking place in the city, and giving more attention to the economic, cultural, and overall creative energy that is bubbling throughout it. This means turning away momentarily from the city’s built environment, and looking more closely at the activities taking place in that built environment.

Consider what has been happening in Amman over the past couple of years in the cultural, intellectual, entertainment, and overall creative realms. One is struck by the intensity and variety of cultural events being organized, whether lectures, musical and theater performances, workshops, or exhibitions. There also are the new local weekly and monthly publications that are continuously appearing on the market, and that cover a wide variety of subjects including business, current events, fashion, and the arts. And there is the impressive growth in the number of local radio stations, which until recently, only consisted of Radio Jordan’s Arabic and English stations. One also should not forget Jordan’s emerging cinema industry, where two Jordanian movies recently received awards at the Sundance Film Festival. There also is a host of commercial establishments such as bookshops, cafés, and art galleries that are continuously opening up to cater to Amman’s expanding cultural life.

As with any urban activity involving a considerable number of people, these various developments will have an influence on Amman’s physical makeup in that they generate a demand for new building space and also generate considerable movement of people through the city. The deeper significance of their impact on the city, however, lies elsewhere. The types of activities described above greatly contribute to forming the city’s identity and defining its soul. Amman’s cultural life in the past was limited in scope and was supported by a small group of dedicated individuals and a handful of organizations. What is taking place now involves a scale unknown before in the city’s history. A critical mass of those creating and consuming the city’s cultural life finally has come into being.

Admittedly, not all of the activities belonging to the fields presented above are of high quality, and one regularly comes across what may be described as poorly thought-out, unimaginative, and even crassly commercial. However, there is a great deal out there that is of very good quality. As these activities increase in scope and intensity, the individuals and institutions behind them will become more prominent in defining what Amman is, and will achieve increasing influence on the decision-making process affecting its urban composition, which so far has been primarily dominated by public-sector bureaucracies and private-sector business interests. The diverse groups that make up these cultural, intellectual, and creative forces have the ability to contribute to the city a new and fresh thinking process. They also have the ability and disposition to go beyond short-term financial considerations and beyond appeasing narrowly-based special interest groups. They can provide creative solutions for challenges facing the city that break away from the usual restraints, whether financial, administrative, or technical.

Amman’s urban fabric unfortunately has suffered a great deal over the past few decades. The city of Amman that existed until the early-1970s with its small-scale, pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods has been lost forever through a series of chaotic growth spurts, and Amman is the worse off for that. On the bright side, however, an energetic wave of vibrancy and creativity also is becoming clearly felt in the city, and this new spirit can very positively contribute to reconfiguring Amman’s physical makeup to incorporate a wide variety of attractive, livable districts that support a high quality of urban living.

Mohammad al-Asad

June 5, 2008