Nestled in the old streets of downtown Amman, Jordan, within a few minutes’ walk from the long-standing souqs and markets, lies an antique building with a great history carved in its dusty walls. It forms what is known today as the Duke’s Diwan, an open museum of ancient art and culture.
The Duke’s Diwan was built in 1924 to host Amman’s first post office and was saved from demolition in 2001 by Mamdouh Bisharat, an 82-year-old Jordanian who turned it into a space for everyday people, thinkers, poets, artists, and tourists to gather and tackle various issues, fulfilling the meaning of the word Diwan in Arabic.
Bisharat, an heir to one of the richest landowning families in the country, received the first Jordanian “Duke” title in 1974 when a Royal Decree issued by the late King Hussein officially recognized Bisharat’s dedication to preserving Jordanian heritage, which he had started in 1958. Thus King Hussein bestowed on him the title Duke of Mukhaibeh, in reference to Bisharat’s hometown village of Mukhaibeh in the Jordan Valley.
“Jordan has a very interesting history and this building is a witness of the great events that occurred in downtown Amman,” Bisharat told Inside Arabia. “After renting it, I intended to transform it into a place of art and culture as a way of protecting its well-preserved stone construction and great heritage from the fast development that is happening in the country.”
“I have this passion for history and preserving it, and that is why I placed a lot of interest in this amazing building. I used to buy archaeological pieces from treasure hunters – before they [could] sell them in the black market – and give them to the Department of Antiquities because I believe our history should remain here and not elsewhere,” he added.
With that in mind, Bisharat worked hard transforming the old building into a place for thinkers and intellectuals, and named it The Duke’s Diwan, providing a great opportunity for tourists, locals, students, and all who seek a taste of history with a hot cup of tea or coffee.
“At that time, I rented the building and paid more than its real value in order to prevent the building from being demolished and I did not mind at all, because I understand and appreciate the true value of its culture and heritage which also served as a headquarters for the Ministry of Finance and a hotel,” he said.
At the Diwan’s entrance, a sky-blue wooden door welcomes around 80 to 100 visitors daily and directs them to steps that lead to an eccentric room filled with ancient furniture, historical photos, old documents, and books. Various memorabilia create a splendid journey through centuries with the help of the Duke of Mukhaibeh’s time machine-like recollection.
“The Diwan holds many memories . . . each piece or photo tells a story. My most precious piece is a photo taken with HM the Late King Hussein of Jordan who was a close friend and mentor, and as you can see there are many old items which I intentionally kept as they are for visitors to enjoy,” Bisharat said while holding one of the many books he keeps for guests to write a few words and sign their names.
“It gives me great happiness to watch tourists and Jordanians – especially young students – coming to this old place to sit and talk and discuss various issues because usually the new generation is expected to have little interest in history, but this notion proved wrong. We are Jordanians and proud of having a great history like ours, and the Diwan is a place to learn more about our history,” he added.
With only one employee working at the Diwan and a high rent of US$11,200 per year, the Duke is happy to cover all expenses with a smile because he feels that he is doing something good for his beloved country and “it is all about giving more than taking.”
“At the Diwan, visitors don’t pay anything to enjoy history and culture, and I am happy to pay all the expenses of such a great place. People feel peace inside when they make others happy and for me I am at that place where a smile, a hello, or a good morning make me happy,” Bisharat said while walking beside the numerous poetry pieces framed on the wall of his office at the Diwan.
Light blue seems to be the color of choice for the Diwan. Black and white photos and some paintings decorate the walls. They go perfectly with the old floral covers of the armchairs. Various books and documents placed on a round table invite readers to discover the history behind the old town of Amman.
“Everything is kept in its original form from the china plates, vases, the vintage radio, and the brass hookah to the small sketches of Roman ruins, Ottoman homes, and Jordan’s late King Hussein’s mosaic portrait,” Bisharat said while looking at the crowded streets of downtown Amman from the Diwan’s spacious balcony.
“I don’t like and I don’t want to think of what will happen to the Diwan in five years or even ten years; all I know today is this: the Diwan has brought so much happiness and pride to many people who visited it and for me this is more than enough,” he stated.
Maybe Bisharat’s wise outlook and passion for Jordan’s history, coupled with the authenticity of the place, are what keep this Diwan alive. Whatever it is, the Duke’s Diwan is worth a visit and you might even be lucky enough to speak with the first Duke of a small country called Jordan.