Advantages Thousands of years of history beneath your feet
Disadvantages Quite a bit of it probably still is buried
|Value for Money|
Usually translated as "the Citadel", the Jabal al-Qal'a is more than a fortress. Indeed, it's unclear that it ever was a fortress in the true sense of the word. It is much more of an ancient walled town. That's not to say it isn't a place of refuge or strength. Located on one of the seven hills of Amman, at about 850m above sea level, it overlooks the main trade route through town. This is the Via Nova Traiana (named for the Roman Emperor Trajan to whose time it dates) and still forms one of the main roads through the city. The location has clear defensive potential.
The entire site is surrounded by a wall stretching some 1700m, but the remains are best viewed from below. Little remains above the modern-day ground level of the hill-top.
Claims to be one of the oldest continuously inhabited places on earth are stretching a point a little if you restrict it to the enclosure. The only inhabitants today are the tour guides and their clients, and the occasional scuttling lizard. It does have a venerable history though. Pottery finds have been dated to the Neolithic. The earliest fortifications date from the Bronze age. The most impressive remains are Roman, Byzantine and Umaayad.
This is the original Rabbath-Ammon – the "Great City of the Ammonites".
The Ammonites, for those (like me) who don't know their Bible stories were the children of Lot. According to Genesis, Ammon was born to Lot and his daughter after the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Exodus tells us that they prevented the Israelites from passing through their lands and the antagonism between the two peoples continues on through Judges and Kings.
Historically they're believed to have settled in what is now Amman round about 1200 BC.
Troubled times lay ahead: Assyria in the 8th Century BC, Babylonia (6thC BC), the Ptolemies, The Seleucids, Rome, the Ummayads (7thC AD) – all would lay claim to the city and rule it, directly or indirectly. The best of the ruins to be seen today are testament to the fact that the most prosperous of these times were Roman and Ummayad.
From the gateway (Admission JD2) the winding path takes you above the walls towards the mighty Temple of Hercules. Take this slowly though. Pause for a while and look out over the sprawl of old Amman clambering up the opposite hillside. The sand/grey uniformity of construction has a desert-bleak look about it, the old and the new merging into one-ness. Our guide tells us that this is deliberate policy. The local authorities took a distaste to the random colour schemes and decided uniformity would be more aesthetically pleasing and so, if I understood it correctly, undertook to assist with the costs of repainting as part of an insistence on the town colour scheme.
Back in the citadel, as you wander up the pathway you pass numerous remnants: the remains of rooms and buildings rest against the walls or rise up from the bedrock. Fallen victim to the many earthquakes the area has been prone to over the centuries rather than to attack or deliberate destruction, their purpose in another life has been little explored. Few notice boards are available to help the curious, and it's clear that the site has never been fully excavated. This creates both a frustration at not knowing what this place was, but also a wonderment at what it might have been, at what might still lay undiscovered. The latter feeling was to resurface again and again on this trip. Perhaps the only benefit of poverty is in what it preserves undestroyed.
And so you come to what I think is the 'main event' of the site.
Temple of Hercules 161-166AD
Whether the temple ever really was dedicated to the hero/demi-god Hercules is open to speculation. Its attribution rests on the ruins of an immense statue found near the entrance, backed up by the fact that roman coins minted in the city also bore a likeness of him.
The Temple itself stands within an immense temenos (sacred precinct) and is larger than any yet found in Rome itself. The portico is framed by six 33-foot columns. The fact that these columns are not reflected elsewhere in the structure has led some archaeologists to wonder whether it was ever completed, but I guess it could equally have been part of a deliberate design, or (I speak from experience) a change of architects part-way through the project!
Inscriptions found at the site indicate that it was built when Germinius Marcianos was Governor of the Provincia Arabia in dedication to the co-Emperors of Rome Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus.
It is believed to be built on the site of an earlier temple to the Ammonite god Milkom ~ assuming always that Milkom was a god, and not merely a King as some translations have it. Little is known of the Ammonites beliefs and customs, but it's feasible that a temple could be dedicated to a King (as the later Herculean one was to the Emperors) without implying any theistic worship of the individual concerned. Whichever is the case the ancient altar was enclosed within the new precinct.
On our day the ruins stood windswept and scarcely regarded. The ground among the stonework is trodden and untended. Again, it creates an uncertain response. This is something important… and yet it doesn't seem to be being investigated or maintained or loved. Part of me felt: why don't they?...! But, of course, another part of me knows they have more important things to be spending their money on. And yet another part can see how ruins left in this half-salvaged state create a more real sense of how they might have been just a few years after their original ruination. And at least what remains buried does still remain.
The (one-time) National Archaeological Museum
Right next to the Temple of Hercules is what was once known as The National Archaeological Museum. It's unclear what its current title is, just as its unclear when its replacement will open.
For the time-being however the old house is still open and, despite many of its former treasures having been transported for curation elsewhere, it is still worth a wander around.
The remaining collection still spans the full gamut of Jordanian history. From 6000-year-old skulls from Jericho to Umayyad-period artwork, including a copy of the Mesha Stele and assorted artefacts from Petra and Jerash.
It's an old-fashioned, display-case, dusty-relic, kind of a museum – but in my view none the worse for that! – exhibits and explanation boards cater well to the English speaker and help to put much in context. Some of the exhumed burial exhibits might give the squeamish pause for thought, but you can always scoot past them to look at the glass and the jewels and the pots.
Jordanians might disagree with me as to what really constitutes the highlight. I've selected the Temple, but I get the impression that they prefer the Ummayad Palace.
The Ummayads were Moslem Arabs in the late 7th century AD, named for their caliphate dynasty. The ruling family originated in Mecca but had established Damascus as their capital and went on to acquire an empire to rank in the top ten (by area) ever established. Their power base lasted until the 11th century, but they'd abandoned Amman long before then.
The Ummayad Qasr* is believed to have served as the regional administrative center from 720 to 750 AD.
There is an audience hall, four vaulted assembly rooms, and a colonnaded road. As proud as the Jordanians are of what is to be seen, I'm underwhelmed due to the knowledge that I'm looking at a reconstruction. It's a personal thing. I'd rather see some shabby ruins than a glorious rebuild. I'll accept the reinstatement of stones found in situ into what was their probable original position. I'll put up with the filling in so long as it’s obvious what's new and what's old – and to be fair it is so here, there's no attempt to deceive: this has been done by genuine scholars and empirical archaeologists. But still… to my psyche, it's still a new building, built on foundations that might be to head height, but somehow I still find it intellectually interesting rather than emotionally engaging.
* (Qasr seems to mean castle – there's a clear link with the Latin castrum, but I've no idea which way the linguistic transfer went)
From the palace plaza you enter through an impressive gateway into a grand reception hall, re-roofed in modern times. There was some doubt for a time as to whether the central area of this 'hall' was originally covered or open (with only the four off-rooms being domed) but the stone structure eventually swung the vote in favour of a roof now reconstructed by the Spanish to an assumed 'original' design.
From there into a courtyard with colonnaded walkways and two-storeys of rooms along three sides. This is traditional middle eastern architecture still prevalent today. It provides the enclosed 'garden' or 'plaza' where there would undoubtedly be planting and water features, probably open to the sky, it would give a cool place to be outside in the heat of summer and also a safe place for the women of the house to take the air without risking whatever real or imagined dangers might lurk out in the real world beyond the walls.
By now we're shivering and wondering whether the tiny cups of coffee on offer from the staff kitchen at the museum are going to help much. The no-doubt-highly-important significance of the small Byzantine Basilica (which like much of the area fell to the "earthyquakes") failed to entice.
But we did find pause at what looks like the biggest wishing well you've ever seen! It's not actually a well, but a cistern for the collection of rainwater. Apparently (the guide books tell me) "the small disc on the floor in the centre once supported a pillar that was used for measuring water levels". We could have done with it. The bottom has we found it was full of slime-green water of who knows what depth. Officially the whole (hole) is measured at 5m deep and 16m diameter: total capacity 250,000 gallons.
Sound a lot? One website I found suggests we use about 15 gallons a day each. Or about 68 litres. So the total capacity of this cistern is about 3,675 person-days worth of water… not allowing for evaporation. I've no idea how many people lived here then, but it doesn't sound like a lot to me.
Contrary to our assumption that the steps were for accessing the water at low level, they were actually for cleaning and maintenance purposes. Collection was almost certainly by bucket-&-pulley. Although the books suggest that this was the main water supply for the citadel, I'm inclined to side with our Jordanian guide who told us it would more likely have served purely as water for the animals, for irrigation, for street and building cleaning. Personal-use water they'd have collected in smaller personal cisterns. The stagnant pool we looked at kind of bore that out.
Then, in typical Mahdi fashion, we were led back to the view over the city. Look at that, he said. "There, there, and there…" What he was pointing out were the grey tanks on the roofs of most of the buildings. Water tanks. Water supply is intermittent even now and storage is common, necessary, and doesn't half focus the mind when it comes to teaching the kids conservation!
No visit to Amman would be complete without spending at least a couple of hours in the Citadel. We were unlucky enough to visit on possibly the coldest March day in living memory, and suitably grateful for the clear skies, but I can imagine that on a warm spring day it is a place to linger and investigate and play archaeologist for a while (No digging! Speculation only!) There are tantalising glimpses here of what once was, but clearly even a three-day Time Team could bring a lot more out.
- Sat-Thurs 8am-4pm (Oct-Mar)
- Sat-Thurs 8am to 7pm (Apr-Sep)
- Fri: 10am-4pm year-round
Price: 2JD – not aware of any concessions, but at this price… come on!
© Lesley Mason
hiker @ ciao.co.uk
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