Amman Street Maps: A New Frontier
Urban Crossroads #18

                        A street map showing parts of Amman. (The Jordan Times)

                       A street map showing parts of Amman. (The Jordan Times)


The people of Amman generally do not use street maps. When someone gives directions to a certain location, it most probably will be along the following lines: "take the third right after the intersection of streets x and y, then stay on that street until you come across a three story building with a large green gate to your right; then take a left and move on until you get to grocery z, ..."

The aversion to using street maps in Amman is not because such street maps do not exist. A few maps in fact have been produced for the city, or at least parts of it. I know of one design firm that had produced decent maps in both Arabic and English that cover a good part of Amman and also incorporate street indices. Unfortunately, that firm stopped printing the maps because of limited demand. Moreover, very few people probably remember that a comprehensive numbering system was developed for the cities of Jordan back in the 1970s. The system provided numbers for the cities' districts, streets, and individual plots. It was partially implemented but eventually discarded.

People in Amman do not even use street names, except for the major streets of the city. Instead, they identify a street by some landmark, usually not much more than a grocery store located along it. Even for a number of major streets, the official name is not always used, but instead, a name based on a well-known landmark located along it. One therefore needs to know both the official and unofficial names of many major streets.

I have noticed that a good number of people in Amman, both educated and not so educated, are not able to read street maps, mainly because they have not made the effort to do so. Maps are a most useful tools for getting around the city, and make it easy to get to any point within it. All you have to do is give someone a street name and number for a given place, and possibly the area of the city in which it is located, and they should be able to get there with little difficulty using a street map. It is the most efficient manner for locating places in the city to which you have not been before. It also is most helpful for people who have just moved into a city or tourists visiting it.

The street map is a visual method of describing the city. On the other hand, the verbal directions we use in Amman provide a textual method for describing the city. If one ventures into a bit of philosophizing regarding the difference between the two systems of description, it can be argued that the street map (the visual system) provides an overview of the city in totality. It allows one to see how the different components of the city - its streets, neighborhoods, and districts - physically relate to each other, and shows various possibilities for moving between the various parts of the city. On the other hand, verbal directions (the textual system), depend completely on one's recollections of the city, and even on how one imagines it to be, thus leaving considerable room for interpretation (and misrepresentation). It also fragments the city in that it only allows one to consider a small part of the city at any given time, but never to consider it as a whole.

As many of us have experienced, it is common when giving a person verbal directions to a location to have that person call you because they are completely lost, sometimes in a different part of town. The spread of mobile phones has exasperated this phenomenon, and has made people even lazier about getting exact directions since they know they always can call the person they are trying to reach in case they are lost.

There is a need to encourage the use of maps in Amman. Schools should teach students about them. Companies involved in deliveries (and their number are increasing regularly) need to train their employees to rely on maps in identifying the locations to which deliveries are made. Instead, most of them rely on verbal descriptions for the first delivery, and the delivery man is supposed to remember that location for future deliveries. If a considerable amount of time passes between one delivery and the other, or the delivery man happens to change, the whole process has to be repeated again.

Meanwhile, the system of verbal description continues to prevail. The irony of how entrenched is such a system is expressed in an incident I experienced a couple of years ago. I received a phone call from a local courier delivery company informing me that they have a packet to deliver to me, and asked for my address. I naively gave them the street name and number for my house. The man from the courier company answered that they do not function that way, and asked that I describe my location be telling them if there is a "grocery store or pharmacy" near my house, and by explaining how to get to it. I told them I was surprised that a respected courier service functioned that way, but I had no choice except to oblige. Ironically, the packet they delivered turned out to be a set of street maps of Amman!

The French Cultural Center in Amman recently published a small monograph on Jabal al-Luweibdeh. A pleasant feature of this elegantly produced monograph is that it includes a sizable and nicely drawn foldout map of this important district of Amman. Although I wish that the map also included street names, incorporating it as an integral part of the publication remains a most commendable effort. Let us hope that others will follow suit.

Mohammad al-Asad

September 9, 2004