Amman, once the capital of the Ammonites, is a city of hills. Inevitably, then, it is also a city of steps, in long steep flights linking modern and old neighbourhoods, and a city of massive walls holding back the hills, keeping centuries of masonry from sliding into the valleys. Like a children’s drawing with no sense of perspective, or a monochrome Hundertwasser, the houses seem to be somehow piled on top of each other on the steep hillsides and the composition is obscure.
Many cities lead a bipolar existence – Paris is one, with class issues dividing the more arty, student friendly east from the wealthier west. Beirut has been a prime example since the civil war when the religion-based split materialised quite literally as the rue de Damas. But the forms of Paris are the result of typical radial expansion shown in the snail of arrondissements. And apart from the very engineered downtown, Beirut has two city centres (Sassine Square and Hamra St) which have both developed naturally as the heart of two communities, Catholic and Muslim, even if the split of these communities can’t be described as natural.
In contrast with these, the development of Amman has been thwarted and contorted by its twenty hills and life has settled on and around these curves. Many amenities have slid naturally downhill into the creases and folds of the landscape. A so-called centre does exist – the small old town in the valley at the foot of Jebel al-Qala’a (Citadel Hill) which, I am willing to bet, great swathes of the population never set foot in. It is lively, colourful, and, unlike most of the city, fairly unkempt.
Locals call it il-balad, meaning town, but the steep slopes surrounding it discourage walking and have led to a strong car culture which in turn has deeply influenced the way amenities have developed. The city is cut by dual carriageways which allow comfortable transport across this hilly terrain in the multitude of cheap taxis. However, they also remove any need to be near the centre and kill radial spread of small shops and services along main routes. Instead amenities are scattered throughout the area and the city has become unhinged from il-balad, shifting westwards and northwards. Posher neighbourhoods have also defied the gravitational pull and remain on the hilltops, out of the dirt, the fumes and the noise.
As a result, Amman is the most ex-centric city I have ever visited, with the exception of Los Angeles. The lack of a real city centre, the prevalent car culture, the predominance of clean, modern neighbourhoods, and the stubborn green patches that have escaped the stamp of concrete on inclines which are too steep for construction – all these make Amman an untypical Near Eastern city to be experienced without expectational baggage from other capitals in the region.
For a truly disorienting experience, check out the bustle and grime of il-balad and then climb uphill to the serenity of Darat al Fnun. Here you can visit the elegant, airy gallery, the sunny library and the picture perfect café terrace complete with tinkling fountain centre piece and graceful wrought iron and stone tables in the shade of dipping foliage. Add a gently strumming guitarist and you could almost be in Andalusia, if you exchanged the mulberry trees for orange blossom.
Service taxis exist and they run on numbered routes like buses. However, metered taxis are cheap enough (1 to 3 JOD around the city) to be the most practical option to get to a specific point. Unlike in Lebanon, street names are well signposted, so using a map can be effective, but don’t expect the taxi driver to know any addresses. Darat al Fnun is on Nimer bin Adwan St and showcases art from the Arab world; admission is free.