Amman is built on seven hills, or jabals, each of which more or less defines a neighborhood. Most jabals once had a traffic circle, and although most of these have now been replaced by traffic lights, Amman’s geography is often described in reference to the eight circles which form the spine of the city. First Circle is located near downtown, and the series extends westward through Eighth Circle.
Amman has served as the modern and ancient capital of Jordan. It is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, with a 1994 excavation uncovering homes and towers believed to have been built during the Stone Age, circa 7000 BCE. There are many Biblical references to the city, which by about 1200 BCE had become the Ammonite capital of Rabbath-Ammon. The Ammonites fought numerous wars with Saul, David and others.
The history of Amman between the end of its Biblical references (around 585 BCE) and the time of the Ptolemies is unclear. We do know that the city was renamed Philadelphia after the Ptolemaic ruler Philadelphus in the third century BCE. After coming under Seleucid and Nabatean rule, Philadelphia was taken by the Roman vassal King Herod in 30 BCE. The city became part of the Decapolis League, a loose alliance of ten Roman-ruled cities including Jerash, Gadara (present-day Umm Qais), Pella, Arbila (Irbid) and others. Under Roman rule, Philadelphia was replanned and reconstructed in typically grand Roman style with a colonnaded street, baths, an amphitheater and impressive public buildings.
During the Byzantine period, Philadelphia was the seat of a Christian bishop, and several expansive churches were built. The city declined somewhat during the late Byzantine years, and was overrun by the Persian Sassanians in 614 CE. Their rule was short-lived, however, collapsing before the Arabian armies of Islam around the year 635. The name of the city then returned to its Semitic origin of Ammon, or "Amman." It remained an important stop on the caravan routes for many years, but eventually trade patterns shifted and dried up the lifeblood of Amman. The city declined to little more than a provincial village for many centuries.
Amman’s "modern" history began in the late 19th century, when the Ottomans resettled a colony of Circassian emigrants there in 1878. Many of their descendants still reside in Amman. During that time and the early decades of the 20th century, the neighboring city of Salt was more important as a regional administrative and political center. However, after the Great Arab Revolt secured the state of Transjordan, Emir Abdullah bin al-Hussein made Amman his capital in 1921.
An aerial view of Amman. © Zohrab
Since then, the city has grown by leaps and bounds into a modern, thriving metropolis of well over a million people. Amman’s growth has been driven largely by political events in the region, and especially by the Arab-Israeli conflict. After the wars of 1948 and 1967, successive waves of Palestinian refugees ended up in Amman. Moreover, the city’s population was further expanded by another wave of immigrants arriving from Iraq and Kuwait during the 1990-91 Gulf Crisis.
Sights of Interest
Most of Amman’s noteworthy historical sites are clustered in the downtown area, which sits at the bottom of four of Amman’s seven hills, or jabals. The ancient Citadel, which towers above the city from atop Jabal al-Qala’a, is a good place to begin a tour of the city. The Citadel is the site of ancient Rabbath-Ammon, and excavations here have revealed numerous Roman, Byzantine and early Islamic remains. The most impressive building of the Citadel, known simply as al-Qasr ("the Palace"), dates back to the Islamic Umayyad period. Its exact function is unclear, but it includes a monumental gateway, an audience hall and four vaulted chambers. A colonnaded street also runs through the complex. To the north and northeast are the ruins of Umayyad palace grounds.
Close to al-Qasr lie the remains of a small Byzantine basilica. Corinthian columns mark the site of the church, which is thought to date from the sixth or seventh century CE. About 100 meters south of the church is what is thought to have been a temple of Hercules, today also known as the Great Temple of Amman. The temple was built in the reign of the emperor Marcus Aurelius (161-180 CE), and is currently under restoration.
Also on Citadel Hill, just northwest of the Temple of Hercules, is the Jordan Archeological Museum. This small museum houses an excellent collection of antiquities ranging from prehistoric times to the 15th century. There is an exhibit of the Dead Sea Scrolls, a copy of the Mesha Stele (see Madaba section for explanation) and four rare Iron Age sarcophagi. Museum hours are 08:30-17:00 daily. On Fridays and official holidays the museum is open from 09:00-16:00.
Downhill from the Citadel and five minutes walk east from downtown, the Roman Theater is the most obvious and impressive relic of ancient Philadelphia. The theater, which was built during the reign of Antonius Pius (138-161 CE), is cut into the northern side of a hill that once served as a necropolis—or graveyard. It is very similar in design to the amphitheater at Jerash, and can accommodate 6000 spectators. The theater is still used periodically for sporting and cultural events.
The Roman Amphitheater in downtown Amman.
Two small museums are built into the foundations of the Roman theater. The Jordan Folklore Museum is in the right wing of the theater and displays a collection of items showing the traditional life of local people. At the other end of the theater stage, the Museum of Popular Traditions displays traditional Jordanian costumes, including fine embroidery and beautiful antique jewelry. It also houses several sixth-century mosaics from Madaba and Jerash. The Museum of Popular Traditions is open daily 09:00-17:00, and closed on Tuesday. The Jordan Folklore Museum is open every day from 09:00-17:00, except Friday when its hours are 10:00-16:00.
To the northeast stands the small theater, or Odeon, which is still being restored. Built at about the same time as the Roman theater, this intimate 500-seat theater is used now as it was in Roman times, for musical concerts. Archaeologists think that the building was originally covered with a wooden or temporary tent roof to shield performers and audiences from the elements. Heading southwest from the theater complex, Philadelphia’s chief fountain, or Nymphaeum, stands with its back to Quraysh Street. Much of the fountain, which was completed in 191 CE, is hidden from public view by private houses and shops. The Nymphaeum is believed to have contained a 600 square meter pool, three meters deep, which was continuously refilled with fresh water. Jordan’s Department of Antiquities is currently excavating the Nymphaeum, and ultimately hopes to restore the site to its original structure by 2010.
The King Abdullah Mosque, Amman. From the Nymphaeum, the short stroll to the King Hussein Mosque bustles with pedestrians, juice stands and vendors. The area around the King Hussein Mosque, also known as al-Husseini Mosque, is the heart of modern downtown Amman. The Ottoman-style mosque was rebuilt in 1924 on the site of an ancient mosque, probably also the site of the cathedral of Philadelphia. Between the al-Husseini Mosque and the Citadel is Amman’s famous gold souq, which features row after row of glittering gold treasures.