Jordan is rich in Palaeolithic remains that contain evidence of settlement by Homo erectus, Neanderthals and modern humans. The oldest evidence of human settlement dates back about 250,000 years. In the Kharanah area of eastern Jordan, there is evidence of human huts from about 20,000 years ago. Other Palaeolithic sites include Pella and Al-Azraq. In the Neolithic period, several settlements began to develop, most notably an agricultural community called ‘Ain Ghazal in present-day Amman, one of the largest known prehistoric settlements in the Middle East. Plaster statues estimated to date from around 7250 BC have been uncovered there and are among the oldest large human statues ever found. The villages of Bab edh-Dhra in the Dead Sea area, Tal Hujayrat Al-Ghuzlan in Aqaba and Tulaylet Ghassul in the Jordan Valley all date from the Chalcolithic period.
Jordan’s prehistoric period ended around 2000 BC, when the Semitic nomads known as Amorites invaded the region. During the Bronze and Iron Ages, there were several ancient kingdoms in what is now Jordan whose populations spoke Semitic languages of the Canaanite group. They included Ammon, Edom and Moab, which are described as tribal kingdoms rather than states. They are mentioned in ancient texts such as the Old Testament. Archaeological finds have shown that Ammon was in the area of the modern city of Amman, Moab controlled the highlands east of the Dead Sea and Edom the area around Wadi Araba.
These Transjordanian kingdoms were in constant conflict with the neighbouring Hebrew kingdoms of Israel and Judah, whose centre lay west of the Jordan, although Israel was known to control small parts east of the river at times. Confrontations were frequent and tensions between them increased. Evidence of this is the Mesha Stele erected by the Moabite king Mesha around 840 BC, on which he praises himself for the building projects he initiated in Moab and commemorates his glory and victory over the Israelites. The stele represents one of the most important direct traditions of biblical history. Subsequently, the Assyrian Empire reduced these kingdoms to vassals. Later, when the region was under the influence of the Babylonians, the Old Testament mentions that these kingdoms helped them sack Jerusalem in 597 BC.
These kingdoms are believed to have existed during fluctuations in regional rule and influence. They passed through the control of several distant empires, including the Akkadian Empire (2335-2193 BC), Ancient Egypt (1500-1300 BC), the Hittite Empire (1400-1300 BC.), the Middle Assyrian Empire (1365-1020 BC), the Neo-Assyrian Empire (911-605 BC), the Neo-Babylonian Empire (604-539 BC), the Achaemenid Empire (539-332 BC) and the Hellenistic Empire of Macedonia. By the time of Roman rule in the Levant around 63 BC, however, the peoples of Ammon, Edom and Moab had lost their own identity and were assimilated by Roman culture.
The conquest of the Achaemenid Empire by Alexander the Great in 332 BC introduced Hellenistic culture to the Middle East. After Alexander’s death in 323 BC, his empire divided among his generals, and in the end much of the land of modern Jordan was disputed between the Ptolemies, based in Egypt, and the Seleucids, based in Syria. In the south and east, the Nabataeans had an independent kingdom. Campaigns by various Greek generals seeking to annex the Nabataean kingdom were unsuccessful.
The Nabataeans were nomadic Arabs who derived their wealth from their capital Petra, whose proximity to the major trade routes made it a regional centre. The Ptolemies were eventually pushed out of the region by the Seleucid Empire. The conflict between these two groups allowed the Nabataeans to expand their empire far beyond Petra north into Edom. The Nabataeans are known for their great ability to construct efficient methods of collecting water in the barren deserts and their talent for carving structures such as the Al-Khazneh temple into solid rock. These nomads spoke Arabic and wrote in Nabataean alphabets, which were developed from the Aramaic script in the 2nd century B.C., and were known by scholars as the Arabic alphabet around the 4th century.
The Greeks founded new cities in Jordan, including Philadelphia (Amman), Gerasa (Jerash), Gedara (Umm Qays), Pella (Tabaqat Fahl) and Arbila (Irbid). Later, under Roman rule, these joined with other Hellenistic cities in Palestine and Syria to form the Decapolis Confederation, a loose confederation linked by economic and cultural interests: Scythopolis, Hippos, Capitolias, Canatha and Damascus were among its members. The most important Hellenistic site in Jordan is located in Iraq Al-Amir, west of modern Amman.
Roman legions under Pompey conquered much of the Levant in 63 BC, ushering in a period of Roman rule that lasted for centuries. In 106 AD, Emperor Trajan annexed the nearby Nabataean kingdom without any resistance and rebuilt the royal road, which became known as the Via Traiana Nova. During Roman rule, the Nabataeans continued to flourish and replaced their local gods with Christianity. Roman remains in Amman include the Temple of Hercules on the Citadel of Amman and the Roman Theatre. Jerash is home to a well-preserved Roman city that had a population of 15,000 in its heyday. Jerash was visited by Emperor Hadrian during his journey to Palestine. In 324 AD, the Roman Empire split and the Eastern Roman Empire (later known as the Byzantine Empire) controlled or influenced the region until 636 AD. Christianity became legal within the Empire in 313 AD and became the official state religion in 390 AD after Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity.
The city of Ayla (today’s Aqaba) in southern Jordan also came under the rule of the Byzantine Empire. The church of Aqaba was built around 300 AD and is considered the first purpose-built Christian church in the world. The Byzantines built 16 churches south of Amman in Umm ar-Rasas. Administratively, the area of Jordan belonged to the Diocese of the East and was divided between the provinces of Palaestina Secunda in the northwest and Arabia Petraeim in the south and east. Palaestina Salutaris in the south was split off from Arabia Petraea in the late 4th century. The Sassanid Empire in the east became a rival of the Byzantines, and frequent confrontations sometimes led to the Sassanids controlling some parts of the region, including Transjordan.
Muslims from what is now Saudi Arabia invaded the region from the south. The Arab Christian Ghassanids, clients of the Byzantines, were defeated despite imperial support. While Muslim forces were defeated by the Byzantines in their first direct engagement at the Battle of Mu’tah in 629 in present-day Karak governorate, the Byzantines lost control of the Levant when they were defeated by the army of the Rashidun at the Battle of Yarmouk north of present-day Jordan in 636. The region became Arabised and the Arabic language spread.
Transjordan was an essential area for the conquest of nearby Damascus. The first or Rashidun Caliphate was followed by that of the Ummayads (661-750). Under Umayyad rule, several desert castles were built, such as Qasr Al-Mshatta, Qasr Al-Hallabat, Qasr Al-Kharanah, Qasr Tuba, Qasr Amra and a large administrative palace in Amman. The Abbasid campaign to take over the Umayyad Empire began in the Transjordan region. After the decline of the Abbasid Caliphate, the area was ruled by the Fatimids and then by the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem (1115-1189).
The Crusaders built about nine Crusader castles as part of the rule of Oultrejordain, including those of Montreal, Al-Karak and Wu’ayra (in Petra). In the 12th century, the Crusaders were defeated by Saladin, the founder of the Ayyubid dynasty (1189-1260). The Ayyubids built a new castle at Ajloun and rebuilt the former Roman fort of Qasr Azraq. Several of these castles were used and expanded by the Mamluks (1260-1516), who divided Jordan between the provinces of Karak and Damascus. During the next century, Transjordan experienced Mongol attacks, but the Mongols were eventually repelled by the Mamluks after the Battle of Ain Jalut (1260).
In 1516, Ottoman troops conquered the Mamluk territory. The agricultural villages in Jordan experienced a period of relative prosperity in the 16th century, but were later abandoned. For the next few centuries, Ottoman rule in the region was at times virtually non-existent and limited to annual visits to collect taxes. This led to a brief occupation by the Wahhabis (1803-1812), an ultra-orthodox Islamic movement that emerged in the Najd in present-day Saudi Arabia. Ibrahim Pasha, son of the governor of Egypt’s Eyalet on behalf of the Ottoman Sultan, expelled the Wahhabis between 1811 and 1818. In 1833, Ibrahim Pasha turned against the Ottomans and established his rule over the Levant. His repressive policies led to the unsuccessful peasant uprising in Palestine in 1834. The towns of Al-Salt and Al-Karak were destroyed by Ibrahim Pasha’s troops because they harboured a leader of the peasant uprising. Egyptian rule was later forcibly ended and Ottoman rule restored.
Russian persecution of the Sunni Muslim Circassians and Chechens led to their immigration to the region in 1867, where they now form a small part of the country’s ethnic fabric. However, the overall population declined due to oppression and neglect. Urban settlements with small populations include: Al-Salt, Irbid, Jerash and Al-Karak. The underdevelopment of urban life in Jordan was exacerbated by the fact that the settlements were sometimes raided by Bedouins. Ottoman oppression prompted both non-Bedouin and Bedouin tribes in the region to revolt, including Bedouin tribes such as Adwan, Bani Hassan, Bani Sakhr and the Howeitat. The most notable uprisings were the Shoubak Revolt (1905) and the Karak Revolt (1910), which were brutally put down. Jordan’s location is on a pilgrimage route where Muslims make pilgrimages to Mecca, which helped the population economically when the Ottomans built the Hejaz railway connecting Mecca to Istanbul in 1908. Before the railway was built, the Ottomans built forts along the Hajj route to secure the pilgrims’ caravans.
Four centuries of stagnation during Ottoman rule ended during World War I when the Arab Revolt erupted in 1916, driven by long-standing Arab resentment of the Ottoman authorities and the rise of Arab nationalism. The revolt was led by the Hashemite clan of Hejaz, claiming descent from the Islamic prophet Muhammad, under the leadership of Sharif Hussein of Mecca. The conquest of Transjordan had the support of the local Bedouin tribes, Circassians and Christians. The uprising was supported by the allies of the First World War, including Britain and France.
The Great Arab Revolt successfully gained control over most of the Hejaz and Levant, including the region east of the Jordan River. However, it failed to gain international recognition as an independent state, mainly because of the secret Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916 and the Balfour Declaration of 1917. This was seen by the Hashemites and the Arabs as a betrayal of their earlier agreements with the British, including the McMahon-Hussein correspondence of 1915, in which the British declared their willingness to recognise the independence of a united Arab state stretching from Aleppo to Aden under Hashemite rule. The region was divided and Abdullah I, the second son of Sharif Hussein, arrived by train from the Hejaz in Ma’an in southern Jordan, where he was welcomed by the Transjordanian leaders. Abdullah founded the Emirate of Transjordan in 1921, which then became a British protectorate.
The first organised army in Jordan was founded on 22 October 1920 and was named the Arab Legion. The Legion grew from 150 men in 1920 to 8,000 men in 1946. After the Hashemite leadership took power in the region, many difficulties arose. In Transjordan, small local rebellions in Kura were put down by Emir Abdullah with the help of British forces in 1921 and 1923. Wahhabis from Najd regained strength and repeatedly raided the southern parts of his territory between 1922 and 1924, seriously threatening the Emir’s position. The Emir was unable to repel these raids without the help of the local Bedouin tribes and the British, who maintained a military base with a small RAF detachment near Amman.
In September 1922, the Council of the League of Nations recognised Transjordan as a state under the British Mandate for Palestine and the Transjordan Memorandum, and excluded the areas east of the Jordan River from the Mandate’s provisions dealing with Jewish settlement. Transjordan remained a British Mandate until 1946.
The Treaty of London, signed by the British government and the Emir of Transjordan on 22 March 1946, recognised the independence of Transjordan after ratification by the parliaments of both countries. On 25 May 1946, the Emirate of Transjordan became the “Hashemite Kingdom of Transjordan”, as the ruling Emir was reappointed “King” by the Parliament of Transjordan on the day the Treaty of London was ratified. The name was changed to “The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan” in 1949. Jordan became a member of the United Nations on 14 December 1955.
On 15 May 1948, Jordan invaded Palestine along with other Arab states as part of the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. After the war, Jordan occupied the West Bank and on 24 April 1950, Jordan formally annexed these territories. As a result, some Arab countries called for Jordan’s expulsion from the Arab League. On 12 June 1950, the Arab League declared that the annexation was a temporary, practical measure and that Jordan held the territory as a “trustee” until a future settlement.
King Abdullah was assassinated in the Al-Aqsa Mosque in 1951 by a Palestinian militant following rumours that he was about to sign a peace treaty with Israel. Abdullah was succeeded by his son Talal, but he soon abdicated due to illness in favour of his eldest son Hussein, who ascended the throne in 1953. On 1 March 1956, King Hussein dismissed a number of British servants serving in the Jordanian army, an act of Arabisation designed to ensure Jordan’s complete sovereignty. Neighbouring Iraq was also ruled by a Hashemite monarchy; Faisal II of Iraq, who was a cousin of Hussein. In 1958, the Arab Federation was formed between the two kingdoms, in response to the formation of the United Arab Republic between Egypt and Syria. The Union lasted only six months and was dissolved after Faisal II was deposed in a military coup.
Jordan signed a military pact with Egypt shortly before Israel launched a pre-emptive strike against Egypt to start the Six-Day War in June 1967, in which Jordan and Syria participated. It ended in Arab defeat and the West Bank came under Israeli control. Jordan also fought in the War of Attrition, which included the Battle of Karameh in 1968, in which the combined forces of the Jordanian Armed Forces and the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) repelled an Israeli attack on Karameh camp on the Jordanian border with the West Bank. Although the Palestinians took limited action against the Israeli forces, the events in Karameh gained widespread recognition and acclaim in the Arab world. As a result, the post-battle period saw an upsurge in support for Palestinian paramilitary elements (the Fedayeen) in Jordan by other Arab countries, and the Fedayeen soon became a threat to the Jordanian rule of law. In September 1970, the Jordanian army targeted the Fedayeen, and the resulting fighting led to the expulsion of Palestinian fighters from various PLO groups into Lebanon, in a civil war that became known as Black September.
During the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Arab League forces waged war against Israel and fighting broke out along the 1967 Jordan ceasefire line. Jordan sent a brigade into Syria to attack Israeli units on Syrian territory, but did not attack Israeli forces from Jordanian territory. At the Rabat Summit Conference in 1974, Jordan agreed with the rest of the Arab League that the PLO was the “sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people”. As a result, Jordan renounced its claims to the West Bank in 1988.
At the 1991 Madrid Conference, Jordan agreed to negotiate a peace treaty supported by the USA and the Soviet Union. The peace treaty between Israel and Jordan was signed on 26 October 1994. In 1997, Israeli agents allegedly entered Jordan with Canadian passports and poisoned Khaled Meshal, a senior Hamas leader. Israel provided an antidote for the poison and released dozens of political prisoners, including Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, after King Hussein threatened to annul the peace treaty.
On 7 February 1999, Abdullah II ascended the throne after the death of his father Hussein. Since then, Jordan’s economy has improved. Abdullah II has been credited with increasing foreign investment, improving public-private partnerships and laying the groundwork for the Aqaba Free Trade Zone and Jordan’s thriving information and communications technology (ICT) sector. He also established five other special economic zones. As a result of these reforms, Jordan’s economic growth doubled to 6% annually compared to the second half of the 1990s. However, the Great Recession and regional unrest in the 2010s severely crippled the Jordanian economy and its growth, making the country increasingly dependent on foreign aid.
Al-Qaida, led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, carried out coordinated explosions in three hotel lobbies in Amman on 9 November 2005, killing 60 people and injuring 115. The bombings, which targeted civilians, sparked great outrage among Jordanians. The attack is considered a rare event in the country, and Jordan’s internal security was drastically improved afterwards. Since then, there have been no major terrorist attacks.
The Arab Spring began in 2011 in the Arab world, where large-scale protests broke out demanding economic and political reforms. However, many of these protests led to civil wars and more instability in some countries. In Jordan, in response to the domestic unrest, Abdullah II replaced his prime minister and introduced a series of reforms, including amending the constitution and establishing a series of government commissions. The King called on the new Prime Minister to “take swift, concrete and practical steps to initiate a genuine process of political reform, strengthen democracy and give Jordanians the dignified life they deserve”.