Few places show the evolution of Jordan’s story as clearly as Amman, for here we can still see, layer upon layer, many stages in the city’s metamorphosis. Once capital of the Iron Age kingdom of Ammon, it became in turn a Hellenistic, Roman and Byzantine city, then heart of the Umayyad province of Al-Balqa’, an abandoned field of ruins and a late-19th century Ottoman village. It is today capital of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.
The first settlements were on the citadel hill, and were supplied with water from vast reservoirs cut in the rock. Rabbath Ammon, or Rabbah is first mentioned in the Bible as the place where the huge iron bedstead of Og King of Bashan was brought as spoils of war (Deut. 3). Later, when King David’s armies attacked its water supply (2 Sam, 12:27), Uriah the Hittite was sent to die in the front line so that David could marry his beautiful widow, Bathsheba, In the early 6th century BC prophecies by Jeremiah (49:2) and Ezekiel (21:2; 25:3-5) of Rabbah’s destruction by Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon may not have been precisely fulfilled but, like the whole region, Ammon became a province first of the Babylonian empire, then of the Persian.
In the Hellenistic period, with the Middle East divided between Alexander the Great’s warring successors, the city changed hands periodically between the Egyptian Ptolemies and the Syrian Seleucids, and was rebuilt by Ptolemy II Philadelphus (28 3-246 BC) who renamed it Philadelphia. The Nabataeans also ruled it for some time.
Prosperity grew under the Romans as a city of the Decapolis, resulting in many new buildings – a theatre, odeon and forum in the lower town, which were connected by a monumental stairway to the new temples on the citadel above. Philadelphia remained wealthy throughout the Byzantine period, when it was the seat of a bishopric, and also after the Arab conquest of 636, witnessed by the remains of a handsome 8th-century Umayyad palace and administrative complex. It is from this period onwards that the city reverted to a version of its early Semitic name: Amman.
Decline set in after the Abbasids moved the centre of the Islamic world from Damascus to Baghdad in the middle of the 8th century, and by the 15th century Amman was an abandoned ruin. So it remained until 1878, when the Ottomans settled a group of Circassians here who had fled persecution in Russia because of their Islamic faith. It remained small (in 1918 I E. Lawrence called it a ‘village’) and only after the Amir ‘Abdullah made ‘Amman his capital in 1921 did it begin to grow again, expanding from one steep hill to another in a creeping development of pale honey-coloured stone, or concrete. In 1946 the Emirate of Transjordan became a kingdom with ‘Amman as its capital, the seat of government and the commercial, legal and administrative centre of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.