In the center of downtown Amman, Jordan – atop the Jabal al Qala’a (the “mountain of the fortress”) – resides the astounding Amman Citadel. While called a “citadel” the site is actually a semi-fortified hilltop compound that has been the political and cultural hub of the area’s settlements for over 2,500 years. Jaw-dropping ruins from the Bronze Age through the Islamic civilizations of the eighth century are in evidence, underscoring the weighty historical significance of the site, and of Amman more broadly. As if from pages of the same history book, palaces, temples, and churches are all there, having jumped from different chapters but landed on the same ground – all elements in Amman’s historical story. Believe us; the Amman Citadel is bucket-list stuff.
History and excavation of the Amman Citadel
Archeologists first discovered the Citadel’s buried structures in the 1920s, with excavation teams from across Europe and the Mideast digging through the rock and gravel ever since. To this day, however, much of the Citadel still remains unearthed.
The earliest ruins discovered (thus far) include a tomb holding pottery shards and scarab seals from the Middle Bronze Age (1650-1550 BCE) and vestiges of a defensive wall and gate estimated to be from late Bronze/Early Iron Age periods (roughly 1200 BCE). At the time, the Kingdom of (then called) Ammon, of both historical and Biblical renown, laid claim to the area.
Over the next 1,300 years or so, Ammon sustained a series of invasions, each eclipsing the last as the age of antiquity and modern era unfolded; Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantium, and finally, the Islamic Umayyads laid claim to the area during the 7th and 8th centuries CE. From this time onward, the city was called Amman.
Amman endured another blow when a series of powerful earthquakes in the late 8th century rendered it largely uninhabitable. Over the next few centuries, the once proud city dwindled to the size and scope of a rural village.
Most of the buildings currently visible at the Amman Citadel are from the Byzantine, Roman, and Umayyad periods, though there are a handful of artifacts from other periods at the onsite Jordanian Archeological Museum.
The L-shaped hill includes lower and upper terraces of hard, dusty terrain that, in total, comprise less than a square mile. All historical sites are on the upper terrace and are crisscrossed with meandering paths. The elevation at the top is about 2,400 feet, which makes for awe-inspiring, panoramic views across Amman’s historic old city.
As you walk through the site, your fist glimpse of history will be of the Roman Temple of Hercules, followed by a Byzantine church, and then the Umayyad palace complex.
What to see
There are, indeed, many artifacts and ruins to dig into at the Amman Citadel, but we’ve highlighted a few to look out for:
Temple of Hercules
While much of the Roman Temple of Hercules is gone, there is enough remaining to grasp the colossal scale of the structure that once towered over the city. Constructed in 162-166 CE (during Marcus Aurelius’s annexation of Amman), the temple would have been larger than any in Rome.
Approximate measurements put the exterior footprint at 400 feet by 236 feet by 42 feet high, a veritable giant of a building at the time. Two massive pillars, each 33 feet high, along with the ruins of four others are all that’s left of the portico. Nonetheless, the Temple ruins are a compelling sight.
There are also fascinating remnants from what was a massive statue of Hercules himself. Three marble fingers, an elbow, and a few other pieces suggest the hero stood at 40 feet or so, clearly visible from far and wide.
The site also includes remnants of a Byzantine church from the 6th century. While most of the building was destroyed by earthquakes (a fate suffered by many of the structures here), there are a series of pillars, the outlines of the foundation, and a handful of mosaics that remain. Take a stroll through the structure and imagine the church in its heyday with a massive central nave flanked by two side aisles and a semi-circular apse at the east end — separated from the rest of the church by a chancel screen.
The best-preserved structures in the Amman Citadel belong to the Umayyad palace complex, built around 720 CE for the governor of Amman. It includes the ruins of a small mosque and four plazas, punctuated with the ruins of a series of residential buildings, colonnaded streets, a throne room, a water cistern, and a largely intact domed audience room.
Built over Byzantine ruins (hence the cross shape), the audience hall is adorned with ornate carvings of Islamic-style geometric patterns and rosettes. The dome was restored in 1999 using glulam timber and galvanized steel to an impressive effect; originally designed to awe visitors of the royal palace, the room still does the trick some 1,300 years later.
Though small, the onsite museum is packed with artifacts reaching back earlier than the Bronze Age. Here, you can see the extraordinary Ain Ghazal statues, dating from the Pre-Pottery Neolithic period (7250 – 5000 BCE) and discovered about 12 miles outside of Amman. Made from lime plaster and reeds, these anthropomorphic figures are some of the oldest of their kind in the world.
What you need to know when visiting the Amman Citadel
While it’s possible to enjoy a visit to the Citadel without a tour guide, there is a lot of history here and we think you’ll get a more out of a guided tour. We suggest arranging something through your hotel concierge or trying one of these well-vetted tours. There are also guides lingering at the tour site, though the quality of the experience is bound to vary.
You can choose to do the steep walk up to the top (steps start on al Malek Ali Bin al Hussein Street), but we suggest taking the five-minute taxi ride instead. It’s cheap at 1 JD ($1.40) and allows you to conserve energy for the walk around the site itself. Tickets to the Citadel can be purchased at the top for 2 JD ($2.80) per person and include entry to the museum.
Information boards are in English as well as Arabic, but keep your eyes focused on the path while you’re moving. Railings are small and scarce and a tumble down the hill would not be pleasant. Wear comfortable shoes, a hat, and sunscreen, and bring water. We suggest a morning visit to avoid the worst of the heat. Finally, restrooms and a small stand selling drinks and snacks (for cash) is also on hand. For the Amman Citadel opening times and additional information, visit Jordan tourism online.