The Jordan Region in Antiquity
The Jordan Valley provides abundant archaeological evidence of occupation by paleolithic and mesolithic hunters and gatherers. A people of neolithic culture, similar to that found around the Mediterranean littoral, introduced agriculture in the region. By the eighth millennium B.C., this neolithic culture had developed into a sedentary way of life. Settlements at Bayda on the East Bank and Jericho on the West Bank date from this period and may have been history's first "cities." Bronze Age towns produced a high order of civilization and carried on a brisk trade with Egypt, which exercised a dominant influence in the Jordan Valley in the third millennium. This thriving urban culture ended after 2000 B.C., when large numbers of Semitic nomads, identified collectively as the Amorites, entered the region, which became known as Canaan. Over a period of 500 years, the nomads encroached on the settled areas, gradually assimilated their inhabitants, and--by the middle of the second millennium--settled in the Jordan Valley, which became a Semitic language area. At about this time, Abraham (known to the Arabs as Ibrahim) and his household entered the area from the direction of Mesopotamia. The Canaanites and others referred to this nomadic group of western Semites as the habiru, meaning wanderers or outsiders. The name Hebrew probably derived from this term. More abrupt was the incursion of the Hyksos from the north who passed through Canaan on their way to Egypt.
After recovering from the Hyksos invasion, Egypt attempted to regain control of Syria, but its claim to hegemony there was contested by the empire-building Hittites from Anatolia (the central region of modern Turkey). The prolonged conflict between these two great powers during the fifteenth to thirteenth centuries B.C. bypassed the East Bank of the Jordan, allowing for the development of a string of small tribal kingdoms with names familiar from the Old Testament: Edom, Moab, Bashan, Gilead, and Ammon, whose capital was the biblical Rabbath Ammon (modern Amman). Although the economy of the countryside was essentially pastoral, its inhabitants adapted well to agriculture and were skilled in metallurgy. The Edomites worked the substantial deposits of iron and copper found in their country, while the land to the north was famous for its oak wood, livestock, resins, and medicinal balms. The towns profited from the trade routes crisscrossing the region that connected Egypt and the Mediterranean ports with the southern reaches of the Arabian Peninsula and the Persian Gulf.
Midway through the thirteenth century B.C., Moses is believed to have led the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt and to have governed them during their forty-year sojourn in the Sinai Peninsula. When they were barred by the Edomites from entering Canaan from the south, the Israelites marched north toward Moab. Under Joshua, they crossed west over the Jordan River. The conquest of Canaan by the Israelite tribes was completed between 1220 and 1190 B.C. The tribes of Gad and Reuben, and half of the tribe of Manasseh were allocated conquered land on the East Bank. At about this time the Philistines, sea peoples who originated from Mycenae and who ravaged the eastern Mediterranean, invaded the coast of Canaan and confronted the Israelites in the interior. It was from the Philistines that Palestine derived its name, preserved intact in the modern Arabic word falastin.
Late in the eleventh century B.C., the Israelite tribes submitted to the rule of the warrior-king Saul. Under his successor David (ca. 1000-965 or 961 B.C.), Israel consolidated its holdings west of the Jordan River, contained the Philistines on the coast, and expanded beyond the old tribal lands on the East Bank. Ancient Israel reached the peak of its political influence under David's son, Solomon (965-928 B.C. or 961-922 B.C.), who extended the borders of his realm from the upper Euphrates in Syria to the Gulf of Aqaba in the south. Solomon, the first biblical figure for whom historical records exist outside the Bible, exploited the mineral wealth of Edom, controlled the desert caravan routes, and built the port at Elat to receive spice shipments from southern Arabia. With Solomon's passing, however, his much reduced realm divided into two rival Jewish kingdoms: Israel in the north and Judah (Judea), with its capital at Jerusalem, in the south. The history of the Jordan region over the next two centuries was one of constant conflict between the Jewish kingdoms and the kingdoms on the East Bank.
In 722 B.C. Israel fell to the Assyrian king, Shalmaneser, ruler of a mighty military empire centered on the upper Tigris River. As a result, the Israelites were deported from their country. Judah preserved its political independence as a tributary of Assyria, while the rest of the Jordan region was divided into Assyrian-controlled provinces that served as a buffer to contain the desert tribes--a function that would be assigned to the area by a succession of foreign rulers.
Assyria was conquered in 612 B.C. and its empire was absorbed by the Neo-Babylonian Empire in Mesopotamia. Judah was taken by Nebuchadnezzar, who destroyed Jerusalem in 586 B.C. and carried off most of the Jewish population to Babylon. Within fifty years, however, Babylon was conquered by the Persian Cyrus II. The Jews were allowed to return to their homeland, which, with the rest of the Jordan region, became part of the Achaemenid Empire.
The Achaemenids dominated the whole of the Middle East for two centuries until the rise of Macedonian power under Alexander the Great. With a small but well-trained army, Alexander crossed into Asia in 334 B.C., defeated Persia's forces, and within a few years had built an empire that stretched from the Nile River to the Indus River in contemporary Pakistan. After his death in 323 B.C., Alexander's conquests were divided among his Macedonian generals. The Ptolemaic Dynasty of pharaohs in Egypt and the line of Seleucid kings in Syria were descended from two of these generals.
Between the third century B.C. and the first century A.D., the history of Jordan was decisively affected by three peoples: Jews, Greeks, and Nabataeans. The Jews, many of whom were returning from exile in Babylonia, settled in southern Gilead. Along with Jews from the western side of the Jordan and Jews who had remained in the area, they founded closely settled communities in what later became known in Greek as the Peraea. The Greeks were mainly veterans of Alexander's military campaigns who fought one another for regional hegemony. The Nabataeans were Arabs who had wandered from the desert into Edom in the seventh century B.C. Shrewd merchants, they monopolized the spice trade between Arabia and the Mediterranean. By necessity experts at water conservation, they also proved to be accomplished potters, metalworkers, stone masons, and architects. They adopted the use of Aramaic, the Semitic lingua franca in Syria and Palestine, and belonged entirely to the cultural world of the Mediterranean.
In 301 B.C. the Jordan region came under the control of the Ptolemies. Greek settlers founded new cities and revived old ones as centers of Hellenistic culture. Amman was renamed Philadelphia in honor of the pharaoh Ptolemy Philadelphus. Urban centers assumed a distinctly Greek character, easily identified in their architecture, and prospered from their trade links with Egypt.
The East Bank was also a frontier against the rival dynasty of the Seleucids, who in 198 B.C. displaced the Ptolemies throughout Palestine. Hostilities between the Ptolemies and Seleucids enabled the Nabataeans to extend their kingdom northward from their capital at Petra (biblical Sela) and to increase their prosperity based on the caravan trade with Syria and Arabia.
The new Greek rulers from Syria instituted an aggressive policy of Hellenization among their subject peoples. Efforts to suppress Judaism sparked a revolt in 166 B.C. led by Judas (Judah) Maccabaeus, whose kinsmen in the next generation reestablished an independent Jewish kingdom under the rule of the Hasmonean Dynasty. The East Bank remained a battleground in the continuing struggle between the Jews and the Seleucids.
By the first century B.C., Roman legions under Pompey methodically removed the last remnants of the Seleucids from Syria, converting the area into a full Roman province. The new hegemony of Rome caused upheaval and eventual revolt among the Jews while it enabled the Nabataeans to prosper. Rival claimants to the Hasmonean throne appealed to Rome in 64 B.C. for aid in settling the civil war that divided the Jewish kingdom. The next year Pompey, fresh from implanting Roman rule in Syria, seized Jerusalem and installed the contender most favorable to Rome as a client king. On the same campaign, Pompey organized the Decapolis, a league of ten self- governing Greek cities also dependent on Rome that included Amman, Jarash, and Gadara (modern Umm Qays), on the East Bank. Roman policy there was to protect Greek interests against the encroachment of the Jewish kingdom.
When the last member of the Hasmonean Dynasty died in 37 B.C., Rome made Herod king of Judah. With Roman backing, Herod (37-34 B.C.) ruled on both sides of the Jordan River. After his death the Jewish kingdom was divided among his heirs and gradually absorbed into the Roman Empire.
In A.D. 106 Emperor Trajan formally annexed the satellite Nabataean kingdom, organizing its territory within the new Roman province of Arabia that included most of the East Bank of the Jordan River. For a time, Petra served as the provincial capital. The Nabataeans continued to prosper under direct Roman rule, and their culture, now thoroughly Hellenized, flourished in the second and third centuries A.D. Citizens of the province shared a legal system and identity in common with Roman subjects throughout the empire. Roman ruins seen in present-day Jordan attest to the civic vitality of the region, whose cities were linked to commercial centers throughout the empire by the Roman road system and whose security was guaranteed by the Roman army.
After the administrative partition of the Roman Empire in 395, the Jordan region was assigned to the eastern or Byzantine Empire, whose emperors ruled from Constantinople. Christianity, which had become the recognized state religion in the fourth century, was widely accepted in the cities and towns but never developed deep roots in the countryside, where it coexisted with traditional religious practices.
In the sixth century direct control over the Jordan region and much of Syria was transferred to the Ghassanids, Christian Arabs loyal to the Byzantine Empire. The mission of these warrior-nomads was to defend the desert frontier against the Iranian Sassanian Empire to the east as well as against Arab tribes to the south; in practice, they were seldom able to maintain their claim south of Amman. The confrontations between Syrian, or northern, Arabs-- represented by the Ghassanids--and the fresh waves of nomads moving north out of the Arabian Peninsula was not new to the history of the Jordan region and continued to manifest itself into the modern era. Contact with the Christian Ghassanids was an important source of the impulse to monotheism that flowed back into Arabia with the nomads, preparing the ground there for the introduction of Islam.
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