Shu ? Mazé ?

Amman, the embrace of history

by Giuseppe Caffulli |  16 mai 2012

View of the Citadel of Amman. (photo by G. Caffulli)

The mistake that a traveller can make, visiting Jordan, is that it is not worth seeing the capital, Amman, in order to concentrate immediately on Petra, Madaba, or on the Crusader fortresses of the Valley of the Kings. Or on Mount Nebo, on the cities of the Decapolis or the place where Jesus was baptised… For those who love the Holy Land, however, Amman is not a destination to be overlooked.

The mistake that a traveller can make, visiting Jordan, is that it is not worth seeing the capital, Amman, with the due calm, in order to concentrate immediately on Petra, Madaba, or on the Crusader fortresses of the Valley of the Kings. Or on Mount Nebo, on the cities of the Decapolis or the place where Jesus was baptised…

The distracted eye sees above all the modern characteristics of Amman: the wide roads, the modern buildings, the popular neighbourhoods of low white houses that extend as far as the eye can see on the hills. A lively universe (and one full of contradictions, like all Middle Eastern cities) dominated by a very tall mast with the flag of the Hashemite Kingdom, which so far has been essentially untouched by the consequences of the Arab Spring.

For those who love the Holy Land, however, Amman is not a destination to be overlooked. Like all cities with a millenary story (Jerusalem above all), Amman is an open-air book. Inhabited originally by a very ancient Neolithic population, in the Iron Age Rabbat Ammon (as it was called at the time) became the capital of the Ammonites, an ancient people of  Amorite origin who had settled on the eastern banks of the Jordan. It was then conquered by the Assyrians,  by the Persians and lastly by the Greeks, who called it Philadelphia. It came under Roman domination (becoming part of the Decapolis); during the reign of the  Ghassanids (Christian Arabs from Yemen) it became a very powerful city and was a very important junction for caravans near the Red Sea and the Mediterranean, but reached its greatest splendour with the advent of Islam, under the reign of the Umayyads, whose capital was  the nearby Damascus. The dynasty of the Abbasid caliphs, who took power around 750 and reigned until 1258, continued  consolidating the importance of  Amman.

The city then went through a period of decadence, especially due to the frequent earthquakes, which relegated it to oblivion. It was not until 1887, with the arrival of the Caucasian population of the Circassians that  Amman came back into the news as a station of the new railway line linking Damascus with Medina, welcoming every year many Muslim pilgrims on their way to Mecca. This is where the modern history of the country starts.

According to the Bible however, (Genesis 19, 30-38), the Ammonite nation descended from Ben-Ammi, the son of Lot and brother of Moab, the head of the Moabites, a people with whom they allied to fight the Hebrews, but being defeated by both Saul and David. At the  times described by Genesis, the Ammonites were polytheists and adored the god Milkom, who was widely worshipped in the region, to the extent that even Kong Solomon had built a votive edicule to this divinity in Jerusalem.

Going up to the Citadel in Amman can be helpful in discovering many of the historical phases mentioned here. The level at daylight is that of the Umayyad period (which began with the reign of Mu'awiyah in 661 and ended with that of  Marwan II in 750 AD), but the archaeologists, excavating the various levels of the tell, have returned to us finds from the prehistoric, Nabataean, Roman and Byzantine periods. Walking through the archaeological park that stands at the top of the acropolis is like making a journey in time: the impressive temple of Hercules, the palace of the Umayyads and the grid plan of houses and palaces. The Museum, a real cave of wonders, stands in the centre of the archaeological area of the acropolis. It houses finds of enormous value, from the prehistoric age to the Muslim period, as well as Ammonite and Nabataean portraits and Greek and Roman  statues. In short, a sample of all the different civilizations that have followed on one another on the hills behind the plain of Moab. There is also an important section with  Dead Sea scrolls: finds of exceptional interest for Bible scholars. From the top of the acropolis, there is a view of the intact Roman theatre, at the foot of the citadel, evidence of a time when the Greek and Latin authors of the classics were also at home in this part of the world.

Visiting Amman (which as we mentioned was part of the Decapolis, a confederation of cities of Hellenic culture which stood beyond the Jordan), also means coming into contact with the environment where, for the first time, Jesus preached  in a culture and with nations other than the Hebrew one, Amman and the neighbouring cities of the Decapolis help us to approach that world which Jesus wanted to meet, spreading his message of salvation to all the peoples of the world.

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