Umm al-Jimal

Rising out of Jordan’s northern basalt plain, beautiful Umm al-Jimal is both a modern town and an ancient archaeological site, home to almost 2000 years of fascinating history and culture - Nabataean, Roman, Byzantine, Umayyad, Mamluk, Ottoman and Modern.

3D model of Umm Al-Jimal (2020) - Umm el-Jimal Project, EAMENA, Iconem

The Story of Umm al-Jimal

Introduction: Town in the Southern Hauran

Ancient Umm al-Jimal[1] is in the Southern Hauran plain, the semi-arid Badia region of north Jordan, a basalt plain created by prehistoric volcanic eruptions from the slopes of the Jabal al-Arab, whose peaks are visible on clear winter days fifty km to the north-east in southern Syria. The site is 675 m above sea level and receives 150 mm average annual rainfall. The great Roman highway, the Via Nova Traiana constructed AD 112-14 during Trajan’s rule, passes Umm al-Jimal 6 km to the west on its way from Bostra to Philadelphia (Amman). It is best viewed where it crosses the road between Umm al-Jimal and Umm as-Surab, at a point about one km west of Qasr Ba‘ij, a ten minute drive west of Umm al-Jimal. Umm al-Jimal itself is on a side road that left the Via Nova at Qasr Ba‘ij, and went on to Umm al-Quttein and Dayr al-Kahf to the east. This side road was part of a network of secondary roads that connected the Southern Hauran’s towns and villages with major market centers like Bostra and Suweida, and the desert oasis of Azraq. The town’s remains are visible from the air as a 400 x 800 m rectangle of rubble ruins flanked on its east and west sides by the modern village of the same name. Ancient Umm al-Jimal nestles in a fork created by the joining of two wadis (dry riverbeds) that still bring the winter runoff water from the lower slopes of the Jabal al-Arab to fill the site’s numerous ancient reservoirs.

Site Narrative: From Nabataean to Modern

Umm al-Jimal was occupied and built for 7-800 years from the mid-1st Century AD to the 8th Century. From the 9th to the 20th century it was reused by nomads and sporadically resettled until formal possession as a protected archaeological site by the Government of Jordan in 1972. In its first 750 years Umm al-Jimal had three quite distinct personae.

In the Nabataean- Early Roman Period[2] from the 1st-3rd centuries it was a satellite of Bostra and received its impetus from late Nabataean sedentarization of its northern realm and then Roman governance of the Provincia Arabia. Thus, from the reigns of the last Nabataean king, Rabbel II, and the first Roman Emperor, Trajan (AD 106), to the end of the Severan Dynasty (AD 235), the town served as an outreach of monarchic and imperial hegemony, symbolized by monumental Nabataean and Roman structures, the fragments of which survive in the later ruins. During this period, local people were settled in a sort of worker’s village comprised of simple field-stone houses 50 m to the southeast of the town, a 250-m diameter oval which today is privately owned. Both the town and the village were destroyed in the frontier upheavals of the late 3rd Century (the Palmyrene insurrection). The village was never reoccupied and survives today as al Herri, “the Ruins.”

The second Umm al-Jimal was a Late Roman military station on the Limes Arabicus, the 4th-5th Century fortified frontier defensive system created and constructed by the emperors Diocletian and Constantine after those 3rd-C upheavals. Already in the 2nd Century the Roman imperial authorities had constructed a gate (under Marcus Aurelius and Commodus) and a wall on East side of the town. That was followed by the construction of the great reservoir and the Praetorium. While these structures survived the upheavals, to restore order, Diocletian’s imperial reorganization included the construction of a major fortification, a castellum, on the east side of the town. Now Umm al-Jimal functioned as a stitch in the blanket of total defensive security in which Diocletian had attempted to swaddle the Roman Empire. You can imagine the 4th-5th Century site with the Commodus Gate, the Praetorium, Reservoir 9 and the castellum in place, but without the later Barracks, houses and the churches dominating the skyline today.

In its third, Byzantine-Umayyad, persona the gradual lifting of imperial military occupation enabled the local Arab civilian population to resettle and turn the site into the prosperous rural farming and trading town of the 5th to 8th centuries. The transformation from military station to civilian town was gradual, and is typical of the general transformation from imperial to late antique culture that took place in the East Mediterranean in the 5th century. This resulted from the failure of Diocletian’s system of massive defenses along the eastern frontier and reaction to the debilitating economic oppression such a system required. Ironically, as imperial military security weakened and decentralized, the prosperity of the eastern frontier increased to reach a peak in the 6th century. This prosperity was evident in the construction and use of 150 basalt houses and 16 churches from the 5th to 7th centuries. The ruins surviving from this phase give the site its dramatic and distinctive archaeological landscape today.

From the 9th century to the present this late antique residential landscape was reused by nomads and sporadic settlers attracted to the essential water supply and convenient shelter of structures only partially collapsed from periodic earthquakes. There is ceramic evidence of an ephemeral Mamluk occupation, continuing in the Early Ottoman period. Then in the Late Ottoman and Mandate periods of the early 20th Century Druze sedentists and Arab nomads moved into the site and began an extensive repair of the Byzantine-Umayyad houses for domestic reuse. After the Druze settlers left in the 1930s the Arab members of the Masa’eid tribe continued to live on the site into the Modern era until the government of Jordan fenced the site in 1972. In addition to their use and maintenance of the ancient houses, these final residents reconditioned several reservoirs, and today many adults over thirty remember their families’ reliance on that water supply when they were children.

[1]Scholars’ efforts to identify the ancient site with either Thantia or Surrata have proven to be inconclusive.

[2] Though there are distinct Nabataean and Roman architectural fragments, the two cultural phases overlap because significant datable Nabataean inscriptions were produced in the second century, the Early Roman period, when Roman emperors from Trajan to Commodus were the rulers of the Provincia Arabia.

Significance of Umm al-Jimal

Paradox of Power: Local Resilience in the face of External Empires

Umm al-Jimal is an outstanding instance of the resilience of a local culture under the influence of dominant outside cultural influences. This is evident in various ways. For example, the elaborate communal water system, which, while influenced by Nabataean and Roman hydrology, was constructed and maintained by the local populace working together as private citizens to create and maintain this historic hydraulic system continuously from the Nabataean era to the present. Another example is construction techniques, the combination of corbeled roofing, lintel relieving and cantilevered stairways by which local builders adapted regional techniques to the distinctive characteristics of the local basalt masonry. A third example is the unusual number of inscriptions built into the settlement in Nabataean, Greek, Safaitic and Latin. These include monumental inscriptions from the imperial point of view, such as the famous Anastasios Edict displayed at the site. Nevertheless, the preponderance of these inscriptions, whether Nabataean or Greek in language and script, represent a local point of view of a population whose personal names are Arabic. Hundreds of these Arab names are known from the Nabataean to the Umayyad periods. A final example is the distinctive context of Umm al-Jimal’s sixteen churches in the Byzantine-Umayyad town’s domestic landscape. The existence of so many churches is not unusual by itself, but what is distinctive is the preservation of their domestic setting. They were built into neighborhoods of private houses, woven into the very fabric of a local society. It is therefore possible to see these communal churches in the middle of a typological sequence of religious architecture from the centrally located monumental temples of the pre-Christian past and the communally located mosques of the early and middle Islamic periods. These and other examples point to the resilient character of local culture formation in the face of dominant foreign, imperial influences. Thus, ancient Umm al-Jimal more than any other site is alive in the heritage of modern Jordanian culture.

This message from antiquity, that local people can survive the vicissitudes brought by external powers and be satisfied and thrive where they are, is especially significant in a 21st century world in which a high percentage of local people are fleeing their ancestral villages to become strangers in vast, foreign urban complexes.

Between Desert and Sown: Central Place in a Network of Arab Settlements

As is true of the modern community, the ancient community transitioned from nomadism to sedentism under the administration of a larger state controlling the region, first Nabataean, then Roman. What makes the Umm al-Jimal site story outstanding is that here we see local Arab people create a prosperous settlement built from the fragments of a failed Nabataean-Roman monumental (third century) site in a style suitable for the basaltic plain of the Hauran (“black desert”). In short, where empires failed, the local population succeeded.

Because of its remarkable state of preservation a visitor can enter this community today, and be transported into Late Antique private life, including the animal husbandry seen in stables and mangers, family privacy in enclosed courtyards and personal intimacy up stairways into second floor bedrooms, the terraced gardens laden with produce adjacent to the sturdy basalt homes, caravans massing in the open spaces, harvesting of wheat in the surrounding fields, water being drawn from the numerous reservoirs to slake the thirst of animals and humans thriving successfully in an environment that by rights should be too dry and parching.

Umm al-Jimal was not alone as a successful local settlement in this arid basaltic landscape. In fact, it was one of numerous such communities across the region from Umm es-Surab to its west to Dayr al-Kahf in the east, spaced to form a settlement grid interconnected with local roads and all linked to larger urban centers like Bostra and Suweida to the north. We see a thriving cultural landscape with a complex economy combining agriculture and animal husbandry with caravan trade and farm-to-market transport, enabling a distinctive combination of lives lived in private but extending hospitality to travelers from near and far.

What makes Umm al-Jimal stand out in this landscape of settlements is not just its larger size, but especially its remarkable state of preservation. Whereas neighboring settlements are badly ruined and quarried out, at Umm al-Jimal one can still see the whole as the sum of all the parts that worked together for this ancient success story. Umm al-Jimal is a unique instance of a regionally thriving integral set of similar places – the best surviving specimen of these rural late antquee towns, which can be presented as a model representing all of them.

Not only that, but Umm al-Jimal also served successive generations from its fourth century origins right into the 20th century. In fact, its last inhabitants are still-alive older members of the modern community, many of whom can say, “Yes, we lived in this house and drank the water from that reservoir,” pointing to an ancient house and its nearby birkeh. The heritage of Umm al-Jimal as a settlement has therefore been enduring, and has been a major formative influence on the cultural identity of modern Jordan.

Bert de Vries, Umm al-Jimal Archaeological Project.
In memory of Professor Bert de Vries (1939-2021).

Umm al-Jimal, in Jordan, defined Bert's life. For nearly fifty years, he explored, surveyed, directed excavations and undertook conservation at this remarkable site. He worked with the local community to help in understanding its importance, as well as preserving and presenting it, for future generations to enjoy. For Bert the cultural heritage was a tool for peace and understanding identity; he urged all of us, especially archaeologists, to behave with compassion and to promote non-violent behaviour. He leaves a lasting legacy at Umm al-Jimal, not just in the buildings and artefacts but also with the people who will now manage the site for the next fifty years.