>>>Caves, palaces and Zaha Hadid
Photo: Zaha Hadid Architects

Caves, palaces and Zaha Hadid

The Nabateans, the Romans and Norman Foster have all left their mark on the scorching lands of Jordan. Their work tells the history of a country as old as it is cosmopolitan.
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n Petra, an ancient civilisation “challenged the limits of their surroundings and transformed the hard rock into a living sculpture”. That is how Queen Rania of Jordan puts it. Some 2,000 years later, Zaha Hadid Architects are doing the same in Amman. The King Abdullah II House of Culture & Art is inspired by the pink city. If Petra is “an oasis and sanctuary of great beauty”, as the Anglo-Iraqi architectural studio describes it, the new building in the capital of Jordan is striving to be the same for contemporary culture.

Zaha Hadid did not get to see her vision fulfilled, having died last year, but her originality and talent won her a place in the architectural hall of fame of Jordan. One other ‘starchitect’ who is also a member is her colleague Norman Foster, the man responsible for designing the Queen Alia International Airport. Inaugurated in 2013, with the promise of increasing passenger capacity from 3.5 to 12 million by 2030, it is the perfect introduction to a city like Amman, at once cosmopolitan and traditional.

Image of the inside of the future King Abdullah II House of Culture & Art
King Abdullah II House of Culture & Art will have a concert room with 1,600 seats, and a theatre with capacity for an audience of 400.
Photo: Zaha Hadid Architects

Secrets of the ‘new Petra

Erosion has progressively sculpted the temples and more than 800 tombs in the ancient Nabatean city. It is this “complexity and elegance of form” that Zaha Hadid Architects are trying to reproduce. They will apply this ‘fluid erosion’ to all floors of the building. The second one will have the best views of Amman.

Like Hadid, Foster + Partners sought inspiration in the country’s history and, once again, the Muses took them to the vast expanses of the desert. Bedouin campsites were used as a model for the roof of the building, which is a mosaic of domes. The inside is reminiscent of an oasis, replete with palm trees. Enormous columns are connected to the ceiling through ‘branches’, as if to protect new arrivals from the sun and heat of the summer. Mindful of traditional Jordanian hospitality, the architects included large communal areas for families to gather, to welcome or see off their loved ones.

While the Nabateans were not professionally trained architects, their work occupies a place of honour in the artistic history of Jordan. In the words of Roman writer Pliny, they were “the wealthiest race on earth”. It was through this wealth that they built Petra, one of the seven wonders of the world. The advances they made in fields like hydraulic engineering are still fascinating today. Despite recent archaeological discoveries, their ability to carve rock, from top to bottom, without the use of cranes, continues to mystify scholars. The level of detail in the façades and the ‘pipes’ used to carry water to this city in the middle of the desert were, at that time, considered just as cutting edge as the designs by Foster and Hadid appear to us today.

Domes at Queen Alia International Airport
Each dome at Amman airport is a modular unit, to enable future extensions.
Photo: Nigel Young Foster + Partners

But, Petra is not the only gem in Jordan’s architectural crown. The ruins of Jerash and the Desert Castles tell us of lost civilisations, which demonstrated their power through limestone and basalt. Another little-known example is Qasr al-Abd, the ruins of an ancient castle in Wadi Seer valley. Legend tells of a young slave who built a palace to impress the daughter of his master. He used the biggest blocks of stone in the Middle East, some measuring up to 7×3 metres, and carved stone figures of animals of a “prodigious magnitude”, according to historians of the time.

In reality, he was a member of the powerful Tobiad family, who are also linked to the nearby Caves of the Prince, 11 caves carved into the rock, which local goatherds now use as a shelter. Perhaps tomorrow, they will inspire a new architect keen to impress his master, since, in the words of Norman Foster “as an architect, you design for the present, with an awareness of the past, for a future which is essentially unknown”.

Qasr al-Abd ruins
Archaeologists believe that Qasr al-Abd was built in 200 BC.

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