Umm el-Jimal's Enduring Past
One of the major goals of the Umm el-Jimal Project has been to allocate the remains on the site to the various strata of history to which they belong. Prior work and popular impressions had attributed the site to the achievements of Nabataeans and Romans, without clear differentiation between those and the Byzantine character of the standing ruins. Following is the history according to detectable archaeological strata.
Over many millennia before 10,000 BP Paleolithic hunter-gatherers left their tools near the shores of Wadi Abu al-Ku’, on the southern edge of Umm el-Jimal. They also left large hunting traps—‘kites’—in the vicinity. After the domestication of animals, the region was frequented by nomads moving their herds between the Badiya to the east and agricultural terrain to the west and taking advantage of the natural crops resulting from the seasonal run-off of rainwater from the Jebel Druze.
Such local people, Arab nomads, settled under the umbrella of Nabataean influence from Bostra and established the first village of Umm el-Jimal in the 1st century A.D. During Umm el-Jimal’s early history, this community consisted of monumental structures which included elaborate chamber tombs to bury their elites. Evidence of this culture is found on many Nabataean and Greek inscriptions on tombstones and altars, but, aside from one chamber tomb, all structures from the period were destroyed and recycled into later buildings. The great water harvesting system used throughout the settlement’s history was begun at this time.
The Archaeological Evidence
A Roman Station
One of the discoveries of the Umm el-Jimal project is a second settlement to the south east of this monumental site in an area now called al-Herri, which may have begun in the Nabataean period, but continued into the Roman up to the end of the third century. Constructed of undressed stone without expensive architectural designs this may have been a village of the workers who provided the manual labor for the more monumental building projects on the main site.
After the Romans turned the Nabataean Kingdom into their Provincia Arabia, they also occupied Umm el-Jimal. In AD 180, the Roman imperial authorities constructed a wall and a gate, a large reservoir and the Praetorium. During the 4th century AD, in response to the rebellion of Queen Zenobia of Palmyra, Roman armies allied with the Arab Tanoukhid Federation restored order in a destructive military campaign. At Umm el-Jimal the civilian settlement was replaced by a military garrison stationed in a purpose built fort, the early castellum, which was part of the general fortification of the Roman frontiers at the time of Diocletian and Constantine. Besides this castellum, structures on the site included the Great Reservoir, the Praetorium, and a small temple.
A Prosperous Agricultural Town
A gradual transformation from a military station to a civilian town began as Roman imperial power waned and was then replaced by the Byzantine era. From the 5th to 8th centuries, Umm el-Jimal became a prosperous rural farming and trading town. During this period of prosperity, many residents converted to Christianity resulting in an explosion of church construction: Fifteen churches were built in the late 5th and 6th centuries. The population of Umm el-Jimal likely grew to between 6,000 and 8,000 people during this time. Evidence of this culture is found throughout the site in the form of Christian symbols on houses and churches. Paradoxically, Umm el-Jimal's age of rural prosperity came after the strictures of Roman occupation were lifted.
Umm el-Jimal’s local agricultural culture continued after the Muslim conquest and under the Umayyad caliphs during the 7th century. Though the site decreased in size, some new construction took place. This construction included private houses, possible conversion of several structures into mosques, and the remodeling of the Praetorium with frescoed walls and mosaic floors. Around this time the population decreased, especially after an earthquake hit Umm el-Jimal in A.D. 749.
The site was gradually abandoned during the 9th century, in the Abbasid era. The actual cause of that abandonment is best seen as a combination of events – the aftermath of earthquake, rolling pandemic, drought and shift of political epicenter to Baghdad. What happened at Umm el-Jimal prevailed in the entire Hauran, and also in the similar late Antique rural regions in both the Negev and in Northern Syria west of Aleppo. One could see this era not so much in terms of depopulation, but as a reversion to the nomadic economy that had existed for the millennia before the Nabataean settlement.
For more than 1100 years the ancient town lay nearly deserted and untouched. The durability of basalt masonry and the high-quality construction enabled a remarkable state of preservation over that period: today over 150 structures still stand, some up to six stories high. As evident from some potsherds on the site, there may have been sporadic reuse of the structures during the 12th-15th century Ayyubid-Mamluk period.
Find Out More
Since the Druze and Msa'eid reoccupied the site, Umm el-Jimal has grown into a fascinating modern Jordanian community. Discover more about modern Umm el-Jimal in the Community section.
The site was re-occupied by Druze refugees fleeing persecution in Syria and later by Lebanese Druze in the early 20th century. During that period, virtually every building was reused or reconstructed, making the site habitable for the Druze. The Druze abandoned the town after 1932 when the fixing of the modern border between Jordan and Syria cut off their access to the Jebel Druze in the north. Some Druze families returned north to the mountain, while others scattered within Jordan—mostly to Amman.
After the Druze abandonment, the Msa’eid tribe, which had been using Umm el-Jimal for seasonal grazing alongside the Druze, settled in the area and made the antiquities part of their community. They reused the deserted buildings of the Druze and pitched tents in front of them, especially during the summer time. Their numerous tent sites remain an ephemeral but interesting feature of the ruins today.
For a while many Msa’eid children were educated in schoolrooms adapted from the Byzantine structures. After Jordan’s government prohibited such use of the antiquities, the Msa’eid founded and constructed the modern town, which soon engulfed the ancient site. The Jordanian Department of Antiquities subsequently fenced off the ruins in 1972 to preserve them. The modern village has continued to grow since the 1950s, and now constitutes a community of close to 4,000 with its own well-run municipal government.