History of Jordan
Based on archaeological remains, we know that nomadic hunter-gatherers have roamed the Jordanian desert since the Early Paleolithic Period (circa 2.6 million years ago to 250,000 years ago).
Rise of Kingdoms: Ammon, Edom, Moab
Agriculture first emerged in the Fertile Crescent, and the nomads of the region began to settle into stable communities that grew into large urban centres. Jericho, located in the West Bank, is one of the earliest continuous settlements in the world, dating from about 9000 BC. Ayn Ghazal, an archaeological site in modern-day Amman, Jordan’s capital, is one of the largest known prehistoric settlements in the Near East.
Egyptians arrived around 1580 BC and controlled both banks of the Jordan River. After the Egyptians’ withdrawal, the region became home to three ancient Semitic-speaking tribal kingdoms during the Iron Age (circa 1200 BC): Ammon, Edom, and Moab. These three kingdoms were in continuous conflict with the neighbouring Hebrew kingdoms of Israel and Judah, located west of the river.
Ammon, Edom, and Moab were mentioned in the Hebrew Bible; for example, during the time of the Exodus, Moses and the Israelites tried to pass through Edom but were refused passage. Beyond biblical accounts, we also have an archaeological artefact in the form of the Mesha Stele (or Moabite Stone), found in 1868 and now kept in the Louvre. The account inscribed on the stele commemorates Moabite victory, led by their king, Mesha, against the kings of Israel.
Travelling on the King’s Highway (now Highway 35 and 15 in modern-day Jordan) connecting Africa to Mesopotamia, the kingdoms traded with the Assyrian Empire, and later with the Babylonians after they seized Assyrian territory. The Babylonians were later defeated by the Persian Achaemenid Empire. From a trading partner, the kingdoms were reduced to vassals, and eventually lost their distinct cultures when Alexander the Great conquered the Persian Empire and introduced Hellinistic culture to the Middle East.
But even after Alexander the Great charged through the Levant, there was a people who flourished with their unique culture–the Nabateans in their beautiful pink-hued city, Petra.
The Nabateans were Arabian nomads from the Negev Desert (in what is now southern Israel) who amassed wealth from the incense trade, and built a kingdom that wielded political power from 168 BC until its annexation by the Roman Empire in 106 AD. They half-carved, half-built their capital city of Petra in a location that was not easily accessible and with no natural source of water, but served as an excellent position for the Nabatean Kingdom to monitor the Incense Routes and to be protected by the harsh desert. The Incense Route was a network of trade routes across the Negev Desert that conveyed merchants trading frankincense and myrrh from south Arabia to the port of Gaza in the Mediterranean from the 3rd century BC until the 2nd century AD. Several Nabatean towns–Haluza, Mamshit, Avdat, and Shivta–dotted the desert along this route, serving as rest stops and trading hubs for merchants.
“Petra” means “rock” in Greek, but was originally called Raqmu, perhaps after a Nabatean ruler. In the Hebrew Bible, it is referred to by its Hebrew name, Sela, which means “rock” as well.
The Nabateans’ success on the trade routes was rooted in their ingenuity in relation to water. They dug cisterns which filled with rainwater and sustained them on the trade routes, and in Petra they built a sophisticated system of water transportation and conservation, taking advantage of the flash floods that occur in the area. To this day, the Bedu or Bedouin tribes, the settled and nomadic communities living near Petra and Wadi Rum, continue to use these Nabatean water-collecting cisterns.
Alexander the Great’s death in 323 BC split his empire among his generals. Jordan and the surrounding regions were disputed between the Ptolemies of Egypt and the Seleucids of Syria. The Nabateans remained independent as the two Greek factions fought each other but eventually fell, as did much of the Levant, to Roman rule.
Roman and Byzantine Rule
Roman rule would last four centuries. Emperor Trajan rebuilt the King’s Highway and renamed it Via Traiana Nova (Trajan’s New Road). Jerash in northern Jordan now houses the largest well-preserved Roman ruins in the world. Its ancient name was Gerasa; it is believed that the name came from gerasmenos, Greek for “elderly people”, as veteran soldiers of Alexander the Great’s campaigns in the 4th century BC were said to have been rewarded with a parcel of land in the area.
After the fall of the western half of the Roman Empire in the 4th century, the Byzantines continued to influence the region until the 7th century. Christianity became the official state religion in 380 AD, and Christian churches began to appear in the Jordanian landscape.
In 636, Syria and Palestine fell under Muslim control after the Umayyad dynasty hit the Byzantines. The Umayyad capital was established at Damascus, Syria. Jordan, far from the centre, slowly returned to a nomadic way of life. When European Christians took back control in Palestine from the Muslims in 1099 in the First Crusade, they established the Kingdom of Jerusalem, which eventually covered Jordan and nearby areas (Oultrejordain), with its capital in Karak (also spelled Kerak or Al-Karak).
Jordan then fell under the Fatimid Caliphate and the Ottoman Empire, which ended Byzantine and Christian control in the region, capturing Constantinople and renaming it Istanbul.
When World War I broke out, the Ottoman Empire sided with Germany and the Central Powers. In 1916, the Arab Revolt against Ottoman rule exploded in the Middle East, further weakening an empire that was starting to buckle under Allied attack.
The Ottoman Empire was dissolved in 1923, and following British control, Jordan finally became independent in 1946.