Amman, the capital city of Jordan, is really, really old.
Old, of course, is a subjective term. I’ve heard people in Sydney, Australia say such-and-such building is really old, and they are speaking of a building that’s 100 – 200 years old. Travel to Europe and people will say such-and-such castle is really old, and they’re usually referring to a medieval castle that dates back a thousand years or more.
Amman is in a different category altogether.
Founding of Amman
The origins of Amman go back some 12,000 years.
The first settlement in this location, known as Ain Ghazal, is described as a typical aceramic village.
Aceramic is used here to mean without ceramics or prior to ceramics, which should give you some idea how far back in human history we’re talking.
Ain Ghazal was coming along nicely, and really hit its stride around 9,000 years ago. It had a population of 3,000 at the time, and was producing works of art such as the Ain Ghazal statues (seen above).
The Ain Ghazal statues, made of lime plaster, are some of the oldest statues of humanoid figures ever discovered (they date to 7,000 BCE).
But then Ain Ghazal was hit hard by a major climactic event that began circa 6,200 BCE. The 8.2-kiloyear event, as it is known, was essentially a mini ice-age. Temperatures dropped and humankind’s ability to feed itself was significantly impacted for the next few hundred years. Ain Ghazal’s population dropped to just 500.
Capital of the Ammonites
Fast-forward a few millennia to 1,300 BCE and Ain Ghazal (now called Rabbath Ammon) has become the capital of the Ammonites, a Semitic-speaking (the parent language for Arabic, Hebrew, and several other languages) people who occupied the central Jordanian plateau.
The Ammonites worshipped the god Moloch, a figure who gets several rather damning mentions in the Hebrew bible. Moloch is associated with fire, and the temples that were built in the god’s likeness were said to have contained fire pits into which live child sacrifices were thrown. Moloch receives similar treatment in Milton’s Paradise Lost as well as in various other modern and historical sources.
It’s now thought that reports of the Ammonites making child sacrifices to the god Moloch were likely to be gross exaggerations intended to make a historical enemy appear primitive and cruel.
Alexander the Great conquered Jordan in the 4th Century BCE, and the region was subsequently Hellenised (meaning: they adopted Greek culture).
Rabbath Ammon was renamed Philadelphia (after Ptolemy II Philadelphus, the king of Egypt), and many new buildings were erected in and around the city. The most notable of these is Qasr al-Abd, a large Hellenistic palace built for the wealthy Tobiad family, the ruins of which can still be seen today outside the capital.
Unfortunately little else of this era remains; earthquakes to blame.
The Romans took control of the Levant (i.e. Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, and part of Iraq) in 63 BCE, and remained in control of the region for the next 400 years.
Philadelphia (i.e. Amman) became one of the ten cities of the Decapolis (a cluster of ten prominent city-states in the Levant) along with Gerasa (Jerash) and Damascus.
Roman Theatre, Amman
One of the most prominent extant works of the Romans is the theatre built in downtown Amman, circa 161 CE, during the reign of Roman Emperor Antoninus Pius.
The Roman Theatre, capable of accomodating 6,000 people, is accompanied by an Odeon, and a Nympaeum (public fountain).
Umayyad Palace, Amman
The armies of the Rashidun Caliphate conquered Jordan circa 630 CE, kickstarting the Islamic era of Jordan. The city was renamed once again; becoming at last: Amman.
But then, a new twist of fate, the region was hit by several powerful earthquakes during the following century; Amman was badly damaged, and the city was more or less abandoned.
In the late 1800s the remains of the once mighty city were suddenly flooded with refugees from the Russo-Circassian War.
Amman was under control of the Ottoman Empire at the time, and the Ottomans were happy to let the predominately Sunni Muslim Circassian refugees occupy the ruins of Amman and its surrounds.
In the early 1900s the Ottoman Empire commenced construction of the Hejaz Railway, which, if it had been completed, would have connected Istanbul with Mecca. Only the section between Damascus and Medina was ever operational.
Amman was an important stop on the part of the line that was functional however, and it soon transformed the settlement from humble backwater village to thriving commercial hub.
Amman went on to become the capital of Transjordan in 1921.
Practical information and how to reach Amman:
Amman is serviced by Queen Alia International Airport with direct flights from destinations throughout Europe, the Middle East and Asia. More transport info here.
Or visit my crappy capital cities page.