The ruins of Amman before the settlement of the Circassians
Amman as we know it today belongs to a contemporary history that has evolved rapidly over the past 130 years. It is an unfolding story whose chapters speak of human settlement, displacement, migration, peace and new beginnings. A crucible of tales that span the length of more than a century.
The contemporary story of Amman is preceded by centuries of near abandonment. European explorers and travelers like the Anglo-Swiss Johann Ludwig Burckhardt, James Silk Buckingham and Henry Baker Tristam, who recorded their travels prior to the 1870s speak of abandoned ruins, a stream of water and only transient inhabitance for grazing of animals, sporadic agriculture and access to water.
To get a glimpse of how Amman was like in the early 19th century, we can accompany Johann Ludwig Burckhardt as he described the site in 1812 in his book “Travels in Syria and the Holy Land”:
The Seil Amman.
The Roman Theater
“We entered a broad valley, which brought us in half an hour to the ruins of Amman, which lies about nineteen English miles to Salt. The town lies along the banks of a river called Moiet Amman, which has its source in a pond, at a few hundred paces from the south-western end of the town; the river of Amman runs in a valley bordered on both sides by barren hills of flint, which advance on the south side close to the edge of the stream.”
“The edifices which still remain to attest the former splendour of Amman are the following: a spacious church, built with large stones, and having a steeple of the shape of those which I saw in several ruined towns in the Houran. A high arched bridge over the river; this appears to have been the only bridge in the town, although the river is not fordable in the winter. The banks of the river, as well as its bed, are paved, but the pavement has been in most places carried away by the violence of the winter torrent. The stream is full of small fish. On the south side of the river is a fine theatre, the largest that I have seen in Syria. On both wings of the theatre are vaults. In front was a colonnade, of which eight Corinthian columns yet remain.”
“Nearly opposite the theatre, to the northward of the river, are the remains of a temple, the posterior wall of which only remains, having an entablature, and several niches highly adorned with sculpture. Before this building stand the shafts of several columns three feet in diameter. Its date appears to be anterior to that of all the other buildings of Amman, and its style of architecture is much superior. At some distance farther down the Wady, stand a few small columns, probably the remains of a temple. The plain between the river and the northern hills is covered with ruins of private buildings, extending from the church down to the columns; but nothing of them remains, except the foundations and some of the door posts.”
“On the top of the highest of the northern hills stands the castle of Amman, a very extensive building; it was an oblong square, filled with buildings. The castle walls are thick, and denote a remote antiquity: large blocks of stone are piled up without cement, and still hold together as well as if they had been recently placed. Within the castle are several deep cisterns and a square building, in complete preservation, constructed in the same manner as the castle wall; it is without ornaments, and the only opening into it is a low door, over which was an inscription now defaced. Near this building are the traces of a large temple; several of its broken columns are lying on the ground; they are the largest I saw at Amman, some of them being three feet and a half in diameter; their capitals are of the Corinthian order.”
“The ruins of Amman being, with the exception of a few walls of flint, of calcareous stone of moderate hardness, have not resisted the ravages of time so well as those of Jerash. The buildings exposed to the atmosphere are all in decay, so that there is little hope of finding anyinscriptions here, which might illustrate the history of the place.”
In the late 19th century, the town of Salt was the center of the Balqa’ administrative region of which Amman was part of. While Salt was already a thriving town, Amman was merely the grazing ground for the indigenous Arab tribes amongst which Bani Sakhr and Al-Adwan were prominent.
A Circassian resident, before 1914. Circassian farmers using the Circassian carriage, before 1914.
The birth of today’s Amman came at the time of the decline of Ottoman Empire, which ruled over the region in the late 19th Century, when, in 1878, a few hundred Circassians, where settled amidst the city’s hills, following the Russian-Circassian war in the Caucasus that ultimately resulted in the mass-expulsion of the inhabitants of Circassia’s Adyghe people.
They were farmers and craftspeople, part of a proud people that have suffered one of the worst tragedies of the 19th century. Displaced from their lands, they made Amman their new home. Their initial accommodation in Amman was said to be some of the caves, until they built their first humble homes.
After some initial skirmishes with the local Arab tribes, the Circassians managed to eventually coexist with them. The first Circassians of Amman survived by cultivating some of the lands and raising animals in their new, small village. This was the birth moment of our Amman, which, after becoming a place for a new beginning for its first immigrants, was destined to repeat that role over the next century. It is telling that one of the early neighborhoods formed in downtown Amman was called “Al Muhajireen” (Arabic: The Emigrants).
The story of people making a new life for themselves after forced or voluntary emigration is not only the beginning of Amman’s story, but also one of the primary elements of its enduring human spirit.