In the center of the Fertile Crescent which spawned the earliest great civilizations, Jordan was situated to watch the mighty empires grow and fall, each leaving its artifacts and reminders, each contributing to the wealth of sites and artifacts which may still be viewed.
As the archaeologist or enthusiastic amateur knows, later civilizations leave a more impressive visual record unless you’re especially interested–we wouldn’t recommend a steady diet of Neolithic or Bronze Age sites unless you get excited by wall lines and early artifacts.
At any given time there are an average of six archaeological expeditions of different sorts going on around Jordan. Where it fits your interest and the excavator’s inclinations, we will try to include stops at current work sites in your program. It’s always nice to hear about a site from the people who are painstakingly uncovering its history.
If you have special interests in a particular archaeological era, let us know about that. We will talk to the experts and make sure you have the opportunity to indulge your appetite for early Islamic architecture, Roman road-building, Nabatean hydrology or whatever you find especially fascinating.
Listed below are a non-specialist’s grouping of archaeological periods, along with some of the most important sites from each period to be seen….so far.
Natufian, Neolithic and Bronze Age sites in Jordan are a continuing source of excitement to the scholar. The Pre-Pottery Neolithic site at Ain Ghazal, in Amman, produced among its finds the remarkable human statues now displayed in the National Archaeological museum. The Baidha Pre-Pottery Neolithic site built over an earlier Natufian camp is one of the earliest agricultural villages, and still remarkably well preserved, as are the nearby series of roughly contemporary villages in Basta, Ba’ja and Shakaret M’Seid.
The copper mines of Finan, in Wadi Araba, played a key role in the development of a wide scattering of early Bronze Age sites particularly in the Jordan Valley. By the late Bronze Age, Jordan’s settlements reflected the tremendous rivalry existing among the New Kingdom dynasties in Egypt, to the southwest, the Hittite forces of Anatolia, to the north, and the Mittani kingdom of Iraq/Syria to the northeast.
Amman, Moad and Edom
These three kingdoms of those interminable Biblical wars were located in what is now the western region of Jordan. The Edomites, who may have remained primarily nomadic, were engaged in the lucrative spice trade from the Arabian peninsula, as attested by the scattering of sites in and around Petra and Sela (near modern Tafila). The more urbanized kingdoms of Moab and Ammon, with lush arable fields, encompassed a number of excavated sites particularly around Amman, Madaba and Karak. The Mesha stela, erected at Diban (between Karak and Madaba), records the triumph of the Moabite king Mesha over his enemy Ahab, king of the Israelites.
The Nabatean Empire
From their beginnings in the Arabian peninsula as brigands preying on the rich spice caravans, the Nabateans evidently realized more profits were to be made by protecting, provisioning and brokering for the caravans. As masters of the important technology of trapping and storing water, they built a commercial empire that eventually reached from Yemen to Damascus and west into the Negev and Sinai deserts. The monuments and water systems of the Nabateans radiate outward in all directions from their mountain fastness in Petra. Nabatean water cisterns are to be found in use through Jordan’s desert areas. Their ingenious trapment channels, with only modest maintenance, still channel enough of the scarce run-off rain water to fill the jerrycans of modern herders.
As a dominant trading empire along the valuable trade routes of the ancient world, Nabatea radiated throughout the region. Nabatean cities and temples were in many cases converted into Roman fortresses and Byzantine garrisons as the centuries passed. With shifting trade routes, some Nabatean sites saw only modest re-use by later political masters. Whatever the case, fine Nabatean architecture and artifacts have been uncovered or are still to be found from the southern deserts of Wadi Rum through the Syrian border area.
Petra–Queen of the Caravan Cities
This easily defended site, supplied with plentiful fresh water, is a microcosm of the ancient civilizations in Jordan. From Natufian and pre-pottery Neolithic settlements through Edomite, Nabatean, Roman, and Byzantine eras, Petra was inhabited by successive traders who left impressive characteristic artifacts. The Crusaders fortified two sites within Petra as outposts of the nearby castle of Mont Real (Shobak). During the late Ottoman rule a garrison was erected to control the local Bedouin tribes, still used as the modern police station. Covering more than 40 square kilometers, the natural beauty and fascinating history of Petra are worthy of an extended visit.
Cities of the Decapolis
Important trading centers during the Hellenistic squabbles over the remains of Alexander’s Empire, this unique ten-city league, later used and extended by the Romans, figures prominently in the history of the region. The best-preserved of the sites are at Jerash (Gerasa), Amman (Philadelphia), Um Qais (Gadara) and Pella. Abila and Capitolias, near the city of Irbid, are less complete and more intriguing for the imaginative visitor.
Scythopolis, the only Decapolis city west of the Jordan River, is adjacent to the northern Jordan/Israeli border checkpoint at Beit Shan, providing an easy day excursion.
Finally annexing the Nabatean Empire in AD 106, Roman forces engaged in their characteristic engineering overhauls, scattering roads, temples, theaters, fora and other monumental buildings throughout modern Jordan. The great Via Nova Traiana, the trunk road connecting the Red Sea port near Aqaba to Bosra (southern Syria) has recently been re-surveyed, and besides the more famous cities a number of garrisons and way stations throughout the country repay the interested visitor.
The Golden Age of Islam
Following early clashes at the Yarmouk, the Islamic conquest swept northward from the Saudi peninsula, factionalized following the death of Mohammed with a new center of power vested in the Umayyad caliphs of Damascus. The so-called ‘Desert Castles’ of Jordan, built as hunting lodges and retreats for the Umayyad rulers, were richly decorated with mosaic and fresco. The governor’s complex in Amman, situated on the Citadel of the Decapolis city of Philadelphia, displayed a style of decorative arts owing to Oriental as well as Byzantine influences.
The Crusader Era
From the First Crusade proclaimed in 1095 until the end of the 13th Century, the region experienced tremendous building in support of the conflict between European Christians and the Seljuk Turks, followed by the Mamlukes. A line of Crusader castles and fortresses built to defend the rich trade routes of Oultre Jordain, as the Outremer possessions to the east of the Jordan were known, includes well-preserved remains at both Shobak (Montreal) and Karak, and two fortresses in Petra. The great Qallat ar-Rabadh at Ajlun is a fine example of a purely Islamic castle, built by Saladin’s cousin to command strategic views over the Jordan Valley.