Amman's Most Beautiful District
Urban Crossroads #19
"En Parcourant Jabal Al Weibdeh" (Traversing Jabal Al Weibdeh) is the most recent addition to the few publications addressing Amman's architectural and urban evolution. This small, elegant bilingual (Arabic and French) monograph, published by the French Cultural Center, includes short essays about Jabal al-Luweibdeh (a transliteration I prefer to Jabal Al Weibdeh) by Jordanian writers Elias Farkouh, Samiha Khreis, and the late Mo'nes Al-Razzaz. It also features a lengthy essay by Xavier Guillot, a French architect and academician who had taught architecture in Jordan for a few years; and a set of photographs of the area by photographer Pierre Devin.
If one is searching for documentation regarding the evolution of Jabal al-Luweibdeh (Mountain of al-Luweibdeh), this book would be the wrong source to look at. This publication is not concerned with documenting the history of Jabal al-Luweibdeh or its physical growth. Instead, it is more an "impressionistic" work that aims at explaining the special character of Jabal al-Luweibdeh, as created by its urban fabric, buildings, people, and activities. It strives to capture, through text and image, the soul and spirit of this important district, and I believe it has done a decent job of doing so.
We unfortunately have very limited information, let along publications, regarding the physical evolution of early modern Amman, which came into being during the 1870s, when a group of Circassians from the Caucasus settled in Amman after it had been deserted for a few centuries. Modern Amman had expanded to reach what is now known as Jabal al-Luweibdeh by the 1920s, if not earlier. Urban growth initially climbed the slope of Jabal al-Luweibdeh that borders the downtown area. From there, specially between the 1940s to the 1960s, Jabal al-Luweibdeh expanded westward away from the slope of the hill towards flatter areas. It emerged as an affluent part of Amman with elegant houses and apartment buildings, and it also housed many of Amman's embassies.
Beginning in the 1970s, the embassies began to move out of Jabal al-Luweibdeh to the newer districts of Amman, and only a couple of them now remain there. Many of its affluent inhabitants also began to move out at that time, but some have remained. Although the socio-economic mix of Jabal al-Luweibdeh has changed, it nonetheless has a healthy mix of inhabitants from different backgrounds.
Interestingly enough, Jabal al-Luweibdeh has emerged as the area in which a number of Amman's important art centers are located. Darat al-Funun (House of Arts) / The Khalid Shoman Foundation was established during the early 1990's in its older parts, and is only at a walking distance from the downtown area. The Jordan National Gallery of Fine Arts was established about a quarter of a century ago in the newer western parts of Jabal al-Luweibdeh. These two important cultural institutions incorporate the adaptive reuse of preexisting structures. Smaller galleries and art centers also recently have been established in Jabal al-Luweibdeh, and a number of artists have set up their studios there.
Jabal al-Luweibdeh has a number of very pleasant urban nodes: spaces where people can meet and interact. Darat al-Funun, which incorporates the renovation of three of modern Amman's earlier houses into an integrated complex, takes up a full city block, and provides a very positive example of both architectural and urban intervention in the city. It is a place where people can meet over a cup of coffee, view art, attend lectures and concerts, or read at the library. The Amman Municipality and the French Embassy cooperated on updating another important node of Jabal al-Luweibdeh, Duwwar al-Hawuz (the Water Tower Square, named after the water tower that previously used to be located there). The square has been rehabilitated as a landscaped urban square, and has been renamed Square de Paris. It is a popular location that is packed with people on summer evenings and nights.
In the newer part of Jabal al-Luweibdeh, the National Gallery of Fine Arts faces one of Amman's older and pleasanter parks. The park currently is being upgraded as a model water-conserving park through the participation of a number of organizations, and its surroundings also are being transformed since the National Gallery has acquired another building across the other side of the park to serve as a gallery extension. In addition, a preexisting building in the park is being rehabilitated as a café. This combination of museum, public park, and café will greatly enhance another important urban node in Jabal al-Luweibdeh.
Clearly, Jabal al-Luweibdeh is a "happening" place, and is evolving as Amman's "cultural district." However, this does not mean that it is safe from the destructive forces of overwhelming growth and expansion that have affected and are affecting other parts of the city.
We need to make sure that the special urban qualities of this district are preserved. "En Parcourant Jabal Al Weibdeh" is part of such an effort in that it presents the uniqueness of this area. For example, Xavier Guillot mentions in his essay that the new large supermarkets of Amman that serve whole districts rather than neighborhoods fortunately have not infiltrated Jabal al-Luweibdeh. Among other things, this means it has not suffered from the overwhelming traffic and the expansive parking spaces needed to accommodate the high levels of vehicular activity generated by such commercial enterprises. He also remarks that Jabal al-Luweibdeh remains one of the few areas of Amman where the automobile has not completely taken over. The pace of movement in Jabal al-Luweibdeh remains more or less determined by the pedestrian rather than the automobile.
The black and white photographs of Pierre Devin in the book capture the special qualities of Jabal al-Luweibdeh (although one of the photographs is of a building in Jabal Amman), and show considerable mastery of composition and lighting. The dependence on the absence of color and on delicate natural lighting both tone down whatever visual pollution might exist there as a result of elements ranging from loud signs to dilapidated sidewalks, and brings back the spirit of the increasingly distant decades during which Jabal al-Luweibdeh came into being.
Walking in Jabal al-Luweibdeh is a beautiful experience (the book has a foldout map to help you do so). This district is one of the few places that contain and preserve memories of the history of Amman before its massive expansion during the 1970s. It presents so much that is positive in urban life. It allows for comfortable pedestrian movement, its urban fabric is delicately weaved, its buildings have a human scale, and its mature trees provide shade, elegant vertical accents, and color.
To me, Jabal al-Luweibdeh is Amman's most beautiful district. We have a responsibility to protect it and also to protect what it stands for. Not only should we ensure that the character of Jabal al-Luweibdeh survives, but also should present it as a model of inspiration for developing other parts of the city.
September 16, 2004