“Far out in the desert there is a deserted city all of basalt, rising black and forbidding from the grey of the plain.” – H.C. Butler, American Archeologist, 1913
If I hadn’t seen Umm al-Jimal with my own eyes I don’t think I would have believed such a place ever existed. An entire city built from black volcanic basalt rock, stretching far across the flat plain; its ruins crumbling gracefully over the centuries following a disastrous earthquake in 749AD. It’s a haunting place to explore, full of the ghosts of Roman, Byzantine and Abbasid history.
Umm al-Jimal, or Mother of Camels, flourished between the 1st and 8th Centuries before a prolonged decline. The ancient town sprung back to life early in the 20th Century. Syrian Druze refugees (it’s only a short distance to the Syrian border) fleeing persecution repopulated the city and rebuilt some of its buildings. They were followed by Bedouin who lived amongst the ancient buildings in tents.
When the government decided to protect and preserve Umm al-Jimal the Bedouin founded a new town next to it. Inside the ancient city it’s easy to forget there is a parallel modern world nearby. It reminded me of the Inca cities of the Sacred Valley in Peru.
I was reaching the end of my Jordanian journey, and yet again I was dumbstruck by the extraordinary historic and cultural legacy that exists in this wondrous country. I arrived at Umm al-Jimal after driving past thousands of tents housing refugees from the Syrian conflict – history seemingly repeating itself – the flat brown landscape gave no hint of what awaited.
I parked in a small car park outside the entrance and looked around for someone to buy a ticket from. I was greeted instead by two young puppies who seemed genuinely delighted to see me until they realised I didn’t have food. I walked over to the entrance to the ancient city, the gate was open but still no one to sell me a ticket or point me in the right direction.
I headed first to a large tower that stood a hundred metres away and which forms part of the old barracks. I walked alongside the main defensive wall and then cut inside a web of buildings which were previously the main residential area. All this I learned after my visit, because although there are a couple of buildings with descriptive signs, virtually the whole site is unmarked.
Some buildings though are easy to distinguish from others. The glorious West Church, standing next to one of the main gates named after Roman Emperor Commodus, could only ever have been a church. The West Church was one of several Byzantine churches in the city, including a cathedral.
Dotted around the site are soaring stone arches, two and three story buildings (the Byzantine’s knew how to build), doorways with carved lintels leading into courtyards surrounded by more buildings. Greek inscriptions cover some stones, crosses can be seen in churches and on the doorways of houses, more recent Arabic carved into stones by the Druze.
It is a glorious, magical place. I spent half a day and still only managed to explore a portion of the ancient city. Throughout I saw only two school children walking across the site, using it as a shortcut. There is a building near the entrance which seems to house some offices of the Department of Antiquities. I nosed around but couldn’t unearth anyone.
Back at the car the two puppies came bounding over to me forgetting that I didn’t have food. A truck went past loaded with people clinging to the top and sides. Spotting me everyone waved and shouted ‘hello’. With that I clambered back into the car and drove west, hoping to reach Jerash before nightfall.