The black basalt city of Umm al-Jimal (Its name means ‘mother of camels’) lies like a dark encrustation on the flat plains of north Jordan. So many buildings still stand to two or three storeys that it looks as if it was abandoned within living memory in fact it was about 1,200 years ago.
The Nabataeans established a base here in the 1st century AD as a staging post on the trade route between Damascus and the south. With no springs or wells, the entire water supply had to be gathered in hundreds of cisterns during the rainy season.
After the 106 AD Roman annexation of the Nabataean kingdom, Umm al-Jimal was enlarged, becoming an important military base, with encircling walls, a new reservoir, and a hydraulic system to supply this and its other cisterns and reservoirs. A vast (now ruinous) fort was also constructed, to be replaced by a considerably smaller barracks in the early 5th century, when the military role of the city had declined.
In the Byzantine era more houses were built, 14 churches and a cathedral; and growth continued under the Umayyad, still with its Christian community. But after the 749 earthquake and the Abbasid removal to Baghdad it was never rebuilt. It remained abandoned until the early 20th century, when some Druze from nearby Jabal al-Arab took up brief residence here. The modern village near the ruins dates from 1950.