The author has travelled extensively and writes illustrated articles about his experiences, with advice on must-see sights.
Jordan - sandwiched between several of the world's political hotspots, with borders in common with Israel, Syria, Iraq and Saudi Arabia - is only a small country, similar in size to Portugal and Austria, or such American states as Maine, Indiana and South Carolina. However, Jordan has a historic and cultural significance which is out of all proportion to its size. The Middle East is where civilisation as we know it first developed, so Jordan, like most other countries in this region, has a long history of settlement. Moreover, Jordan lies on the ancient trade routes between Europe, Arabia and North Africa, and the far East, and is surrounded by countries influenced by three of the world's most significant religions, Judaism, Christianity and of course Islam. Consequently, this small country has been shaped by a more diverse range of different societies than almost any other country on Earth.
This page gives a brief overview of the timeline of Jordan from prehistory to the 20th century, concentrating on a few of the great buildings, monuments and the artifacts left to us by the many nomads, settlers and conquerors who have passed through this area throughout the past 10,000 years.
The legacy of two of the societies featured - the Nabataeans and the Umayyads - are covered in more detail in other pages by the same author (see my links later on this page).
All photos of Jordan's historic sites on this page were taken by the author
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PREHISTORIC JORDAN 100,000 BC TO 4500 BC. NEOLITHIC AL-BEIDHA
Jordan has been inhabited for many thousands of years. Indeed, it would have been one of the very first areas through which early Stone Age people migrated after first leaving Africa about 100,000 years ago. Little remains of such early colonisation, but with the development of agriculture about 8500 BC came the establishment of settled communities with permanent shelters or buildings, and the first relics which have survived the test of time. During this time, plants such as barley and wheat and lentils were first cultivated. Then, approximately 6,000BC, the first livestock - sheep, goats, cattle, and maybe pigs - were also domesticated.
Possibly the oldest known settlement from this era is at al-Beidha in south-west Jordan. al-Beidha dates back to the Neolithic Period of 7200 BC, and here the remains of stone-built walls dividing circular rooms and square buildings have been uncovered. This area seems to have been under more or less continuous occupation for many centuries, albeit with several distinct periods of reconstruction. And during this time, the people may have developed radically from a lifestyle as hunter-gatherers, to become growers of early cereal crops, and eventually pastoral farmers of goats.
Ain Ghazal is a large Neolithic village site, on the banks of the Zarqa River near Amman, Jordan. This site, like al-Beidha, was also occupied around 7000 BC, but may have survived even longer into the era when pottery was first crafted, as some of the earliest known statuettes of human figures in the world have been found here.
THE BRONZE AGE AND EARLY IRON AGE JORDAN 4500 BC TO 63 BC
During the era known as the Bronze Age, the development of copper ore smelting and manufacture of bronze tools, were to be added to the skills of stone masonry, agriculture, animal husbandry and pottery manufacture. North Africa and the Middle East were in a state of some upheaval at this time. This was the period of Egyptian pharaonic rule when all of the great pyramids and temples of Egypt were being constructed. Jordan was subject to invasion from Egypt and several other regional powers, but was still home to its own, distinctive peoples. Three of the most significant local kingdoms were established around 1000 BC in different parts of Jordan, and these were the kingdoms of Edom, Moab and Ammon, and each of these became wealthy through trade, copper mining and agriculture. This wealth in turn attracted the attention of, and incursions by, other emerging empires at this time - first the Assyrians, then the Baylonians, and then the Persians. Finally it was Alexander the Great and his Greek armies who arrived and conquered the region in 332 BC. The Greeks would hold sway in the region for centuries to come.
Ironically, little survives in Jordan to this day of this great empire; instead it was left to a relative backwater of ancient civilisation which emerged at this time to leave us the most remarkable of all Jordanian architectural treasures - The City of Petra.
THE NABATAEANS - PETRA
Even before the invasion of Alexander the Great, an obscure tribe of nomadic traders had begun migrating into Jordan out of Arabia. These were the Nabataeans. Little is known about the Nabataeans; though an apparently literate society, they left very little in the way of written documents, and even inscriptions on temples and tombs such as those illustrated above, are rare. The Nabataeans' precise origin is unknown, and the lifestyle they pursued is unclear, and even whether they were just one tribe or several tribes of a similar habit is uncertain. They were undoubtably wanderers, seemingly stateless for much of their history, yet accepted without too much hostility through the various empires in which they drifted. Their society seems to have been built on trade and commerce rather than empire building, and they supplied goods to India and China, and to the European empires of Greece and Rome, goods including copper and iron, spices, perfumes and medicines, silk and cotton. As nomadic traders, almost nothing in the way of houses or temples or fortresses was built to last.
And yet, in the space of a few decades after settling in southern Jordan and making their base in a secret rocky canyon, the Nabataeans remarkably created one of the most distinctive cities of the ancient world. Quite why this happened, and why they adopted a more sedentary lifestyle with a city capital remains a matter of conjecture, but what is clear is that the city soon became a major site. In Rome, it was known as Petra, and 2000 years later it is regarded as one of the Wonders of the World. For several centuries Petra survived as a vibrant city but it eventually declined after incorporation into the Roman Empire, diversion of trade routes away from the area, and a series of earthquakes, which led to its abandonment.
This unique site is really much too big a subject to be dealt with here, but an overview can be found on my page, Petra, Jordan; a Travel Guide.
A few kilometres north of Petra lies al-Beidha, the Neolithic site described above. But within walking distance of this stone age settlement, Nabataeans established a commercial suburb of Petra in the first century AD. Much smaller than Petra, but very similar to the main site cut as it is into the walls of a canyon, this is widely known as Little Petra.
This page is concerned primarily with the archaeological history of Jordan. However, there will undoubtably be interest for many in the Old Testament sites of ancient Jordan, even though today there may be rather few relics of Biblical significance to be seen. The stories of the Old Testiment range through the entire area of the Middle East, and many of the events and places described were in the region of Jordan. These include Mount Nebo, where Moses is said to have seen the Promised Land, and the possible sites of Sodom and Gomorrah, as well as the banks of the River Jordan where Jesus was later immersed by John the Baptist.
One tangible remnant of the Old Testiment does exist - fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls are today housed in the National Archaeological Museum in Amman.
THE ROMAN ERA 63 BC TO 324 AD. THE CITY OF JERASH
It was Inevitable that the Middle East would attract the attention of the fast burgeoning Roman Empire in the 1st century BC, and when Roman General Pompey conquered the region around 63 BC, ten great cities, which became known as the Decapolis League, were founded throughout the Middle East to form Rome's Eastern frontier. Three of these cities are to be found within the borders of modern day Jordan, and all were former Greek settlements, further developed and expanded under the influence of Rome. Two of these sites were Gadara (now redeveloped into the town of Umm Qais) and Gerasa, which became Jerash. The third was known to the Greeks as Philadelphia (the original city of that name), and this was to become the modern day capital of Jordan, the city of Amman.
Hiowever, at the time of the Romans it was Jerash which was pre-eminent as one of the great provincial cities of the Roman Empire. Reconstruction of Roman Jerash on the site of Greek Gerasa began in the first century BC, and soon the city was flourishing as trade links were established with the Nabataeans and new roads were built between the cities of the Decapolis.
JERASH - A ROMAN CITY
The modern visitor to Jerash enters via the Hadrian's Triumphal Arch. Just inside the city is a hippodrome where more than 15,000 people could have watched chariot racing entertainments.
Other sites encountered as one walks round the paved. colonnaded streets include the great Oval Plaza, and the market place, the Temple of Dionysus, and the Nymphaeum. Two theatres at the north and south ends of Jerash, and an impressive Temple of Artemis in an elevated position overlooking the rest of the city, are other significant buildings within the ruins of Jerash.
In its hey-day, the city may have had a population of about 20,000, but from about the 3rd century AD, Jerash was beginning to lose its importance as sea trade across the Mediterranean grew to replace the overland trade routes. However, it was the decline of the Roman empire itself, invasion by Persian forces and increasing Islamic influence in the 7th century, and a succession of earthquakes in the 8th century, which ultimately led to the downfall of Jerash. The city was finally deserted by the 9th century, though a modern town of the same name has grown up outside the Roman city walls.
Amman itself, capital of modern day Jordan, became a member of Rome's Decapolis League in 30 BC. Prior to this the city under the Greeks was named Philadelphia, but there had been settlements here since Neolithic times, and it was first recorded in the Bible as Rabbath-Ammon.
The ancient city had been built on a hill called The Citadel, and here the Romans added a temple during the reign of Marcus Aurelius between 161 and 166 AD. This was designated the Temple of Hercules, and although much of the stonework has since been used for other building projects, some of the ruins can be seen here today.
(Within walking distance of the temple is a National Archaeological Museum; many of Jordan's relics are housed here, including the Dead Sea Scrolls.)
THE BYZANTINE CHRISTIAN ERA 324 AD TO 630 AD
In 324 AD the first Christian Roman Emperor, Constantine I established Constantinople as the capital of the Eastern Roman or Byzantine Empire, and Christian teachings began to spread rapidly in the region. Soon the religion was to become established as the accepted faith throughout Jordan.
In Aqaba in southern Jordan, remains of a building believed to be the oldest known church in the world have been discovered. During the 4th and 5th centuries, many other churches were built. and decorative Mosaic floors laid in these churches are among the more attractive relics of Jordan's history.
One particular town south of Amman is especially celebrated as a result of a discovery made during excavations in 1896 in the local Church of St George. An extensive floor mosaic, originally consisting of more than two million separate tiles, proved to be the very earliest map of the Bible lands in existence. The Madaba mosaic map was laid on the floor of the Byzantine church between 642 and 670 AD.
Although Madaba was abandoned following an earthquake in 747 AD, the region remained a focus for Jordan's Christian community, and was later resettled. Today a sizeable proportion of the town's inhabitants are Christian.
THE RISE OF ISLAM 630 AD TO 1095 AD
From about 630 AD, a new faith - Islam - was emerging throughout the Middle East and North Africa, and unified by this new faith, Arab tribes began to overthrow Byzantine rule in many parts of the region, also supplanting Greek and Latin as the official languages with the Arabic language. By 661 AD a new empire - the Arabic Umayyad Empire - had been established, and Damascus in Syria was designated as capital of the region.
The rise of Islam led to the growth of the first Islamic cities in Jordan in the 7th century AD, and the ruins of one of the earliest of these can now be seen in southern Jordan by the Red Sea. Excavations as recently as the 1980s have revealed the mosque, streets and gatehouses of the ancient walled settlement of Ayla. Ayla prospered until around the 12th century, but a combination of attacks by Bedouins and Crusader forces, as well as the earthquakes which have blighted so many civilisations in this part of the world led to its decline. Subsequently Ayla was buried and lost from view for centuries under the development of the modern resort of Aqaba.
THE RISE OF ISLAM - THE UMAYYADS AND OTHER DYNASTIES
The most impressive, and interesting archaeological treasures from this time are the so-called desert castles of the Eastern Jordan. Although some of these buildings originally date back to Roman times, while others are more recent constructions, the majority were designed to facilitate travel and trade through the Jordanian desert under the reign of the Umayyads, and these include rest houses, trading centres, bath houses, and fortresses.
A separate page of mine is devoted to The Desert Castles.
A succession of Islamic dynasties held sway in Jordan over the centuries from 630AD to 1100 AD. Despite their very impressive legacy, the Umayyad rule lasted for just 100 years, before the Abbasid dynasty seized power, and moved their capital from Damascus to more distant Baghdad. In 969 AD the Fatimid dynasty took control, though challenges to their authority from rival Muslim factions continued.
Soon however, the Fatimids were to find themselves embroiled in a far wider conflict with Christian forces for the very heart and soul of the region.
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THE AGE OF THE CRUSADES 1095 AD TO 1263 AD. KERAK
The Middle East now held major significance for three great religions, and European powers felt compelled to try to retrieve the Holy Land, and specifically Jerusalem in modern day Israel, for Christianity. The first of the crusades to liberate the region was launched in 1095, and was notably successful, because Jerusalem was indeed recovered. Of course it would never be enough just to try to hold on to this one city - so a second crusade began in 1147 to gain more territory in the Middle East. More importantly, it was clear that defensive outposts were needed throughout the region if the routes to and from Jerusalem were to be protected, and so began the age of Crusader fort construction.
Among the most significant of these was the Jordanian stronghold of Kerak south of Amman. Built on the orders of King Baldwin I of Jerusalem in 1142 for the defence of Christanity, and to collect taxes for the governance of the area, in 1176 AD Kerak Castle came under the control of Crusader knight Raynald of Chatillon, infamous for his aggressive brutality towards the Muslims of the region.
However, entering the field at this time was a great Muslim general called Salah al-din, known in the west as Saladin, who founded the Ayyubid dynasty after the death in 1171 of the last Fatimid Caliph. Saladin took the war to the crusader knights. After a series of seiges and battles, Kerak eventually fell to the Muslims. In 1187 AD, Raynald of Chatillon was captured and executed on the orders of Saladin, and soon afterwards, Jerusalem itself fell once more to the Muslims.
This was by no means the end of the crusades. Richard the Lionheart of England led a third crusade in 1189 to retake Jerusalem, but soon it became apparent that despite some victories against the Muslims, his army could not take Jeruselam and feasibly hold it long term against Saladin. An uneasy truce was signed, and this allowed Christian pilgrims full access to the Holy sites, but Jerusalem - and also the land of Jordan - would remain in Muslim hands till the 20th century.
THE MAMALUKES AND THE OTTOMAN EMPIRE 1263 AD TO 1918 AD
From 1263 AD two great empires were to dominate Jordanian affairs until the 20th century. The Mamalukes seized power from Saladin's Ayyubid dynasty and ruled the region of modern day Jordan, Syria and Egypt until the 16th century. This was essentially a period of relative prosperity and a period of reconstruction, improving trade and communications. One of the very best preserved structures from this period is Qasr al-Azraq or the Blue Fort, which is in the Desert Castle region.
In 1516, the Turkish Ottoman dynasty expanded their empire into the region of Jordan and they were to dominate Middle Eastern life for the next 400 years. Although a major power, the Ottomans were primarily interested in Jordan for its strategic location on the pilgrimage route to Mecca, and little development of the region proceeded during this era, other than the building of a number of fortresses to protect these routes. Limited administrative control was exercised over the desert dwelling Bedouins, and many villages and towns were abandoned over the centuries of Ottoman rule.
TRANSJORDAN AND MODERN DAY JORDAN 1918 TO 2011
Although beyond the brief of this delve into the archaeological timeline of Jordan, this page would not really be complete without at least some small acknowledgement of recent history.
The 20th century began with the Ottoman Empire still in control of the region, but everything would change with the advent of World War One, in which the Turks sided with Germany against the allies. In the territory that is modern day Jordan, the legendary British soldier Lawrence of Arabia won the trust of the Arabs and helped to mobilise them against their Turkish rulers. Allied victory in the war, meant that the Arab population was at last freed from Ottoman Rule.
The country however, remained under temporary foreign authority - namely Britain. In 1923, three regions within the modern day country were placed under the governership of the Emir Abdullah, and this became known as the Emirate of Transjordan. Over the following decade further areas were added to the new state, new treaties were forged with the British, and new Arab legislative procedures were developed. Full independance was eventually achieved in 1946, and the name of the new country was officially changed to the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.
The subsequent history of Jordan has been mixed. Initially, conflict with the equally new Jewish state of Israel, and a period of instability throughout the Middle East including Jordan, led to a number of setbacks. These included the loss of East Jerusalem and the West Bank territories to Israel, and the influx of hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees who remain to this day.
Jordan has not benefited from the general state of Middle Eastern unrest in recent decades, and the country has also not benefited from limited natural resources and limited potential for agriculture. Nonetheless, the country has modernised rapidly and undergone an extensive rebuilding programme. Increasing stability within the country in the late 20th century, recognition of Israel, and pursuit of a very moderate stance by Middle Eastern standards, has enabled the country to progress despite the inherent disadvantages of Jordan's political and geographical environment.
Above all Jordan has benefited from tourism, as people from around the world have flocked to the nation's seaside resorts at Aqaba, its natural attractions such as Wadi Rum and the Dead Sea, and of course, the archaeological treasures which have been the subject of this page.
In the space of one day in Jordan, a visitor can see the ruins of stone age society, Nabataean civilisation, Roman colonisation, Arabic and Crusader invasion. And one can see the influences over the millenia of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
Of course, it is best not to try to see it all in one day, but a week or more spent in this country will give the visitor a wonderful opportunity to see a range of sites the like of which cannot be seen almost anywhere else in the world. The visitor to Jordan will gain some appreciation in microcosm of the peoples and cultures who have shaped the development of human civilisation over the past few thousand years.