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Jean Hannoyer
Seteney Shami

Deuxième partie. Formes et usages de l’espace à Amman

Amman City Centre: Typologies of Architecture and Urban Space

Amman, centre-ville : Types architecturaux et espace urbain

Taleb Rifai


La ville, son architecture, ses espaces urbains et sa morphologie sont l’expression de la société dont ils constituent les signes les plus manifestes. Il s’agit de retracer le développement de bâtiments et d’espaces urbains à partir du centre-ville de Amman en en soulignant les constructions principales et la typologie à partir des origines. Une présentation des facteurs socio-économiques qui ont donné naissance à ces formes est également proposée.

Texte intégral


1The city, its architecture, its urban spaces and its resulting morphology, is a cultural manifestation of the society that produces it. It is probably the most important historical document of the society at a particular moment. It can be, therefore, read, if properly analysed, as an honest story-teller of its people and their culture through time. Analysis of the architecture and the urban space of the city, therefore, may enable us to understand better the present urban scene.

2This paper focuses on the city centre of Amman, identifying and highlighting the major building and urban space typologies, their origins and their development. A detailed or comprehensive document on the architecture of Amman and the growth and development of the city lies beyond the scope of this paper which simply intends to identify specific building types and urban space types in Amman and place them in their chronological order of develop­ment with reference to the social and economic factors that produced them.

3Five stages of urban development in Amman are described, each representing a form of architecture and urban space, and telling part of the rich and diverse story of Amman;

  1. Resettling the valley

  2. Climbing up the mountains

  3. Occupying the mountain tops

  4. The city of the planners

  5. The circles of Amman.


4The first form of urban space that developed in Amman was determined by the natural morphology of the narrow valley along which Seil’ Amman ran. Starting from Ras Al-’Ain, Seil ‘Amman ran north-east towards Seil Al-Zarqa along which archaeological monuments were located on the sides of the old Roman Decumanus. The valley and the immediate slopes of the surrounding mountains, especially the Citadel, Jabal ‘Amman and Jabal Al-Jofa, provided a natural container for the earliest form of urban space in Amman.

5The presence of water, mountain caves and stone from the archaeological remains and the surrounding mountains, made it possible for the early Circassian settlers to reinhabit the valley. They came in several waves after 1878 and established themselves as productive agriculture communities. They settled in two main areas along the valley; the Shapsug Area, and the Muhajereen Area.

6Narrow streets along the valley formed the earliest Amman communities of simple and somewhat scattered houses. The houses were small and modest with a simple front porch, better known in the region as the riwâq type. The houses were built of mud bricks and later of rubble stone; roofs were constructed from several layers of wood obtained from trees growing along the Seil ‘Amman, on top of which two layers of mud and straw were applied.


7By the turn of the century, Amman started to attract immigrants from the surrounding region, particularly Syria, Lebanon and Palestine. While the Circassians owned most of the land in the city centre and the immediate surrounding mountains, the newcomers, encouraged by the arrival of the Hijaz Railroad and the relative stability, quickly became a pioneering community of merchants.

8The new modest accumulated capital quickly led to a steady growth of the city centre. Settlements started to appear on higher ground and a distinct pattern of building up the slopes started to develop. The building material was stone and Palestinian and Syrian typological influences can be seen. The new urban pattern was characterized by a pedestrian system of long and narrow stairs climbing up the mountains. These steps ran down for hundreds of meters and in perpendicular direction to the contours of the mountains. With time, such stairs became the earliest communal urban space in Amman. They defined neighbourhood limits. The stairs themselves were defined by relatively high walls along their sides. Entrances to houses were through these walls whose prime function was to conceal the houses beyond. The houses, on the other hand, exhibited elegance and simplicity corresponding to the emerging Amman society. Courtyard houses and central hall type houses were built of stone, skilfully cut and ornamented. The houses established plateaus where they sat comfortably on the slopes of the mountains.


9A steady pattern of growth and development characterized Amman after it was declared the capital of the newly established state and the city began to reach the mountain tops. It also appears that the earthquake of 1927 was among the reasons encouraging people to move their residences towards the mountains.

10Initially the mountain tops were reserved for water reservoirs far away from the people. Steady growth, however, made it possible for the few who were capable financially to occupy the mountain tops and venture beyond them. Such a move was possible only for those who could afford to distance themselves from the city centre and had the means of transportation to do so.

11While earlier forms of urban development grew along narrow steps, this new form of development grew along roads. Contrary to the pedestrian steps which ran perpendicular to the mountain contours, roads ran parallel to the contours. These roads were initially used for animal transportation. It was along almost the same roads that early vehicular circulation took place. As car ownership increased and vehicular accessibility became an unavoidable necessity, roads began to develop in loops running parallel to contour lines.

12It was these relatively narrow winding roads and the newly established small villa type (the Central Hall Villa) built alongside of the roads, that established the new urban form of Amman. This form then influenced most of the future developments from then on in Amman. In addition, the state began to build; the royal palaces, schools, hospitals and office buildings began to appear.


13After World War II, two major factors strongly affected the urban form of Amman. First was the Arab-Israeli war and the resulting refugee migration to Amman and other Jordaniancities. Second was the establishment of professional unions and the arrival of the professional planners and architects.

14The first factor drastically affected the city by the sheer number of the added population and the establishment of the two largest refugee camps in Jordan, Al-Wahdât and Al-Hussein.

15The second factor also proved to have a significant effect on the city. The newly arriving professionals introduced visions of the “Modern” city. Streets and land lots were planned; land lots became regular and strict building regulations imposing heights, building percentages and set-backs came into effect. These professionals were graduates of universities in Beirut, Cairo, Baghdad, Damascus and West European cities. A new aesthetics, a new image took over where Modern equalled Western. The first union of architects and engineers was established in 1951. The new city was now a planned one, with access to vehicular traffic and straight streets laid in an iron grid pattern becoming the basis for growth and development. Irrespective of the mountain topography, the new city expanded into agricultural land to the north, west and south. The areas east and south of the valley, known today as East Amman, did not expand much in terms of total area. It, however, became more dense especially with the presence of the two Palestinian refugee camps and the activity they generated around them. The division of the city into East and West Amman goes back to this period.

16As for architecture and building types, a shift from the traditional Central Hall Types towards modern houses became evident and new types of modest low-rise apartment buildings began to emerge.


17By the late 1960’s and with the oil boom of the 1970’s the city was clearly heading towards uncontrollable expansion. The big rise in population, the effects of the 1967 war and the Lebanese civil war, as well as the oil boom of the 70’s, all left planners unable to catch up with the growth and development of the city.

18Two main directions of expansion generating from the downtown exemplify this growth; the first is the road to Wadi Al-Seer and the second is the road to Salt via Sweileh. These two roads represent the tremendous power that grew out of the centre of Amman. This energy did not stop until it linked Amman to Wadi Al-Seer and Sweileh. Along these two roads, the “Circles of Amman” remain today as historical markers of the story of the town that grew in less than 100 years into a major city.

Aref’s House, 1923, Jabal Amman; General View.
Source; T. Rifai et R. Kanaan, The Earlier Houses of Amman (in arabic), Amman, University of Jordan, 1987, pp. 1 et 2.

Murtada’s House, 1925, Jabal Amman  : General Views.
id., pp. 14, 24.

Al-Tagi’s House, 1927, Jabal Amman : Elevation, Street Side.
id., pp. 30.

Sabbagh’s House, Jabal Amman: General View.
id., pp. 102 et 112.


Department of Architecture University of Jordan

© Presses de l’Ifpo, 1996

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