Amman, Jordan – this 12,000 yr old capital is the original Philadelphia 2

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

Cityscape, Amman, Jordan

Amman, Jordan. Photo credit: Benjamin White

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 Statues, Amman, Jordan

Ain Ghazal Statues. Photo credit: Benjamin White

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

Citadel, Amman, Jordan

Archaeological remains, Amman Citadel. Photo credit: Benjamin White

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.

Cityscape, Amman, Jordan

Photo credit: Benjamin White

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.

Temple of Hercules, Amman, Jordan

Temple of Hercules. Photo credit: Benjamin White

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.

Cityscape, Amman, Jordan

Photo credit: Benjamin White

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

Roman Theatre, Amman, Jordan

Roman Theatre. Photo credit: Benjamin White

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

Umayyad Palace, Amman, Jordan

Umayyad Palace. Photo credit: Benjamin White

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.

Cityscape, Amman, Jordan

Photo credit: Benjamin White

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.

Cityscape, Amman, Jordan

Photo credit: Benjamin White

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.

Cityscape, Amman, Jordan

Photo credit: Benjamin White

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.

More on Jordan:

Petra – Al Siq: narrow, magical chasm leading to Al Khazneh

Petra – the Outer Siq, the Street of Facades, and the Royal Tombs

Petra – Ad Deir: the monastery?

Petra – the Jebel Attuf trail – via the Monumental Lion

Jerash – monumental Roman city visited by Emperor Hadrian

Posts on the Middle East:


Dakhmeh-ye Zartoshtiyun, Yazd – Zoroastrian tower of silence

Tomb of Cyrus the Great, Pasargadae


Jibreen Castle – fortified palace of the Yaruba dynasty

Yemini-style mudbrick village, Al Hamra


Doha – Souq Waqif, a spiral minaret, and a masterpiece by I.M. Pei


Edirne – former capital of the Ottomans + UNESCO listed mosque

Aphrodisias – Temple of Aphrodite on the River Maeander

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2 thoughts on “Amman, Jordan – this 12,000 yr old capital is the original Philadelphia

  • Karen White

    Amman is certainly very old!! What an amazing history again and so well researched. I love that Roman amphitheater, that is enormous!! It must have been such an interesting place to visit, I was expecting to see some fossil Ammonites at first!!