Schools of the Latin Patriarchate in Jordan
Hosson, North Jordan, 1936
Transjordan occupies an area of just over 90,000 square kilometres, to which Palestine, the West Bank, was officially united from 1951 to 1988. The population has varied from one historical period to another. Less than 400,000 in the 1920s, it is now estimated to be approximately 4,000,000. Nearly one quarter are living in Amman, many of them of Palestinian origin.
The port of Aqaba is the only outlet to the sea. Originally the coastal strip at Aqaba was about 8 kms in length. After an agreement between Jordan and Saudi Arabia in 1965 by which they redefined their frontiers, it was extended to approximately 26 kms. West to East the country splits into three natural regions. The first begins in the north and follows the course of the river Jordan from Lake Tiberias, where it is 190m below sea level. From there it descends to the Dead Sea at 435m below sea level. At the southern end of the Dead Sea it begins to rise, gradually reaching 300m above sea level, then slowly falls again to reach sea level at Aqaba.
In the north the land is irrigated by the river Jordan and its tributaries, which makes it a very fertile area. This valley is enclosed by hills and mountains, to the west those in Palestine, to the east those in Jordan. These rise to heights between 800 and 900 metres, creating a hothouse effect enabling intense cultivation of vegetables and fruit.
The second region starting again in the north is mountainous. It follows the river Yarmuk, which is a tributary flowing into the Jordan south of Lake Tiberias, after which it narrows southwards towards Aqaba. The mountains are divided into three sections by valleys and gorges, in the north between the Yarmuk and the Zarqa, the next tributary flowing into the Jordan. This area used to be called the Sawad, meaning fertile land. It consists of the area around Irbid and the hills around Ajloun. Next from Ajloun to Wadi al-Mugib, which drains into the Dead Sea, is the second section. This section is dominated by Amman and Salt. From Wadi al-Mugib, the third section goes south with hills rising from 1,200m in the north to over 1,500 in the south. Here the principal town is Karak, which overlooks the southern end of the Dead Sea.
The third region is the Syro-Arabian desert of sand, gravel and basalt, extending eastwards to the frontier with Iraq. This area forms more than three-quarters of the whole area of Jordan. It goes north to Syria, east to Iraq and south to Saudi Arabia. Its population has been traditionally Bedouin.
The hills to the east of the river Jordan continue as the Hijaz, into the eastern side of the Gulf of Aqaba and the Red Sea, making Jordan a natural route between Syria and Arabia. To the west the hills of Palestine continue south towards Egypt, making it a natural route between Syria and Egypt.
The caravan trails started from different places on the Arabian peninsular and followed the natural lie of the land for easy journeys. Two of these trails merged at Ma’an, became in Roman times the Via Trajana, then continued north to Syria. Today this route is called the King’s Highway.
Amman was a natural junction for these caravan routes. In 1908 it was one of the principal stations along the Hijaz railway, newly constructed by the Ottomans to connect Damascus and Medina. Thus down the centuries Jordan has been of considerable strategic importance.
The five principal administrative regions are:
1. Irbid, in the centre of the Sawad highlands.
The town of Irbid was the principal market for the grain lands of the north. The inhabitants though not tribally organised, were solidly Muslim and politically ambitious.
2. Salt, in part of the Balqa highland.
The town of Salt was the principal market for the Balqa region. It was larger than Irbid, better developed and had more schools. There was a large population of Christians with families who originally came from Nablus and Nazareth.
3. Amman, which is in the centre of the Balqa highlands.
4. Karak, the area from the Dead Sea and Wadi Araba centre around the Bilad al-Sharat
5. Ma’an, being in the centre of the extreme south and its adjoining desert.
The Byzantine period, during which the towns developed, was one of the most prosperous for the country, except for the open desert. The policies of Constantine and Theodosius the Great encouraged the building of Christian churches. However the security and prosperity of the area came to an end after 610 when Heraculus came to the throne in Constantinople. It was in that same year when Muhammad began to preach Islam in Mecca. In 622 he left Mecca in the Hijaz for Medina where he established a state based on Islam as the true religion valid for all mankind and all time. This event is called the ‘Hijra’ and the date was later chosen to mark the first day of the Muslim calendar.The last Emir of Mecca was Hussein, father of the present Kingdom of Jordan.
When the Romans arrived they gave the Greek cities of southern Syria and Transjordan freedom and autonomy but they still had to remain subject to the Roman Governor. These cities formed a league called the Decapolis, meaning ten cities, though that does not mean that there were strictly only ten. In Transjordan there were three, Umm Quays (Gadara), Jerash (Gerasa) and Amman (Philadelphia).
The Christian population was not reduced to a minority until the end of the Crusader period, 1097 – 1291. In the early 20th century the Christians in the highlands were about 15% of the total population. Today they are about 5%, mostly because of the increase in emigration to other countries, particularly Europe and the USA.
During the First World War Sharif Hussein, in collaboration with the British who helped him to further his own aims in the area, proclaimed the Great Arab Revolt against the Ottomans in Mecca. The forces of Hussein, led by his son Feisal, fought their way through Transjordan. After this Hussein was then recognised by the British as the King of the Hijaz. The black, white and green banner became the symbol of the Arab Revolt.
In 1913 a Conference of the Arabs was called in Paris to discuss the differing views concerning the future of an Arab nation. The Sykes-Picot agreement in 1916 recognised the interests of France in Syria and northern Iraq. Following this, in 1919, the Treaty of Versailles between the Allies and Germany established the League of Nations. They agreed that all German Arab Colonies would be taken over by the League and their control assigned to France and Britain. France was given the Mandate for Syria and Lebanon with Britain being given the Mandate for Palestine, Iraq and the territory in between. The frontiers of these mandated countries were not clear. The principal concern of the British Mandatory Government was to develop the Palestine part of the territory, with Jerusalem as its centre. They wanted the country to be a national home for the Jews, but were fiercely resisted by the essentially Arab population. Britain considered that Transjordan was the place where Arabs, unwilling to live with the Jews, could settle. During the course of his campaign in 1917 – 1918, which was financed by Britain, Feisal was assisted and advised by the British. Lawrence of Arabia played a great part in this.
When the British ceded land, acquired by the Palestine Mandate, to Abdullah, they considered it virtually ungovernable, extremely poor and undeveloped. When Abdullah was proclaimed King of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan in 1946 he chose Amman as the capital. It was then a small town centred round the spring that had attracted people to settle there. But King Abdullah was wise and started to develop his new Kingdom. After he was assassinated in 1951 his young son, Hussein became King and ruled wisely, continuing to develop the economy of the country. He also established good diplomatic relations with other countries, not only in the Arab world, but also in Europe and America. After his death in 1999 the Kingdom has been ruled by his son Abdullah the Second, who has continued to work for the economic development of the country and the stability of Jordan in the Middle East.