The surprising Street Art of Amman

The intense reds, oranges, purples and blues were so luminescent under the bright sun, that I couldn’t quite believe what I was seeing. Before me stood an immense painting of a woman’s head, perhaps 30 metres high and covering the entire side of a building just below Paris Square in downtown Amman. It was a dramatic glimpse into a completely unexpected street art scene that can be found all over some districts in the city. Street art, although in its infancy, is thriving in Amman … and the quality is very high.

Street Art by Suhaib Attar, Amman, Jordan

Joker by Suhaib Attar, Street Art, Amman, Jordan

Street Art, Amman, Jordan

Street Art by Serbian artists Nadja Jevanovic, Amman, Jordan

Street Art by Lebanese artist Yazan Halawani, Amman, Jordan

What’s extraordinary about the many building-sized murals and smaller artworks you see dotted around Amman, is that it seems to be almost completely below the radar. It wasn’t mentioned in my guidebook, and I hadn’t read anything online when planning my visit. It came as a huge and very welcome surprise as I was wandering around the streets. I mean, anything that brings colour to the drab streets of the Jordanian capital has to be an improvement.

I recognised a couple of European artists that I’d seen in other cities a long way from Amman, but mostly what I saw was home-grown street art by Jordanians. This explains the distinctive Middle Eastern feel of the majority of the artworks. One of the driving forces behind this revolution is the Baladk Street Art Festival, which has promoted Jordanian artists, including many female artists. This also explains why so many of the artworks I saw were of female characters.

That the Amman street art scene includes plenty of young women contradicts many of the most firmly held ideas about patriarchy in Jordan and the Middle East. It’s a breath of fresh air, although shouldn’t be a fig leaf for the gender inequality that infects much of what is still a largely conservative society. I spent time wandering around the Jabal Weibdeh area, finding artworks in the largely residential streets of Amman’s newest contender for the title of ‘Most Bohemian District’.

It would be fair to say that the blank concrete walls of Amman are uniquely suited to becoming canvases for street art. This is a city crying out for some colour to enliven its predominantly dour urban environment. What started out as a small group of artists pursuing their passion, is now evolving into a tourism marketing dream. The Jordanian Tourist Authority has already begun promoting the street art delights of Amman.

Street Art, Amman, Jordan

Street Art by Suhaib Attar, Amman, Jordan

Zaha Hadid by Miramar Moh’d, Street Art, Amman, Jordan

Street Art, Amman, Jordan

Street Art by Suhaib Attar, Amman, Jordan

Leaving the Jabal Weibdeh district behind, I made for Amman’s famed Rainbow Street, the city’s original bohemian district. Here you can find even more street art adorning the limestone walls, but it’s exhausting stuff walking Amman’s hilly topography to find them. Luckily, there are plenty of good cafes at which to refuel with falafel and strong coffee. Here you can also find the British Council, famed amongst local street artists as the birthplace of the contemporary scene.

As I made my way back down from this neighbourhood towards the Roman Theatre, I came across a mural of a woman in a blue headscarf being painted onto wall high above the bustling street below. It was evidence, if that were needed, that street art has most definitely arrived.

24 hours in Amman

Despite a long and storied history dating back 6,000 years, Amman can come across as charmlessly modern. There may be a scattering of immense Roman ruins, but Jordan’s capital is largely a 20th century creation. Seen from the top of one of its hills, the city that was once fought over by Ammonites and Israelites looks like urban planning gone mad while overdosing on concrete. Originally built on seven hills, it now spreads wildly over nineteen. Its expansion shows little sign of slowing down.

Few of the attractive houses that where built in the first half of the 20th century have survived, those that have now jostle with cheaper concrete constructions. The riotous sprawl lends the city a sense of unbound energy and movement, an impression reinforced by maniacal driving. Crossing the street involves edging out into traffic like a terrified Spanish matador. Walking in the city is a trial of exhaust fumes and missing sidewalks.

Amman from the Citadel, Jordan

Temple of Hercules, Citadel, Amman, Jordan

Amman, Jordan

Fruit and vegetable souk, Amman, Jordan

Mosque, Citadel, Amman, Jordan

Roman Theatre, Amman, Jordan

Which should make Amman a place to avoid. Yet amidst the Roman ruins and modern buildings, the coffee shops, falafel restaurants and multitude of souks in the Old City, there is something fundamentally alluring about Amman. Just when you think you’ve had enough of the heat, noise, and pollution, you’ll stumble across a place like Habibah Sweets, serving the city’s best Kunafa, a tooth-achingly sweet mix of cheese, syrup and pistachios. Don’t ask how or why, but like Kunafa, Amman just works.

I’d been in Amman for four days before escaping the confines of a conference hotel to explore a city that I’d failed to explore on two previous visits to the country. I really did want to see the Roman Theatre and the Citadel, complete with the Temple of Hercules. One of my Jordanian colleagues had given me a list of unmissable sights, which mainly consisted of places to eat. I plotted my day to allow for optimal levels of sightseeing interspersed with eating.

I took a taxi from my hotel in an upmarket suburb to the Citadel early enough to avoid tour groups, for whom this is an obligatory stop before going to Petra or Jerash. The views from up here are quite extraordinary, you can see why it was a popular spot for building a massive fortress. The fortress is a layer cake of history, containing remnants from when the Roman, Byzantine and Umayyad Empires ruled over these hilltops. It’s a bit underwhelming compared to other sites in Jordan, but worth a visit.

Walk down the hill and you arrive at the glorious Roman Theatre. A military band was rehearsing in the plaza, their musical instruments including a version of the bagpipes, some made with tartan cloth. I assumed these were leftover from British rule in this region following the First World War. It transpires that bagpipes are a Middle Eastern invention, and Roman legions exported them as they conquered bits of the known world.

Fruit and vegetable souk, Amman, Jordan

Fruit and vegetable souk, Amman, Jordan

Fruit and vegetable souk, Amman, Jordan

Amman, Jordan

Amman, Jordan

Rainbow Street, Amman, Jordan

It was a short walk from the theatre to the Roman Nymphaeum, which today is wedged between major roads, but is still a splendid sight. Close-by are a series of souks that are worth exploring: fruit and vegetables, clothes and gold, to name a few. I took a cab to the hip area of quiet streets and good cafes, restaurants and bars around Paris Square, where I had lunch in the shisha-infused Rakwet Cafe, before jumping in another cab to the famous Rainbow Street.

I immediately regretted lunch as I came across the famed street stall, Al Quds Falafel. Jordan’s King is a regular at this tasty (yes, I crammed in a falafel sandwich) and cheap spot. Afterwards, I felt obliged to walk off the excess food and spent a couple of hours exploring interesting neighbourhoods surprisingly filled with street art. It was time to call it a day. There was a Petra beer with my name on it back at the hotel and a 3am start for the airport.