The Jordanian 'duke' who opens doors to homes and history

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The Jordanian 'duke' who opens doors to homes and history
© Provided by The National

The doors of one of Amman’s oldest and most beautiful homes are never closed to visitors.

Most of Jordan’s rich shut themselves up in their mansions in West Amman but Mamdouh Bisharat, 83, is keen to keep alive the tradition of openness that was crucial to sustaining Jordan through its first 100 years as a kingdom.

His home is a only short walk uphill from central Amman, overlooking the city’s Roman amphitheatre.

The villa was built in the mid-1920s, when only a few thousand people lived in Amman, compared with about four million today. Anyone is free to drop by.

Over glasses of home-made lemonade, Mr Bisharat regales visitors with tales that span the history of modern Jordan, before sending them off with bags of aubergines, tomatoes and cabbages from his estates across the country

The Jordanian 'duke' who opens doors to homes and history
© Provided by The National Mamdouh Bisharat’s home in Amman’s Jabal Al Jofah area. Amy McConaghy / The National

Through his recollections, his guests, many of them young Jordanians, are given an idea of how the bare, nomadic region east of the River Jordan came to be regarded as a bastion of stability in the Middle East.

“The idea that this country survived is an achievement,” he says.

Remembering Jordan’s first king

The Bisharat family has played an important role in the development of the modern state of Jordan.

The family’s estates hosted meetings between King Abdullah, the first ruler of the British protectorate of Transjordan created in 1921 and then king of Jordan when the territory gained independence in 1946, and constituents from across the country ranging from tribal leaders to established landowners and members of the emerging farming and merchant classes.

The Jordanian 'duke' who opens doors to homes and history
© Amy McConaghy / The National Mamdouh Bisharat holds a photograph of Turkish artist Princess Fahrelnissa Zeid, presenting him with a personal portrait. Amy McConaghy / The National

Mr Bisharat remembers once playing in the lap of the king as he was holding one of his long discussions to chart the country’s path.

The incident happened in the mid-1940s, as the king was hosting a political luncheon at a Bisharat villa in Jabal Al Weibdeh, one of Amman’s “original” Roman-era hills that overlook its centre. Mr Bisharat, then a slender child of about 7 or 8 with wide eyes, was busy playing in the same room.

The king beckoned him and gently asked him to play quietly.

“I sat on his lap,” he recalls.

“He knew how to interact with anyone.”

Preservationist streak

Although he has spent his life among Jordan’s elite, moving in the circles of wealth and power that influenced the country, Mr Bisharat is captivated by “the soul, the holiness” of old buildings.

“It was in the back of my mind that any old house should be kept and preserved,” he says while giving a tour of his home.

The main hall is lined with Roman busts from the city of Gadara, now named Umm Qais. It is one of Jordan’s archaeological treasures, situated near the Golan Heights and the Sea of Galilee.

The Jordanian 'duke' who opens doors to homes and history
© Provided by The National Ancient statues discovered in Jordan and preserved by Mamdouh Bisharat. He purchased many statues and artefacts to prevent them being sold overseas. Amy McConaghy / The National

Mr Bisharat acquired the statues before trading in antiquities was banned in the 1970s. His father, Chibli Bisharat, bought farmland in Mukheibeh, near Umm Qais, in the 1950s.

Nicknamed “the Duke of Mukheibeh” by King Hussein, Jordan’s third ruler, Mr Bisharat has deep attachment to his country’s history.

He has worked with archaeologists and architects to protect landmark buildings and major sites of antiquity. He also helped to build Jordan’s National Gallery of Fine Arts.

Duke’s Diwan

Two decades ago, Mr Bisharat stepped in to rescue a two-storey villa in central Amman, also built in the 1920s, that was about to be demolished. The villa is a short walk from his home in Jabal Al Jofah, another of the seven original hills of the capital.

The villa became Jordan’s first post office and then the Haifa Hotel in the late-1940s. Like many other buildings in the area, it fell into decay as businesses started moving to western Amman in the 1980s.

Mr Bisharat filled the black-and-white tiled rooms with antiques, paintings and books and turned the second floor into The Duke’s Diwan – a meeting place or salon for anyone to visit that has become as well known for the hospitality of its patron as for its setting. Visitors who climb the yellow-stone staircase are treated to a view from the balcony of the King Faisal thoroughfare.

Whether at the Duke’s Diwan or at his own home, he says, “anyone is free to come in”.

The Jordanian 'duke' who opens doors to homes and history
© Provided by The National Inside the ‘Duke’s Diwan’, Amman’s first post office and now an Arts and Cultural museum preserved by Mamdouh Bisharat. Amy McConaghy / The National

Continuity

The Bisharat family has owned the same land from Ottoman times in the 19th century, bartering over crops with other parts of the empire.

Farming and herding, a mainstay of Jordan’s economy in the 1930s and 1940s, now accounts for only about 5 per cent of gross domestic product, and less than one fifth of exports.

A significant proportion of the Bisharat farmland is in Um Al Kundum near Amman, where property values have soared as the capital expanded.

But Mr Bisharat has declined lucrative offers for the land. “I won’t accept money so a shopping centre can be built on land we have eaten from or survived on for thousands of years,” he says.

The Jordanian 'duke' who opens doors to homes and history
© Provided by The National A portrait of Mamdouh Bisharat’s father, who built the house in which he now lives, hangs above a collection of family photos. Amy McConaghy / The National

Eclectic roots

The crown jewel of the family’s property is the villa in Jabal Al Jofah where Mr Bisharat now lives, a monument to the various roots of modern Jordanian society.

Designed by Lebanese architect Sabee Samaha, the relatively small villa is a mixture of Ottoman and French architecture, built by Palestinian masons using rock hewn from nearby hills and decorated with Turkish-motif tiles laid by Syrian craftsmen.

The interior resembles a museum chronicling different chapters of the country’s history.

Paintings by artists from Jordan and abroad cover the walls. A table in the study rests on four heads of ancient Roman columns.

In the dining room, a portrait painted in the 1980s by Turkish modern art pioneer Princess Fahrelnissa Zeid shows Mr Bisharat in an orange shirt with a bright green scarf.

His hairline has since receded but his thick eyebrows and large eyes remain the same.

The Jordanian 'duke' who opens doors to homes and history
© Provided by The National A portrait of Mahmdouh Bisharat, painted in 1988 by renowned Turkish artist Princess Fahrelnissa Zeid. Amy McConaghy / The National

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