The word of the month : Amman , its past and its present.
11 June 2018
In our section “the word of the month”, let’s keep it easy this month , with a light panorama of Amman. Having gone through 9000 years of history, the current capital of Jordan will have witnessed many civilizations, experienced several phases of decline and growth… It is today a megacity of 4 million inhabitants, almost half of the population of Jordan … Not bad for a place which was barely a small village in 1925!
Amman is the historic capital of Jordan
Amman was already the capital of Jordan , when the country became independant on May 25, 1946. At the time, the country was still named “Transjordan”, and it was itself a part of Palestine (yes, without controversy, Palestine was that big in the past). Amman then remained logically the capital of the country, including when Abdallah decided in 1949 to change the name of the country to the “Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan”, cutting off from the western part of the Kingdom, the part currently designated as “West Bank”.
And indeed, the status of capital for Amman dates back to 1921. This year, after pushing back the Ottomans during World War I, then found himself under British rule (the famous “mandate on Palestine” ), Abdallah I obtained international recognition of his state, then called “Emirate of Transjordan”.
But at the time, Amman was just a small town, and it was Ma’an, in the south of the country, which was the most important city, strategically and numerically speaking, and whose tribes were very powerful … This is probably one of the reasons why Abdallah I, arriving at Ma’an in 1920, declared it to be the first capital of the Principality of Transjordan … Amman came only after that. And today, even if both cities do not have much comparable (4 million on one side, 60 000 on the other), this subject is always a point of friction for some. Thus, we met several Bedouins from the south of the country who consider that Ma’an was, and must remain, the capital of the former Emirate …
Amman is a very very big city, and it is very, very, very old.
Amman is a big city, no doubt. The Greater Amman Municipality (GAM) has more than 4 million inhabitants in 2018.
It is very old, no doubt. Some excavations conducted in 1994 have disclosered traces of buildings (dwellings, towers), dating back to the Stone Age, 7000 BC. By the way, this makes Amman one of the cities still inhabited by oldest in the world, not far behind Jericho in the West Bank (-10 000 BC …)
However, at the time, Amman had only a few thousand inhabitants, as shown by this impressive photo of the time, brilliantly worked by the photographer Kelvin Bown, based in Amman (we will soon do an article on his project “Reawakening the Past “, his exceptional work of restoration of vintage photos).
In 1925, Amman had 5,000 inhabitants, and the city expand was then 2.5 km2. It was only after 1948 that the development of the city became truly exponential. The contemporary history of the city is thus crossed by different waves of refugees, who helped to shape what it has become today: Palestinians in 1948 and again in 1967, Iraqis in 1990, then in continuous flow since 2003, the Syrians since 2011 … Amman is today like Jordan, and more than 40% of the population is not indigenous.
For more details on the demography of the country, you can find here a short article that we wrote at the end of January 2018 on this matter.
Amman was always called Amman
The first name of Amman was close to the current one … In the 13th century BC, the city was called Rabbath Ammon, and it was then the capital of the Ammonites. Not the shells, huh! we are talking here about the people of the ammonites.
The name of the city and of this people appear so many times in the Bible (Deuteronomy, Joshua, Samuel ..). After several different dominations (the Assyrians, the Persians), the Greeks arrive. Thus the Greek leader of Egypt Ptolemy II Philadelphe, decides in the 3rd century BC to rename to City in Philadelphia. The city was then part of the Nabataean kingdom (Petra, you know?) until 106 AD. It was then the Roman Empire, then the Ghassanides … And it is only around 635 AD and following the famous battle of Yarmouk, that the city found its local name … becoming then, and definitely, Amman.
Take the time to visit downtown Amman, you will find these different periods of its history!
Amman is managaed like every other city of Jordan
(Very) wrong !
Amman, and by extension its community (the famous GAM), is so large, that the city management is partly run by the governement , or even the king. Here are some examples:
Since 1995, the GAM has been enjoying an territorial status of exception. The Mayor of Amman is not elected, but appointed by the government, as well as a third of its municipal councilors. Following the Arab Spring of 2011, to help alleviate the protests, trafic offenses in GAM have all been canceled upon King’s order, and the State is committed to pay for it (more than 20 million JOD) … .
Some planning rules are set directly by the court. The Ammanites know that ALL the houses of the city are covered with a stone facing, except the glass facades. Theoretically, there is no apparent concrete or cement in Amman … It is a Royal decree that sets this rule, as well as a deadline for completion of the work, the obligation to space each house at least 4 meters, and so on.
These constraints have undeniably helped to make Amman a relatively pleasant city to watch. For this, our favorite place is the Citadel overlooking the old town, which will allow you to contemplate the 7 original hills of the city, literally submerged with dwellings (stone facing, therefore) as far as the eye can see.
Building skyscrapers in Amman does not bring good luck
If we put aside its many hills ( 19 nowadays, 7 initially), Amman is a rather flat capital. The seismic risk and the limited ressources have left little room for the development of skyscrapers, unlike other countries in the Arabian Peninsula. Some exceptions: the famous “Jordan Gate”, and the district of Abdali.
Do you feel like that “Jordan Gate” sounds a little bit like “Watergate”? Well, that’s not totally wrong ….
In Amman, there are only 3 buildings higher than 150m: the Rotana Hotel, a great success of 185 m high, and the famous Jordan Gate towers, 2 twin buildings supposed to reach 200m high.
“Supposed” only, because their construction, started in 2005, is still not completed in July 2018. If the project ends one day, the completion of the towers will have taken more time than the Lighthouse of Alexandria (15 years old for 135 meters high, but … in the 3rd century BC!).
The towers are now finished at 73%, We’re speaking here about a 400 million dollars project, mainly on Kuwaiti funds. In September 2006, 3 floors collapsed, causing the death of 4 workers … In May 2009, one of the 2 overloaded 220 meters-high crane folded in 2 under the weight … no injuries. 4 other cranes were brought from the UAE to dismantle the one damaged. Construction resumed in spring 2017, to stop again after a few months. We’ve been told that the project is a helluva subject of conflict between the promoter, the builder, the municipality, the state…. In short, it is inextricable.
And meanwhile, this complex has been passed on by the district of Abdali project, supported by his majesty the King, a few kilometers northeast.
There is no public transportation policy in Amman
When asked on transportation, both expats and locals point out : “No doubt, it is such a nightmare to navigate here in Amman, that it would totally be a scandale, if the transports were organized!” Tourists react differently: “What? but how can a city of 4 million people function without organized transport!”
Both are right … First, in Amman, you can actually move with a few varied means:
- taxis (crossing the city will cost you 3 JOD maximum, and a small one 50 fils)
- uber or equivalent,
- buses (private, municipal, school, inter-city …). A bus ticket, if there is one, costs about 1/4 JOD. But as there is no real bus-line, with real stops, a real itinerary, real schedules, Thus , no wonder here is no real chance of success :-). I therefore advise against newcomers to venture there, except they perfectly understand Arabic, and have time to lose..
However, the public transport situation is truly catastrophic. In the 2000s, an attempt was made to privatize buses. Fiasco, and 61% of this company is ultimately managed by the state. In 2007, in the face of the inequity and corruption of the system, a major modernization campaign for transport is launched, and the acronym BRT (Bus Rapid Transit) was born, with a a billion JOR investment on 5 years. Has someone said “Rapid”?
Stakes are high. In Amman, the world is divided into 2 categories. On my right, those who have the money to buy or rent a car (be it an old Mercedes of 1980, or the latest Tesla). On my left, those who can just afford the few dozens of fils for a round trip Zarqa-Amman by public transport. And the gap between these two worlds widens with the current crisis..
Meanwhile, the citizens’ initiatives are developing … And it is finally thanks to a local association, Ma’an Nasil (in Arabic: “together, we arrive”), supported by the citizen platform Taqqadam, that the first unofficial transport plan is born in 2015!
However, I have not tested the bus yet, and I let you get away with the Ma’an Nasel website (arabic only) :-)! Indeed, thanks a lot for this great citizen effort!
And you can find here our section “the word of the month”, devoted to the heritage and culture of Jordan.
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