Consistently overlooked and underrated by travellers to the Middle East, the Jordanian capital Amman stands in marked contrast to its raucous neighbours, with none of the grand history of Damascus, not a whiff of Jerusalem’s tension and just a tiny fraction of Cairo’s monuments.
It’s an approachable city with unexpected charm, bathed in a new spirit of dynamism: investment is pouring in, new buildings are going up, neighbourhoods are being rejuvenated and the city is humming with cafés, galleries and commerce. If you’re dreaming of medieval mosques, gloomy spice bazaars and fading romance, go elsewhere; if you want a handle on how a young, buzzy Arab capital is making its way in the world, Amman is for you.
Amman is a thoroughly twentieth-century invention: it was only a small town when Emir Abdullah chose it to be his new capital in 1921.
The sense of Amman being a village-made-good is highlighted when you spend some time on the busy Downtown streets. Here the weight of history that is a constant presence in the heart of many Middle Eastern cities is absent. Amman, instead, is distinguished by a quick-witted self-reliance. This energy stems in large part from displacement: most Ammanis identify themselves as originating from somewhere else. Circassians, Iraqis and above all Palestinians have arrived in the city in large numbers, voluntarily or forcibly exiled from their homelands – and joined, in the last few years, by post-conflict Syrians and Sudanese.
The distinctive cultures they have brought are still jostling for living space with the culture of the native bedouin. Indeed, scratching beneath Amman’s amiable surface reveals a whole cluster of personalities jockeying for supremacy: Western-educated entrepreneurs make their fortunes cheek-by-jowl with poverty-stricken refugees, Christians live next door to Muslims, conservative Islamists and radical secularists tut at each other’s doings, Jordanians of Palestinian origin assert their identity in the face of nationalistic tendencies among “East Bank” Jordanians, and so on.
What it is to be Ammani is an ongoing dispute that shows no signs of resolution.
[Taken from the Rough Guide to Jordan © Matthew Teller, 2019]