By Matthew Teller
Amman is a metropolis on the up. Retail is booming like never before: the downtown souks – always a place of frenetic buying and selling – are being joined by a host of uptown districts where the browsing is just as absorbing.
But despite all those familiar international brands on display – most often in the city’s malls or in areas like Sweifiyyeh, a dense little grid of streets beside 6th Circle that is packed with designer boutiques, fashion outlets and jewellers – Amman still has plenty of distinctive, individual shops to explore. Below is a personal selection of a few favourites. Enjoy!
Matthew Teller is the author of the Rough Guide to Jordan.
The best-known – and probably the oldest – souvenir business in Amman, originally founded in Palestine in 1862 by a merchant from Kabul (hence the name) and still in the same family. There are three branches around the city, each an Aladdin’s cave crammed to the ceiling with everything from Bohemian glass to ornate Cairene Ramadan lamps and decorative daggers.
3 outlets: Downtown, Jabal Hussein and Jabal al-Lweibdeh; +962 6 462 5992.
The backstreets off 2nd Circle shelter several of Jordan’s best outlets for traditional crafts: Al-Burgan, Artisana, Badr ad-Duja – all excellent – and the most famous, Al-Aydi. Here, staff work as advisers and design consultants to about a hundred local craftspeople (mostly rural women), who share in the shop’s profits. What impresses most is the sheer variety, from superb olive-wood carving to hand-blown Hebron glassware, lovely embroidered jackets and dresses and the widest selection of carpets in the country – Bedouin, Iraqi and Kurdish, ranging from antique pieces to newly-mades.
2nd Circle, Jabal Amman; +962 6 464 4555.
Neshan Balian, a master ceramicist, originally arrived in Jerusalem in 1917 from Turkey. His family followed, and in 1922 they opened a workshop in the Old City to produce beautiful, distinctive hand-painted Armenian tiles. Generations on, Balian remains one of the best-known businesses in Jerusalem, recently opening a sales outlet in Beirut and also a shop and workshop in Amman. The skill and beauty of their work – all done on site, in Amman – is unmatched.
1st Circle, Jabal Amman; +962 6 462 3399, www.armenianceramics.com
OK, this one is a bit of a cheat, since it’s only partly about shopping – but I’m prepared to bend the rules! Back in 1997, a young Kuwait-born entrepreneur named Madian al-Jazerah and his brother Mazhar opened what was Jordan’s first-ever internet café, in a fine old house off Rainbow Street. 14 years on, it is going from strength to strength: the coffee is as good as ever, the bookshop downstairs remains absorbingly eclectic and the hip, California-style buzz makes this one of the best places in Amman to hang out.
1st Circle, Jabal Amman; +962 6 465 0457.
In happier times Damascus has many attractions – great architecture, amazing souks – but not many visitors know about its chocolate. Ghraoui are the most famous chocolatiers in Syria, established in 1931; their Amman shop sells the full range of gourmet chocolates, nougat, truffles and more. I’m a big fan of their glazed apricots stuffed with pistachios, and I’ve still got a bar of Ghraoui dark chocolate in a secret cupboard at home from my last visit. It’s vanishing, one square at a time…
5th Circle, Jabal Amman; +962 6 592 0366, www.ghraouichocolate.com
Jordan River Foundation
I love this place. Just off Rainbow Street is an elegant old 1920s villa set back from the street, faced in local stone. This is the showroom of the Jordan River Foundation, a non-profit organisation originally set up by Save The Children to empower low-income families. Over the years it has gained a reputation for its simple, bright handmade quilts, cushions and home furnishings – justifiably: the quality is exceptional. Alongside is an outlet for superb rugs hand-woven by the women of the rural Bani Hamida tribe. Beautiful, and very classy.
1st Circle, Jabal Amman; +962 6 461 2169, www.jordanriver.jo
Silsal produce some of the most distinctive ceramics you’re likely to see. Their pieces, inspired by museum objects from the Middle East’s Islamic past, are in sold widely around Jordan, but the best place to buy is at Silsal’s own showroom and workshop. Here, you can watch pieces being made – everything is done by hand, from shaping clay on the wheel to incising, painting and glazing – and, afterwards, choose from the widest range of designs.
4th Circle, Jabal Amman; +962 6 593 1128, www.silsal.com
Jordan’s Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature – a campaigning NGO that works to protect the natural environment – has a strikingly designed headquarters, perched on a hillside overlooking downtown Amman. Here, their Nature Shop sells all kinds of unique items produced by rural women from communities that live in and near the RSCN nature reserves: handmade silver jewellery, intricately painted ostrich eggs, hand-stitched clothing and bags, dried herbs and delicious fruit jams. Alongside is the Wild Jordan café, serving simple, healthy meals – with that amazing city view.
1st Circle, Jabal Amman; +962 6 461 6523, www.rscn.org.jo
Every city in the Middle East has its outlets for traditional Arabic sticky pastries and biscuits. Amman is no exception – and top of the pile is Zalatimo, established in Jerusalem as far back as 1860. Many’s the time I’ve turned up at a Jordanian friend’s house for dinner clutching a gift-wrapped kilo of Zalatimo’s finest – their baklawa, pistachio pastries, maamoul (date cookies) and barazik (sesame snaps) are unbeatable.
5 outlets: Abdali, 6th Circle, Shmeisani, Gardens and in Amman Airport duty-free; +962 6 568 1018, www.zalatimosweets.com
Hunt for a bargain at the vast, ramshackle flea market of old clothes, junk and fruit and veg that takes over Abdali every Friday morning. Then, for a striking contrast, head over to 1st Circle, where JARA (the Jabal Amman Residents’ Association) stages a uniquely chilled-out market-cum-street party until 10pm every Friday from May to October, with kitschy novelties like scented candles, crafts and clothing, alongside places to hang out and even live music. Very cool.