Amman’s Heart and Soul: The Downtown Area
Urban Crossroads #84

                                                                                 A view of the downtown area of Amman, Jordan.

As Amman continues to undergo its phenomenal and seemingly never-ending growth, the value of its central core assumes increasing importance. While decades will need to pass before a sense of place may take hold in the city’s newest districts, its old core, most of which dates to the second quarter of the twentieth century, already has so much to present, whether in terms of historical roots or a mature and sensitive architectural and urban character.

This core consists of the downtown area and the slopes of the surrounding hills or jabals facing it, amongst which Jabal Amman and Jabal al-Luweibdeh stand out in terms of historical significance as well as architectural and urban value. These areas are all undergoing processes of transformation, and this transformation needs to be regularly monitored and assessed as a first step in helping ensure that the qualities of this urban core are maintained. This article will address what is taking place in the downtown area and the one following it will address the First Circle area of Jabal Amman.

Until the early 1970s, the Amman downtown was where the whole city came together. It is where most of the city’s residents did a good part of their shopping. It housed a number of the city’s public institutions ranging from governmental offices to the Husayni Mosque, which for many years served as Jordan’s primary mosque. Most of Amman’s cinemas and many of its restaurants also were located there. Moreover, before the Amman Intercontinental Hotel was constructed during the early 1960s, between Jabal Amman’s Second and Third circles, the downtown area also had the city’s only modern hotel, Philadelphia Hotel, which unfortunately was torn down during the 1980s after a prolonged period of slow decline.

With the advent of the 1970s, the character of the downtown area underwent considerable change as many of the public and commercial institutions located there moved outwards. Since then, the area primarily has come to house low-budget shops. In spite of this downscaling, it has remained a very vibrant and active - yet over-crowded - part of Amman. Also important is that it is one of the few districts in the city where the automobile has not completely taken over. Parking is not allowed along most of its streets; it has relatively decent sidewalks; and in spite of its heavy traffic, the movement of vehicles for the most part remains slow-paced.

Since this transformation of the 1970s, the nature of the downtown area has not changed drastically. If anything, its character as a low-budget shopping district has more strongly taken hold. The heart of the downtown district consists of the areas surrounding the Husayni Mosque and the King Faysal Square. The area surrounding the Husayni Mosque remains more or less as I have remembered it for decades. It is packed with shops selling a dazzlingly wide array of products. One’s senses are overwhelmed by the crowds of people walking along its sidewalks, the noise generated by cars and pedestrians, as well as the colors and shapes of the extensive variety of products sold there, which seem to almost burst out of the shop windows. The area might be overcrowded, overwhelming with sensory stimuli, and the level of street cleanliness definitely can stand improvement, but it also is authentic, unpretentious, and is full of life and energy.

The nearby King Faysal Square is slightly calmer than the area surrounding the Husayni Mosque. It too has not changed much since the 1970s. It is defined by a number of remarkable older buildings dominated by the stately former headquarters building of the Arab Bank. The remaining buildings contain shops along the ground floor, while their upper floors house a variety of functions, including office, café, and low-budget hotel space. Some of this upper-floor space has become vacant over the years and remains so. Also, alleyways flanked by shops branch out of the square, each functioning as an urban corridor linking the square to surrounding streets.

One of King Faysal Square’s newer interventions is the cultural salon that art collector Mamduh Bisharat established in the upper floor of one of its buildings, which dates back to the 1920s. We are informed that during its long and eventful history the building had housed the Jordan Post, the Ministry of Finance, and later served as a hotel.

I should state however, that the term “square,” although still in use, is no longer valid for this area. It was a square up to the late 1960s, and even incorporated elegant water fountains that were colorfully lit by night, and of which I have pleasant memories as a child. The square provided a family-oriented environment where during the warm evenings and nights one could enjoy an ice cream (available at the shops and restaurants close by) after catching a movie at one of the numerous nearby cinemas. The square unfortunately had disappeared as it was razed during the 1970s to make way for a multi-lane street intended to accommodate increased vehicular traffic. The Amman municipality, however, is embarking on an ambitious project designed by the local architectural office Turath that aims at upgrading this important part of Amman and bringing back some of its previous qualities.

The area to the west of King Faysal Square is the more “upscale” and elegant part of the downtown core and has contained a variety of shops selling items including fabrics, watches, toys, stationery supplies, as well as children’s toys and furniture. It has undergone a process of a “gentle decline” over the past two to three decades. Many of the shop owners there have established branches of their shops in the newly emerging commercial districts of western Amman, and the area today only supports a fraction of the commercial activity it used to harbor in its golden years. I have wondered what will become of it. Possible scenarios include regaining its position as an upscale commercial part of the city, being overtaken by low-budget shops, or evolving in a totally new manner.

I got an indication of the direction in which the area might be heading during my most recent walk through it, and what I saw is not at all encouraging. A swath of CD and DVD shops is taking over. With this, the diversity of shops it used to house is being wiped out. What is more unfortunate is that these shops seem to rely exclusively on a single method for marketing what they sell, which is that of music blaring out of speakers. As a result, rather than walking by what should have been a series of shops selling a variety of products, the unfortunate pedestrian passing through the area ends up walking through a barrage of loud noises assaulting one’s ears.

Otherwise, a few cafés recently have been established in the downtown area and are intended to attract a more upscale clientele consisting of tourists and residents of western Amman, but it remains too early to tell whether these cafés are part of a growing trend or short-lived commercial ventures.

All in all, it is still unclear as to how Amman’s downtown core will end up. The low-budget shops that dominate the center of the area might spread and completely take over much of the Amman downtown. An opposing process of gentrification might establish control over parts of it. Clearly, the outcome of the municipality’s King Faysal Square upgrading project will greatly influence the evolution of this vital and central part of Amman, and the nature of that evolution will have an effect on the manner in which residents of Amman and its visitors will come to view the city as a whole.

While the future of the downtown area remains unclear, parts of the Jabal Amman First Circle area in contrast are being gentrified and commercialized at a dizzying rate. Some of those transformations may be for the better, but others are for the worse. This will be addressed in the upcoming article.

Mohammad al-Asad

September 11, 2008