Memories and the City I: The Collective Past

Urban Crossroads #108

Downtown Amman in 1970. (Source: Wikipedia)

We are very much formed by our past. The past helps us define who we are. It makes up a good part of our identity, and it serves to anchor us and to provide us with a sense of stability and guidance in an ever-changing world. Without links to our past, we are lost and adrift.

There are many ways of dissecting the past. At one end of the spectrum, there is a collective past. This is the past of the groups we affiliate ourselves with. The affiliation could be based on a nationality, religion, geography, ethnicity, tribal or familial belongings, or a combination of those. The collective past may be a distant or a recent past. It is communicated and explained to us through many ways, including written materials, oral traditions, and the media. The more recent is the past, the more it is influenced and defined by our direct personal experiences.

At the other end of the spectrum is a personal past, which is primarily based on our individual interactions with people, events, and places. The personal past basically consists of our memories. The two pasts are different in what they encompass, but also are heavily interconnected, and our individual identities cannot be separated from our collective ones.

For this article, I would like to address the relation of the city, particularly Amman, to the collective past. The upcoming article will examine the city’s relation to the personal past.

A good part of any group’s collective memories is preserved in cities. It is where humanity’s most important political, cultural, and economic activities historically have taken place. It is where wealth, knowledge, and power most clearly have been concentrated. So much of the past therefore is directly and physically expressed in the city’s buildings, streets, and open spaces.

By now, we have come to acknowledge the city as a guardian and preserver of the past. We therefore accept the necessity of protecting buildings and monuments of historical significance. In some cases, this extends to include neighborhoods and urban districts. However, deciding which examples of architecture or urbanism from the past should be protected remains a subject of debate.

In the case of Amman, few would argue against protecting sites such as the Roman Theater or the Citadel, with its layers of Roman, Byzantine, and early-Islamic remains. This is even though these sites are not directly connected to the collective memory of Amman’s residents today. However, beyond being important tourist attractions, they also “brand” the city and associate it with great historical empires, and by extension to a glorious past.

Similar remarks apply to early-modern buildings such as those of the Amman Hijaz Railway Station, which date to the beginning of the twentieth century. Although very much underused today, the station serves to associate Amman with the Hijaz Railway, one of the most important economic and geopolitical projects to have taken place in the Ottoman Empire during its waning years. The railway connected Damascus to Medina, thus extending the pre-existing line that linked Damascus with Istanbul. The choice of Amman as the location of a sizable station along the railway emphasized the growing importance of what was then a small town. For Amman’s residents today, the station connects the city to the last empire of Islamic history, one that existed for over half a millennium. It also is a physical expression of the early days of modern Amman, when it was just remerging as a human settlement after being deserted for centuries.

As we move further forward in time, however, we see cracks in this consensus on which representatives of Amman’s architectural and urban heritage are important enough to preserve. Although there is an increasing appreciation of Amman’s heritage from the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s, the protection this heritage is awarded remains limited and inadequate. Much of the buildings from those years occupy expensive real estate, so there is considerable pressure to tear them down and to construct larger structures in their place.

This is unfortunate. This heritage represents the formative early years of the modern state of Jordan, and a period with which Ammanis can most easily and directly connect. The houses of this period preserve the memory of important figures who played defining roles in the making of the country. Its buildings are testimonies to Jordan’s early institutional, educational, and economic development. There are numerous examples. These include the Husseini Mosque, the Italian Hospital, the Ahliyya School for Girls, and the Bukhariyya Market from the 1920s; the Bishop School and Philadelphia Hotel from the 1930s; and the Islamic Scientific College, the Terra Sancta College, the old Petroleum Refinery building, and Malhas Hospital from the 1940s. Of those, Philadelphia Hotel, the first modern hotel in Amman and Jordan, unfortunately was torn down during the 1980s. Such a fate continues to threaten other buildings from this period. These buildings and their neighborhoods very much form an important part of the collective past, identity, and memories for Amman’s residents. Whenever one of them is torn down, or whenever one of the streets from this period is gutted out to become a multi-lane thoroughfare, part of the history of the city and its residents is permanently erased.

As for buildings from the 1950s and 1960s, some of which already are over half a century old, even less protection is awarded to them. These buildings represent a second phase in Amman’s modern history, during which it evolved from a town into a city. It is a time when a second wave of Jordan’s important institutions, whether political, economic, or cultural, came into being. The buildings of that period are testimonies to these developments. Examples include the Jordan Archaeological Museum in the Citadel, the second Amman Municipality building near the Roman Theater, and Mu’asher Hospital in Abdali. Jabal Amman alone has the new Petroleum Refinery building, the old Jordan Insurance Company building, the old Parliament building, and the Intercontinental Hotel. Mu’asher hospital, an important expression of the development of Jordan’s energetic medical sector, was torn down only a few years ago. The Intercontinental Hotel still exists, but its original elegant building of the early 1960s has disappeared under numerous layers of expansions and renovations. Also, many other lesser-known residences as well as commercial and institutional buildings from that period have been razed. 

Buildings from Amman’s modern past are more than works of architectural significance. They are a living testimony to the city’s eventful evolution over the past century. We have lost more than we should of them. We need to make sure we do not lose any more.

Mohammad al-Asad

September 02, 2010


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