History of Jordan

From Antiquity to Modernity

Jordan is a land steeped in history. It has been home to some of mankind’s earliest settlements and villages, and relics of many of the world’s great civilizations can still be seen today. As the crossroads of the Middle East, the lands of Jordan and Palestine have served as a strategic nexus connecting Asia, Africa, and Europe. Thus, since the dawn of civilization, Jordan’s geography has given it an important role to play as a conduit for trade and communications, connecting east and west, north and south. Jordan continues to play this role even today.

Because of its central location, the land of Jordan is a geographic prize that changed hands many times throughout antiquity. Parts of Jordan were included in the dominions of ancient Iraq, including the Sumerian, Akkadian, Babylonian, Assyrian and Mesopotamian Empires. From the west, Pharoanic Egypt extended its power and culture into Jordan, while the nomadic Nabateans built their empire in Jordan after migrating from the south. Finally, Jordan was incorporated into the classical civilizations of Greece, Rome and Persia, the relics of which are scattered across the Jordanian landscape. Since the mid-seventh century AD, the land of Jordan has remained almost continuously in the hands of various Arab and Islamic dynasties.

The second geographical factor that has helped shape the history of Jordan concerns climate. Only the northern highlands and the Jordan Valley have received enough rainfall to support large populations. Therefore, this area has always been more settled by farmers, villagers and townspeople. Most of the urban civilizations of Jordan have been based in these fertile lands. To the south and east, meanwhile, there is very little rainfall and no rivers for irrigation. These desert areas, which compromise the majority of Jordan, have rarely supported large settled populations. In some periods, there appears to have been no settled population at all. The lifestyle of the Bedouin inhabitants of these desert lands has remained similar in some respects to that of their Edomite or Nabatean predecessors. The contrast between the pastoral "desert" and the agricultural ‘sown" is particularly pronounced in Jordan, and much of the area’s history can be linked to population shifts between large urban centers and more dispersed, nomadic tribal groups.

Prehistoric Jordan

During the Paleolithic period (c. 500,000-17,000 BC), the inhabitants of Jordan hunted wild animals and foraged for wild plants, probably following the movement of animals seeking pasture and living near sources of water. The climate during this period was considerably wetter than today, and therefore large areas of modern-day desert were open plains ideal for a hunting and gathering subsistence strategy. Evidence has also been found of Paleolithic inhabitation near a large expanse of water at Azraq. Paleolithic man in Jordan left no evidence of architecture, and no human skeleton from this period has yet been found. However, archeologists have uncovered tools from this period such as flint and basalt hand-axes, knives and scraping implements. Ancient man also left clues to the nature of his existence beginning in Paleolithic times and continuing through the Neolithic and Chalcolithic eras.

It was during the Epipaleolithic period (c. 17,000-8500 BC), also known as the Mesolithic period or Middle Stone Age, that the nomadic hunter-gatherers began to settle. They domesticated animals such as gazelles and dogs, while supplementing their diet by cultivating wild grains. Architectural remains have been found from the Epipaleolithic period which indicate the construction of small circular enclosures and hut foundations. Evidence exists of Epipaleolithic settlements around Beidha in southern Jordan, as well as in the Jordan Valley, the eastern desert region, and at Jericho in the West Bank.

During the Neolithic period (c.8500-4500BC), or New Stone Age, three great shifts took place in the land now known as Jordan. First, people settled down to community life in small villages. This corresponded to the introduction of new food sources – such as cereal agriculture, domesticated peas and lentils, and the newly-widespread practice of goat herding – into the diet of Neolithic man. The combination of settled life and "food security" prompted a rise in population which reached into the tens of thousands.

The second basic shift in settlement patterns was prompted by the changing weather of the eastern desert. The area grew warmer and drier, gradually becoming virtually uninhabitable throughout much of the year. The distinction between the desert to the east and the "sown" areas to the west dates back to this watershed climatic change, which is believed to have occurred from around 6500-5500 BC.

The most significant development of the late Neolithic period, from about 5500-4500 BC, was making the pottery. Earlier attempts to fashion pottery from plaster have been discovered, but it was during the late Neolithic period that man began to systematically create vessels from clay. It is likely that pottery making was introduced to the area from artisans arriving from the seminal civilizations developing to the northeast, in Mesopotamia.

Indeed, there seems to have been a significant cultural exchange among the regional settlement centers throughout the Levant region. The need for materials such as basalt, bitumen, seashells and minerals for jewelry stimulated external relations and a diffusion of ideas throughout the region. When population centers became a focus for trade, there grew a need for established trade and communications routes, which in turn stimulated the growth of more settlements and the continuation of trade.

During the Chalcolithic period (4500-3200 BC), copper was smelted for the first time. It was put to use in making axes, arrowheads and hooks, although flint tools continued to be used for a long time. Chalcolithic man relied less on hunting than in Neolithic times, instead focusing more on sheep and goat-breeding and the cultivation of wheat, barley, dates, olives and lentils. In the desert areas the lifestyle was probably very similar to that of modern Bedouins.

Tuleitat Ghassul was a large Chalcolithic village in the Jordan Valley. Houses there were built of sun-dried mud bricks with roofs made of wood, reeds and mud. Some dwellings were based on stone foundations and many were planned around large courtyards. The inhabitants of Tuleitat Ghassul used the walls of their houses for artistic or ceremonial purposes, painting bright images of masked men, stars and geometric motifs, perhaps connected with religious beliefs.

‘Ain Ghazal

The largest Neolithic site in Jordan is at ‘Ain Ghazal ("spring of the gazelle") near Amman. Since 1982, a series of excavations have unearthed a stone village of great importance. At one point, a community of 1,500 to 2,000 people may have lived in the vicinity of ‘Ain Ghazal, making it one of the largest of over 150 Neolithic villages discovered so far in the Middle East. ‘Ain Ghazal displayed sophisticated social organization and planning, as its large number of buildings was divided into three distinct districts. The houses were rectangular with several rooms, and some of them had plastered floors.

Faunal and floral remains discovered at the site indicate that ‘Ain Ghazal was located favorably in relation to a variety of different ecological zones. This provided an abundance of food and a protein-rich diet that include a variety of meat and vegetables. A diverse array of bones found at ‘Ain Ghazal indicates the strong possibility that goats and cattle may have been domesticated. By taking advantage of favorable environmental conditions, the residents of ‘Ain Ghazal were able to diversify their food supply, thus safeguarding against famine. Bountiful harvests also allowed some segments of the society to pursue activities other than food production.

For instance, it seems as though Neolithic man practiced ancestor veneration and engaged in burial rites for the dead. This is indicated by the discovery of human skulls reworked with plaster over the cheekbones and nose, and with bitumen in the eye sockets. Examples of these have been found at sites in Jordan (‘Ain Ghazal), Palestine and Syria.

‘Ain Ghazal appears to have been a major center of artistic production during the Pre-Pottery Neolithic period, larger and more significant than its contemporaries – Jericho, on the West bank, and Beidha, to the north of Petra. Over 100 animal and human figurines have been discovered at ‘Ain Ghazal. Even more impressive is the discovery of human statues and busts made from plaster, with colorful features perhaps designed to resemble individuals.

Recently, archeologists finished restoring what may be one of the world’s oldest statues. Found at ‘Ain Ghazal, the relic is thought to be 8000 years old. The statue is just over one meter high and is of a woman with huge eyes, skinny arms, knobby knees and carefully depicted toes.

Rise of the City-States

By about 3200 BC, Jordan had developed a relatively urban character. Many settlements were established during the Early Bronze Age (c. 3200-1950 BC) in various parts of Jordan, both in the Jordan Valley and on higher ground. Many of the villages built during this time included defensive fortifications to protect the inhabitants from marauding nomadic tribes still inhabiting the region. Water was channeled from one place to another and precautions were even taken against earthquakes and floods.

Interesting changes took place in burial customs during this period. At Bab al-Dhra, a well-preserved site in Wadi Araba, archeologists have discovered over 20,000 shat tombs with multiple chambers. These tombs are thought to have contained the remains of 200,000 corpses. There also charnel houses of mud-brick containing human bones, pots, jewelry and weapons. The hundreds of dolmens scattered throughout the mountains of Jordan are dated to the late Chalcolithic and Early Bronze ages. It is possible that the dolmens are evidence of new peoples from the north bringing with them different burial traditions.

Spectacular advances in urban civilization were taking place during this period in Egypt and Mesopotamia, where writing developed before 3000 BC. Although writing was not really used in Jordan, Palestine and Syria until over a thousand years later, archeological evidence indicates that Jordan was in fact trading with Egypt and Mesopotamia during the Early Bronze Age.

From 2300-1950 BC, any of the large, fortified hilltop towns constructed during the Early Bronze Age were abandoned in favor of either small, unfortified villages or a pastoral lifestyle. Archeologists do not know for sure what prompted this shift, but it is possible that many cities were destroyed by an earthquake. It is clear, however, that a sharp climatic change at this time resulted in less rainfall and higher temperatures across the Middle East. The predominant theory is that many of these Early Bronze Age towns were victims of changes in climate and political factors which brought an end to a finely-balanced network of independent "city-states."

During the Middle Bronze Age (c. 1950-1550 BC), people began to move around the Middle East to a far greater extent than before. Trading continued to develop between Egypt, Arabia and Greater Syria, resulting in the refinement and spread of civilization and technology. The creation of bronze out of copper and tin resulted in harder and more durable axes, knives and other tools and weapons. It seems that during this period large and distinct communities arose in parts of northern and central Jordan, while the south was populated by a nomadic, Bedouin-type of people known as the Shasu.

A new and different type of fortification appeared at sites like Amman’s Citadel, Irbid, Pella and Jericho. The towns were surrounded by ramparts made of earth embankments. The slope was then covered in hard plaster, making it slippery and difficult for an enemy to climb. Pella was enclosed by massive walls and watchtowers.

It was once thought that during the 18th century BC much of Syria, Jordan and Palestine were overturn by a military aristocracy from northern Mesopotamia known as the Hykos, who went on to conquer much of Egypt and help overthrow the Middle Kingdom there. Now, however, archeologists believe that the Hykos – a Greek form of the ancient Egyptian hkaw haswt, which means "rulers of foreign lands" – were from Jordan and Palestine is usually blamed on the Egyptian armies pursuing the Hykos, although there is little direct evidence of Egyptian involvement.

The Egyptian Pharaoh Tuthmosis III, who acceded as ruler in 1482 BC, succeeded in settling many of the internal disputes which had diverted Egypt’s attention away from the outlying northern areas. He carried out at least 16 military expeditions and set up an empire in Canaan (Palestine, Jordan and Syria) after the successful conclusion of a seven-month siege of the combined Canaanite forces at Megiddo, in northern Palestine. Tuthmosis installed rulers of his choice in major towns and introduced a system of Egyptian influence existed throughout Jordan and Palestine during this period. In the north, meanwhile, the Egyptians fought a series of inconclusive battles against the kingdoms of the Mitannians and Hittites for control of Syria.

The relative peace brought by the Egyptians encouraged international trade, especially with the Mediterranean and Aegean. Pottery from Mycenaean Greece and Cyprus is found throughout Palestine and Jordan. Originally it probably contained fine oils and perfumes, but it was also used as elegant tableware or buried with the dead. In this relatively optimistic and prosperous period, a large number of new towns and temples were constructed.

The Late Bronze Age was brought to a mysterious end around 1200 BC, with the collapse of many of the Near Eastern and Mediterranean kingdoms. The main cities of Mycenaean Greece and Cyprus, of the Hittites in Anatolia, and of Late Bronze Age Syria, Palestine and Jordan were destroyed. It is thought that this destruction was wrought by the "Sea Peoples," marauders from the Aegean and Anatolia who were eventually defeated by the Egyptian pharaohs Merenptah and Rameses III. One group of Sea Peoples were the Philistines, who settled on the southern coast of Palestine and gave the area its name.

The Israelites may have been another cause of the Late Bronze Age devastation in Palestine. Although the archeological record does not always agree with the Biblical narrative, it is certain that the Israelites destroyed many Canaanite towns including Jericho, Ai and Hazor.


The seven hills of Amman are an enchanting mixture of ancient and modern. Honking horns give way to the beautiful call to prayer which echoes from the stately minarets which grace the city. Gleaming white houses, kabab stalls and cafes are interspersed with bustling markets – known in Arabic as souqs – and the remains of civilizations and ages long past. Sunset is perhaps the best time to enjoy Amman, as the white buildings of the city seem to glow in the fading warmth of the day. The greatest charm of Amman, however, is found in the hospitality of its residents. Visitors of Amman – and the rest of Jordan, for that matter – are continually surprised by the genuine warmth with which they are greeted.

Amman is built on seven hills, or jabals, each of which more or less defines a neighborhood. Most jabals once had a traffic circle, and although most of these have now been replaced by traffic lights, Amman’s geography is often described in reference to the eight circles that form the spine of the city. First Circle is located near downtown, and the series extends westward through Eight Circle.


Amman has served as the modern and ancient capital of Jordan. It is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, with a 1994 excavation uncovering homes and towers believed to have been built during the Stone Age, circa 7000 BC. There are many Biblical references to the city, which by about 1200 BC had become the Ammonite capital of Rabbath-Ammon. The Ammonites fought numerous wars with Saul, David and others.

The history of Amman between the end of its Biblical references (around 585 BC) and the time of the Ptolemies is unclear. We do know that the city was renamed Philadelphia after the Ptolemaic ruler Philadelphus in the third century BC. The city later came under Seleucid and also Nabatean rule, but the Roman general Pompey’s annexation of Syria in 64 BC and capture of Jerusalem one year later laid the foundations for the Decapolis League, a loose alliance of ten free city-states under overall allegiance to Rome. Philadelphia was part of the Decapolis, as were other Hellenized cities in Jordan including Gerasa (Jerash), Gadara (Umm Qais), Pella and Arbila (Irbid).

Under the influence of Roman culture, Philadelphia was replanned and reconstructed in typically grand Roman style with a colonnaded street, baths, an amphitheater and impressive public buildings.

During the Byzantine period, Philadelphia was the seat of a Christian bishop, and several expansive churches were built. The city declined somewhat during the late Byzantine years, and was overrun by the Persian Sassanians in 614 AD. Their rule was short-lived, however, collapsing before the Arabian armies of Islam around the year 635. The name of the city then returned to it Semitic origin of Ammon, or "Amman." It remained an important stop on the caravan routes for many years, but eventually trade patterns shifted and dried up the lifeblood of Amman. The city declined to little more than a provincial village for many centuries.

Amman’s "modern" history began in the late 19th century, when the Ottomans resettled a colony of Circassian emigrants there in 1878. Many of their descendants still reside in Amman. During that time and the early decades of the 20th century, neighboring city of Salt was more important as a regional administrative and political center. However, after the Great Arab Revolt secured the state of Transjordan, Emir Abdullah bin al-Hussein made Amman his capital in 1921.

Since then, the city has grown rapidly into a modern, thriving metropolis of well over a million people. Amman’s growth has been driven largely by political events in the region, and especially by the Arab-Israeli conflict. After the wars of 1948 and 1967, successive waves of Palestinian refugees ended up in Amman. Moreover, the city’s population was further expanded by another wave of immigrants arriving from Iraq and Kuwait during the 1990-91 Gulf Crisis.

Sites of Interest

Most of Amman’s noteworthy historical sites are clustered in the downtown area, which sits at the bottom of four of Amman’s seven hills, or jabals. The ancient Citadel, which towers above the city from atop Jabal al-Qala’a, is a good place to begin a tour of the city. The Citadel is the site of ancient Rabbath-Ammon, and excavations here have revealed numerous roman, Byzantine and early Islamic remains. The most impressive building of the Citadel, known simply as Al-Qasr ("the Palace"), dates back to the Islamic Umayyad period. Its exact function is unclear, but it indicates a monumental gateway, an audience hall and four vaulted chambers. A colonnaded street also runs through the complex. To the north and northeast are the ruins of Umayyad palace grounds.

Close to al-Qasr lie the remains of a small Byzantine basilica. Corinthian columns mark the site of the church, which is thought to date from the sixth or seventh century AD. About 100 meters south of the church is what is thought to have been a temple of Hercules, today also known as the Great Temple of Amman. The temple was built in the reign of the emperor Marcus Aurelius (161-180 AD), and is currently under restoration.

Also on Citadel Hill, just northwest of the Temple of Hercules, is the Jordan Archeological Museum. This small museum houses an excellent collection of antiquities ranging from prehistoric times to the 15th century. There is an exhibit of the Dead Sea Scrolls, a copy of the Mesha Stele (see Moab and the Mesha Stele for explanation) and four rare Iron Age sarcophagi. Museum hours are 09:00-17:00 daily except Tuesdays. On Fridays and official holidays the museum is open from 10:00-16:00.

Two small museums are built into the foundations of the Roman Theater. The Jordan Folklore Museum is in the right wing of the theater and displays a collection of items showing the traditional life of local people. At the other end of the theater stage, the Museum of Popular Traditions displays traditional Jordanian costumes, including fine embroidery and beautiful antique jewelry. It also houses several sixth-century mosaics from Madaba and Jerash. Both the Museum of Popular Traditions and the Jordan Folklore Museum are open daily 09:00-17:00, and close on Tuesday.

To the northeast stands the small theater, or Odeon, which is still being restored. Built at about the same time as the Roman Theater, this intimate 500-seat theater is used now as it was in Roman times, for musical concerts. Archeologists think that the building was originally covered with a wooden or temporary tent roof to shield performers and audiences from the elements. Heading southwest from the theater complex, Philadelphia’s chief fountain, or Nymphaeum, stands with its back to Quraysh Street. Much of the fountain, which was completed in 191 AD, is hidden from public view by private houses and shops. The Nymphaeum is believed to have contained a 600 square meter pool, three meters deep, which was continuously refilled with fresh water. Jordan’s Department of Antiquities is currently excavating the Nymphaeum, and ultimately hopes to restore the site to its original structure by 2010.

From the Nymphaeum, the short stroll to the King Hussein Mosque bustles with pedestrians, juice stands and vendors. The area around the King Hussein Mosque, also known as al-Husseini Mosque, is the heart of modern downtown Amman. The Ottoman-style mosque was rebuilt in 1924 on the site of an ancient mosque, probably also the site of the cathedral of Philadelphia. Between the al-Husseini Mosque and the Citadel is Amman’s famous gold souq, which features row after row of glittering gold treasures.

Moab and the Mesha Stele

The Kingdom of Moab was located between the Zarqa Valley and Wadi Mujib, and extended from the desert to the Dead Sea. Moab is best known from the Mesha Stele, a stone which records the Moabite King Mesha’s successful rebellion against the kings of Israel in the ninth century BC. The overall theme of Mesha’s account is that he liberated Moabite territory from the Israelites by capturing occupied cities north of the River Arnon (Wadi Mujib). The stele states that the Moabite rebellion took place during the reign of the Israelite King Ahab, who was at that time distracted by the Aramaeans’ capture of Ramoth-Gilead. It is reasonable to assume that, as Moab was a vassal state of the Israelites at that time, King Mesha did not possess a large and well-trained army. However, the advances of the Aramaeans gave them the opportunity to reconquer their territories without strong opposition.

According to the stele, within a few years King Mesha captured a number of cities, including Dhiban, Madaba, Nebo, and other towns along the King’s Highway. Mesha made Dhiban into his capital city, and built a royal citadel and a "high place" for the god Chemosh there. He also had a basalt rock shaped and inscribed there with an enduring record of his rebellion against the Israelites.

There are vast discrepancies between the account recorded on the Mesha Stele and the biblical narrative. According to the Bible’s brief depiction of the scenario, after the death of King Ahab (c. 869-850 BC), the Moabites rebelled against King Jehoram, who responded by mounting a counter-offensive with the assistance of King Jehoshaphat of Judah. Together the two armies approached Moab from the south, avoiding Moab’s strong northern defenses. After seven days of marching, they ran out of water, and the two kings consulted Prophet Elisha, who foretold that rain would soon fill the dry stream beds. Indeed, when the rain came, it carried so much dirt that it was colored bright red in the early morning light. The Moabites saw the water and assumed that their enemies had turned against each other, causing the water to run red with blood. They considered it an opportune moment to attack, but were heavily defeated by the Israelites, who destroyed their towns and land.

The Bible says that the Moabite armies retreated to the city of Kir-hareseth (modern Karak), where King Mesha offered his eldest son as a sacrifice to Chemosh, the god of Moab. For some reason, this terrified the Israelites, so they withdrew from the city and returned to their own country.

It is understandable that the biblical account would downplay the defeat of the Israelites, while the Mesha Stele perhaps exaggerates the victories of King Mesha. The Mesha Stele is the longest original inscription dating from the Biblical period to be found so far in Jordan, and it continues to intrigue scholars even today. Copies of the original can be found at the Madaba Museum and at the Jordan Archeological Museum near the Citadel in Amman. Unfortunately, the original was broken soon after it was unearthed in Dhiban in 1868 by a German missionary, Frederick Klein, who was journeying from Salt to Karak. It seems that local tribesmen who owned the rock broke it into many pieces by placing it on a fire and then dousing it with water, perhaps attempting to win more money for their property. Fortunately, an imprint of the stone was taken before the Mesha Stele was destroyed.