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.

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.

‘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.

 ‘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.


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.


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