Amman’s Heart and Soul II: Jabal Amman’s First Circle Area
Urban Crossroads #85

                                                     The Jordan River Foundation showroom off Rainbow Street, Amman, Jordan.

My last article addressed the Amman downtown core. This article presents one of the districts bordering it, the Jabal Amman First Circle area. Few areas in Amman have shown such a sustained level of continuity in their physical evolution as this one. It retains much of its architectural heritage and urban character as they had developed during the second quarter of the twentieth century, and no area represents that period of Amman’s past as well as the First Circle area. In addition to having a distinct architectural and urban heritage, the First Circle area is also of considerable historical significance. Numerous instrumental figures in the creation of modern Jordan on the political, economic, and cultural levels built or rented their homes there. The history of a formative period of Jordan’s evolution is etched in its stones.

Although it used to be one of the city’s most prominent districts, the First Circle area underwent a period of gentle decline that had taken hold by the 1970s and continued for over two decades, until the mid-1990s. During those decades, most of its affluent residents moved out to settle in Amman’s newer outlying neighborhoods, and its elegant upscale commercial street, Rainbow Street (officially known as Abu Bakr al-Siddiq Street), lost prominence to the city’s new commercial districts.

The area’s decline turned out to be a blessing in disguise and in fact ended up saving its architectural and urban heritage. As it became a less attractive residential district for affluent Ammanis, and as the level of commercial activity along Rainbow Street decreased, much of the area was more or less left alone and was spared the process of extensive rebuilding and expansion that has destroyed the unique identity and urban cohesiveness of more active established parts of Amman such as Jabal al-Husayn and the Shmeisani district.

As is the case with many cities throughout the world, this elegant older urban district eventually was “rediscovered” after being largely shunned and forgotten for almost a generation. This rediscovery was primarily through the efforts of a handful of individuals and NGOs, who began renovating and readapting a number of its older houses for new uses. One old house became the showroom for the Bani Hamida rug weaving project as early as 1989. In 1994, the house adjacent to it was renovated to become the showroom for the Jordan River Foundation. A few years later, a group of nearby houses was converted into Books@Café, an establishment that features a restaurant, internet café, and bookstore. A few private residences also were renovated at that time.

These relatively small-scale interventions were enough to direct attention to the area’s historical, architectural, and urban significance. Soon afterwards, a number of cultural institutions established their offices in the area. Following that, various commercial establishments moved in, including galleries, restaurants and cafés, as well as handicrafts and antique shops. Moreover, a few years ago, a small side-street branching out of Rainbow Street was converted on Fridays, during the warm months, into an open street market. The Amman Municipality eventually took an active interest in these transformations and implemented a project for upgrading Rainbow Street that was completed a few months ago.

For the time being, the area’s architectural heritage seems safe from destruction. In fact, its architectural and urban features are its main source of attraction. Almost no other neighborhood in Amman has such a concentration of older structures, a homogenous urban fabric, quiet streets, and mature trees. A primary indication of its new importance is that real-estate values in the area between the 1970s and 1990s were depressed - making it a buyer’s market, but prices have skyrocketed during the past few years, with houses available for sale becoming very hard to come by.

While market forces are currently providing the area’s architectural heritage with a level of protection, efforts also are being made to safeguard that heritage through a legal framework. A municipal heritage committee has been formed to review applications for demolition, extensive rebuilding, or expansion of existing structures in the area as well as other districts of historical significance in the city. This is to be followed by developing a comprehensive heritage protection legislative package.

The ongoing process of change in the First Circle area is affecting its various sections at different rates. Consider Khirfan Street. The street is the area’s closest to the downtown core and is one of Amman’s oldest. It has the city’s largest concentration of houses dating back to the 1920s and 1930s, together forming a very good example of a dense urban fabric. Much of it remains in a dilapidated state although a few of its houses recently have been renovated. The 1920s Shuqayr House has been elegantly restored and now includes a group of craft shops, and the building adjacent to it has been readapted as the headquarters of the Jordanian Handicrafts Producers Association. The beautiful 1930s al-‘Arif house, located at the street’s northern end, has been converted into a museum honoring the late artist Ali al-Jabiri. These interventions may not be enough to effectively transform Khirfan Street and protect its unique architectural and urban character, but they provide the beginnings for such a process. It is only a matter of time before renovation efforts will affect much of the street.

The best known part of the Amman First Circle Area is Rainbow Street, which extends for almost one kilometer, from the First Circle roundabout all the way east to meet Khirfan Street, close to the downtown area. During the 1960s and early 1970s, it formed one of Amman’s most elegant shopping areas with a series of high-end shops that at one point or the other included clothing stores, a patisserie, bookstore, furniture store, and an urban supermarket. Also along the street is Rainbow Cinema, from which the street takes its name. In addition, the street includes a number of institutional buildings such as the Consulate of Saudi Arabia, the British Council, and the Jordan Petroleum Company headquarters complex. The latter includes a well-crafted small building from the 1940s facing Rainbow Street, and an elegant 1960s office building located at the back of the site. The street’s largest building is the nine-storey Jordan Insurance Building, located along its western end, facing the First Circle roundabout, and marking a gateway for the street. This recently renovated structure dates to about 1960 and is the city’s first modern office building.

The street includes a number of residences, particularly towards its eastern section. Among the oldest of these are two houses from the 1920s that currently are used as schools. Just off Rainbow Street is the house from the 1930s in which King Talal, Queen Zein, and their children King Hussein, Prince Muhammad, Prince Hassan, and Princess Basma resided when King Talal was Crown Prince. Further down the street is the 1920s house in which Prime Minister Sa’id al-Mufti lived from the 1930s until he passed away in 1989.

As mentioned above, the Amman municipality recently began to give attention to the area, thus becoming an active participant in defining its current and future development. The municipality’s primary intervention there has been the Rainbow Street Urban Regeneration Project, which was designed by the architectural office Turath. The project has included refurbishing the street’s sidewalks, replacing its asphalt pavement in certain locations with cobblestone, unifying the street’s shop signs, and inserting a few public spaces along it.

The transformation of the First Circle area over the past decade or so has been extensive. Much of the change has been brought about by an emerging appreciation of its architectural, urban, and overall historical significance. All eyes today, however, are on this part of town, and there are widespread and high expectations that this small area of Amman should take on a multiplicity of roles that include heritage, culture, entertainment, and commercial district, as well as tourist destination. In the meantime, its original and primary character as a residential area unfortunately is being ruthlessly eroded. Such developments may end up causing significant and possibly irreparable harm to this most unique part of Amman and reversing its process of resurgence that began in the 1990s. This issue will be the subject of my next article.

Mohammad al-Asad

October 16, 2008