By default, a visit to Jordan involves engaging with history. But history in Jordan has a habit of coming alive and being instantly relevant to the present. Stub your toe on a ruin, find a Roman coin or hear the call to prayer, and you may just be glad to have a context in which to place that experience. Find out how the major events of the past have shaped Jordan's present.

Blending of Past & Present

Climbing off his donkey, a shepherd in a terraced field near Madaba tethers the animal to a giant thistle and seeks refuge from the noon heat under a dolmen. Stretched full length under the cold stone roof of this ancient burial chamber, he almost blends into the landscape – until his mobile phone erupts in a rendition of ‘We wish you a merry Christmas’.

In Jordan, history is not something that happened ‘before’. It’s a living, breathing part of everyday life, witnessed not just in the pragmatic treatment of ancient artefacts but also in the way people live. Jordanians value their heritage and are in no hurry to eschew ways of life that have proved successful for centuries. The familiar linear approach to history, therefore, where one event succeeds another in an expectation of so-called progress, is almost irrelevant in a country where past and present merge together so seamlessly.

The very entity of Jordan is a case in point. The political state within its current borders is a modern creation, but it encompasses territory (east of the Jordan River) that has hosted the world’s oldest civilisations. Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Greeks, Nabataeans, Romans, Crusaders and Turks all traded, built cities and fought wars here, leaving behind rich cultural influences – leaning posts upon which modern Jordanians have built a proud identity.

Main Periods of History

With some creativity, the abundant historical clues scattered across Jordan can be shuffled into several distinct blocks of time. Each period of history features in the experiences of a visitor to the country, not only through a pile of fallen columns by the side of the road, but in the taking of tea with old custodians of the desert or the bargaining for a kilim with designs inherited from the Byzantine era.

In fact, just step foot in Jordan and you begin your encounter with history. Visit the dolmens near Madaba, for example, and you enter the cradle of civilisation; dating from 4000 BC, the dolmens embody the sophistication of the world’s first villages. The era of trading in copper and bronze helped bring wealth to the region (1200 BC); you can find forgings from Jordan’s ancient copper mines near Feynan Ecolodge in the Dana Biosphere Reserve. Travel the King’s Highway and you’ll not only be stepping in the path of royalty, but you’ll see how this route helped unify city-states into a recognisable Jordan between 1200 BC and 333 BC.

The Greeks, Nabataeans and Romans dominated Jordan’s most illustrious historical period (333 BC–AD 333), leaving the magnificent legacies of Petra and Jerash. The arrival of Islamic dynasties is evident from the 7th century onwards – in fact, the evidence is literally strewn over the deserts of eastern Jordan in the intriguing Umayyad structures that dot the stark landscape. The conflict between Islam and Christianity, evident at Jordan’s Crusader castles in Ajloun, Karak and Shobak, is a defining feature of the next thousand years.

British imperialism dominates Jordan’s history before the Arab Revolt of 1914. Ride a camel through Wadi Rum and cries of ‘To Aqaba’ hang in the wind – and so does the name of Lawrence, the British officer whose desert adventures have captured the imagination of visitors to such an extent that whole mountains are named after him! Jordan’s history is about independence, modernisation and cohabitation with difficult neighbours.

Life in the ‘Fertile Crescent’ (10,000–4000 BC)

Early Settlements

Stand on top of the knoll at Shkarat Msaiad, on the seldom-used road from Siq Al Barid (Little Petra) to Wadi Araba, and survey the minimal mounds of stone and you could be forgiven for wondering what all the fuss is about. Despite the isolated beauty of the place, there isn’t much to see but some stone walling. Yet this is the kind of place that archaeologists rave about because what you are looking at, they will solemnly tell you, is a ‘PPN’.

A PPN, for the uninitiated, stands for Pre-Pottery Neolithic and is significant because such sites indicate a high degree of organisation among early communities. In fact, at this sheltered spot in the hills, you are looking at the very dawn of civilisation. If nothing else, the traces of shelter, water collection and farming demonstrate the basic immutability of life.

Jordan has a remarkable number of early settlements, largely thanks to its location within the fertile crescent – the rich arc of lands that included Mesopotamia, Syria and Palestine. The fecundity of the soil in this region allowed early humans to move from a hunter-gatherer existence to settlement in the world’s earliest villages, dating between 10,000 and 8500 BC.

One such village in Jordan is Al Beidha, near Petra. It’s tempting to think of our ancient forebears as simple people living simple lives, but the inhabitants of villages such as Al Beidha built houses of stone and wood; they tamed, bred and cooked domestic animals; they planted wild seeds, grew crops, crushed grains and kept food in mud vessels hardened under the sun; and they began forming decorative items – such as the astonishing fertility sculptures from Ain Ghazal dated around 6000 BC. These early settlers even left a record of their existence through wall paintings, such as those at Teleilat Ghassul in the Jordan Valley.

Complexity of Early Society in Jordan

If you have lingering doubts about the sophistication of the ancients, ponder the fields of dolmens (constructed between 5000 and 3000 BC) that are scattered throughout the country. Come across the local shepherds and they may well ask you: ‘Why are you here? Is anything good here?’ That would be a great question to pose to the ancients who carefully aligned their last resting places along the shoulders rather than the ridges of the semi-arid hills.

As for us moderns, these highly charged sites force a reconsideration of these early people: how did they lever the monumental bridging stones into place and what power of belief prompted such laborious, collaborative effort? Many of Jordan’s archaeological treasures provoke more questions than they answer in our human quest to understand more about our origins.

From Metals to Massacres (4000–1200 BC)

Invest enough importance in an object and someone else will inevitably want one as well. There’s evidence that Jordan’s first farmers swapped desirable items among themselves well before 4000 BC, perhaps triggering the rivalry to make and trade more accurate tools and more beautiful adornments. One commodity useful for both tools and adornments was copper – of which Jordan has plenty. A visit to Khirbet Feynan in present-day Dana Nature Reserve, with its vast areas of black copper slag, illustrates the importance of copper mining for the ancient people of the region.

Within a thousand years, experimentation with metalwork led to the mixing of copper and tin to create bronze, a hardier material that allowed for the rapid development of tools and, of course, weapons.

During the Bronze Age (3200–1200 BC) the region’s settlements showed greater signs of accumulated luxury items, growing rich on indigo, sulphur and sugar (which was introduced into Europe from the Dead Sea area). It is not by chance that the greater wealth coincided with a preoccupation with security, with defensive walls built around towns such as Pella. Early invaders included the Amorites, whose arrival in the area is often associated with the violent destruction of the five Cities of the Plain (near the southern end of the Dead Sea), including the settlements of Sodom and Gomorrah.

Invasion was not confined to the boundaries of modern-day Jordan. By the late Bronze Age (1500–1200 BC), the whole of the Middle East appeared to be at war. Wealthy city-states in Syria collapsed, Egyptians retreated within their own borders from outposts in the Jordan Valley, and marauding foreigners (‘Peoples of the Sea’) reshaped the political landscape of the Eastern Mediterranean. The latter also brought the Philistines, who settled on the west bank of the Jordan River and gave the land the name of Palestine.

Unity in Adversity (1200–333 BC)

Emergence of a Recognisable ‘Jordan’

It is difficult to talk about Jordan as a single entity for most of the country’s history. That’s because, at least until the latter part of the 20th century AD, its borders expanded and retreated and its peoples came and went, largely driven by the political ambitions and expediencies of more powerful regional neighbours.

Around 1200 BC, however, something akin to a recognisable ‘Jordan’ emerged from the regional mayhem in the form of three important kingdoms: Edom in the south, with its capital in Bozrah (modern Buseira, near Dana); Moab near Wadi Mujib; and Ammon on the edge of the Arabian Desert, with a capital at Rabbath Ammon (present-day Amman). It is unlikely that any of the three kingdoms had much to do with each other until the foundation of the new neighbouring city-state of Israel.

Succumbing to Powerful Neighbours

Israel quickly became a military power to be reckoned with, dominating the area of Syria and Palestine and coming into inevitable conflict with the neighbours. Under King David the Israelites wrought a terrible revenge on Edom, massacring almost the entire male population; Moab also succumbed to Israelite control and the people of Ammon were subject to forced labour under the new Jewish masters. However, Israelite might proved short-lived and, after King Solomon’s brief but illustrious reign, the kingdom split into Israel and Judah.

By the middle of the first millennium BC – perhaps in response to Israelite aggression – Ammon, Moab and Edom became a unified entity, linked by a trade route known today as the King’s Highway. The fledgling amalgam of lands, however, was not strong enough to withstand the might of bullying neighbours, and it was soon overwhelmed by a series of new masters: the Assyrians, Babylonians and Persians. It would be centuries before Jordan achieved a similar distinct identity within its current borders.

The Middle Men of the Middle East (333 BC–AD 324)

War and invasion were not the utter disaster that they might have been for the people of the region. Located at the centre of the land bridge between Africa and Asia, the cities surrounding the King’s Highway were particularly well placed to service the needs of passing foreign armies. They also profited from the caravan routes that crossed the deserts from Arabia to the Euphrates, bringing shipments of African gold and South Arabian frankincense via the Red Sea ports in present-day Aqaba and Eilat. The Greeks, the Nabataeans and the Romans each capitalised on this passing bounty, leaving a legacy of imported culture and learning in return.

The Greeks

By the 4th century BC the growing wealth of Arab lands attracted the attention of a young military genius from the West known as Alexander of Macedon. Better known today as Alexander the Great, the precocious 21-year-old stormed through the region in 334 BC, winning territories from Turkey to Palestine.

At his death in 323 BC in Babylon, Alexander ruled a vast empire from the Nile to the Indus, with similarly vast dimensions of commerce. Over the coming centuries, Greek was the lingua franca of Jordan (at least of the written word), giving access to the great intellectual treasures of the classical era. The cities of Philadelphia (Amman), Gadara, Pella and Jerash blossomed under Hellenistic rule, and prospered through growing trade, particularly with Egypt, which fell under the same Greek governance.

The Nabataeans

Trade was the key to Jordan’s most vibrant period of history, thanks to the growing importance of a nomadic Arab tribe from the south, known as the Nabataeans. The Nabataeans produced only copper and bitumen (for waterproofing boat hulls) but they knew how to trade in the commodities of neighbouring nations. Consummate middlemen, they used their exclusive knowledge of desert strongholds and water supplies to amass wealth from the caravan trade, first by plundering and then by levying tolls on the merchandise that traversed the areas under their control.

The most lucrative trade involved the transportation, by camel, of frankincense and myrrh along the Incense Route from southern Arabia to outposts further north. The Nabataeans were also sole handlers of spices shipped to Arabia by boat from Somalia, Ethiopia and India. Suburbs at the four corners of their capital, Petra, received the caravans and handled the logistics, processing products and offering banking services and fresh animals before moving the goods west across the Sinai to the ports of Gaza and Alexandria for shipment to Greece and Rome.

The Nabataeans never possessed an ‘empire’ in the common military and administrative senses of the word; instead, from about 200 BC, they established a ‘zone of influence’ that stretched from Syria to Rome. As the Nabataean territory expanded under King Aretas III (84–62 BC), they controlled and taxed trade throughout the Hejaz (northern Arabia), the Negev, the Sinai, and the Hauran of southern Syria. Nabataean communities were influential as far away as Rome, and Nabataean tombs still stand at the impressive site of Madain Saleh in Saudi Arabia.

The Romans

You only have to visit Jerash for five minutes, trip over a fallen column and notice the legions of other columns nearby, to gain an immediate understanding of the importance of the Romans in Jordan – and the importance of Jordan to the Romans. This magnificent set of ruins is grand on a scale that is seldom seen in modern building enterprises and indicates the amount of wealth the Romans invested in this outpost of their empire. Jerash was clearly worth its salt and, indeed, it was the lucrative trade associated with the Nabataeans that attracted the Romans in the first place. It’s perhaps a fitting legacy of their rule that the Jordanian currency, the dinar, derives its name from the Latin denarius (ancient Roman silver coin).

The Romans brought many benefits to the region, constructing two new roads through Jordan – the Via Traiana Nova (AD 111–114) linking Bosra with the Red Sea, and the Strata Diocletiana (AD 284–305) linking Azraq with Damascus and the Euphrates. A string of forts in the Eastern Desert at Qasr Al Hallabat, Azraq and Umm Al Jimal was also built to shore up the eastern rim of the empire.

The 2nd and 3rd centuries were marked by a feverish expansion of trade as the Via Traiana became the main thoroughfare for Arabian caravans, armies and supplies. The wealth benefited the cities of Jerash, Umm Qais and Pella, members of the Decapolis, a league of provincial cities that accepted Roman cultural influence but retained their independence.

With the eventual demise of the Roman Empire and the fracturing of trade routes over the subsequent centuries, Jordan’s entrepreneurial leadership of the region never quite regained the same status.

Spirit of the Age (AD 324–1516)

For 1500 years after the birth of Jesus, the history of Jordan was characterised by the expression of organised faith in one form or another. Under the influence of Rome, Christianity replaced the local gods of the Nabataeans, and several hundred years later Islam took its place – but not before a struggle that left a long-term legacy and a string of Crusader forts.

Conversion to Christianity

Think of the history of the Christian religion and most people understandably focus on the ‘Holy Land’ to the west of the Jordan River. And yet, if recent evidence is to be believed, the Christian church may never have evolved (at least not in the way we know it today) if it hadn’t been for the shelter afforded to the early proponents of the faith on the east bank of the Jordan.

In 2008, 40km northeast of Amman, archaeologists uncovered what they believe to be the first church in the world. Dating from AD 33 to AD 70, the church, which was buried under St Georgeous Church in Rihab, appears to have sheltered the 70 disciples of Jesus Christ. Described in the mosaic inscriptions on the floor of the old church as the ‘70 beloved by God and Divine’, these first Christians fled persecution in Jerusalem and lived in secrecy, practising their rituals in the underground church. Pottery dating from the 3rd to the 7th century shows that these disciples and their families lived in the area until late Roman rule.

The conversion by Emperor Constantine to Christianity in AD 324 eventually legitimised the practice of Christianity across the region. East of the Jordan River, churches were constructed (often from the building blocks of former Greek and Roman temples) and embellished with the elaborate mosaics that are still visible today at Madaba, Umm Ar Rasas and Petra. Christian pilgrims began to search for relics of the Holy Land, building churches en route at biblical sites, such as Bethany, Mt Nebo and Lot’s Cave. It was the archaeological rediscovery of these churches 1400 years later that confirmed the lost location of these biblical sites to a forgetful modern world.

The Rise of Islam

Reminders of Christianity are scattered across Jordan today, for instance in the observance of the faith in towns such as Madaba. But listen to the bells peal on a weekend and moments later they will be replaced by the muezzin’s call to prayer from the neighbouring mosque. Islam is present not just in Jordan’s mosques but in the law, in social etiquette and at the very heart of the way people live their lives – in Bedouin camps as well as in modern city centres. So how did Islam reach here and how did it replace Christianity as the dominant religion?

From 622 (10 years before the death of the Prophet Muhammad) the armies of Islam travelled northwards, quickly and easily spreading the message of submission (Islam) well beyond the Arabian Peninsula. Although they lost their first battle against the Christian Byzantines at Mu’tah (near Karak) in 629, they returned seven years later to win the Battle of Yarmouk. Jerusalem fell in 638 and Syria was taken in 640. Islam, under the Sunni dynasty of the Umayyads, became the dominant religion of the region, headquartered in the city of Damascus, and Arabic replaced Greek as the main language. Within 100 years Muslim armies controlled a vast empire that spread from Spain to India.

The Umayyads’ rich architectural legacy included the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus and the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. In eastern Jordan, the Umayyads’ close attachment to the desert led to the construction of a string of opulent ‘desert castles’, including the brooding Qasr Kharana (built in 710) and Qusayr Amra (711).

Despite the blossoming of Islamic scholarship in medicine, biology, philosophy, architecture and agriculture over the next three centuries, the area wedged between Jerusalem and Baghdad remained isolated from the sophisticated Arab mainstream. This is one reason why Jordan possesses relatively few demonstrations of Islamic cultural exuberance.

The Crusades & Holy War

The armies of Islam and Christianity have clashed many times throughout history and the consequences (and language of religious conflict) resonate to this day both within the Middle East and across the world at large.

The Crusades of the 12th and 13th centuries are among the most famous of the early conflicts between Muslims and Christians. By surveying the mighty walls of the great Crusader castles at Karak and Shobak, it’s easy to see that both sides meant business: these were holy wars (albeit attracting mercenary elements) in which people willingly sacrificed their comfort and even lives for their faith in the hope of gaining glory in the hereafter – ironically, according to Islam at least, a hereafter shared by Muslims and the ‘People of the Book’ (Jews, Christians and so-called Sabians).

Built by King Baldwin I in the 12th century, the castles were part of a string of fortifications designed to control the roads from Damascus to Cairo. They seemed inviolable, and they may have remained so but for Nureddin and Saladin, who between them occupied most of the Crusader strongholds in the region, including those of Oultrejordain (meaning ‘across the Jordan’). The Damascus-based Ayyubids, members of Saladin’s family, squabbled over his empire on his death in 1193, enabling the Crusaders to recapture much of their former territory along the coast.

The Ayyubids were replaced by the Mamluks, who seized control of the area east of the Jordan River and rebuilt the castles at Karak, Shobak and Ajloun. They used these strongholds as lookouts and as a series of staging posts for message-carrying pigeons. Indeed, thanks to the superior communications that this unique strategy afforded, you could argue that the Crusaders were defeated not by the military might of Islam but on the wings of their peace-loving doves.

Western Love Affair with the Middle East (1516–1914)

The Ottoman Turks took Constantinople in 1453 and created one of the world’s largest empires. They defeated the Mamluks in present-day Jordan in 1516, but concentrated their efforts on the lucrative cities of the region, such as the holy city of Jerusalem and the commercial centre of Damascus. The area east of the Jordan River once again became a forgotten backwater. Forgotten, that is, by the Ottoman Empire, but not entirely ignored by Western interests. Indeed, the period of gradually weakening Ottoman occupation over the next few centuries also marked an increasingly intense scrutiny by the Europeans – the British and the French in particular.

In the preface to Les Orientales (1829), Victor Hugo wrote that the whole of the European continent appeared to be ‘leaning towards the East’. This was not a new phenomenon. Trade between the West and the East was long established and stories of the ‘barbaric pearl and gold’ of Arabia soon aroused the interests of a wider public. By the late 18th century Europeans were making pleasure trips to the Syrian desert, adopting articles of Albanian and Turkish dress, carrying pocket editions of Persian tales and penning their own travelogues.

Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt’s monumental rediscovery of Petra in 1812 led to a further explosion of interest in the region. Societies were founded for the purpose of promoting Middle East exploration, and scholars began translating Persian, Arabic and Sanskrit texts. Many aspects of the Orient were explored in Western fiction, much of which attracted a wide and enthusiastic readership. Indeed, by the end of the 19th century the fascination with the Arabian East was, to use Edward Said’s phrase, no ‘airy European fantasy’ but a highly complex relationship defined by scientists, scholars, travellers and fiction writers.

This is the cultural backdrop upon which the political manoeuvrings of the 20th century were played out.

Fighting for an Arab Land (1914–46)

Writing of the Arab Revolt that passed through the heart of Jordan in the early 20th century, TE Lawrence described the phenomenon as ‘an Arab war waged and led by Arabs for an Arab aim in Arabia’. This is a significant statement as it identifies a growing sense of political identity among Arab people throughout the last half of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century. This pan-Arab consciousness grew almost in proportion (or at least coincidentally) to the territorial interest of Western powers in Arab lands. Slowly, in place of loose tribal interests, Arabs came to define themselves as a single, unified entity – an Islamic ‘other’ perhaps to the Christian European threat pulsing around the Suez.

Arabs were prepared to fight for this new Arab nationalism, as Lawrence describes in the Seven Pillars of Wisdom, his account of the Arab Revolt and the way in which it was inspired by idealism. History shows, however, that it was to take more than just ‘spur and rein’ to create viable Arab states; indeed complex diplomacy, both within Arab countries and in their relationship with the West, characterised the pursuit of nationalism throughout the 20th century.

The Arab Revolt

Ironically, the new Arab nationalist movement cut its teeth not on a Western Christian enemy but on the Ottomans, the apathetic Muslim rulers who dominated most of the Middle East, including the area on either side of the Jordan River. The revolt was fought by Arab warriors on horseback, loosely formed into armies under Emir Faisal, the ruler of Mecca and guardian of the Muslim holy places, who had taken up the reins of the Arab nationalist movement in 1914. He was joined by his brother Abdullah and the enigmatic British colonel TE Lawrence, known as Lawrence of Arabia. Lawrence helped with coordination and securing supplies from the Allies, as well as attacking the Turkish-controlled Hejaz Railway, in a campaign that swept across the desert from Arabia, wrested Aqaba from the Ottomans and eventually ousted them from Damascus. By 1918 the Arabs controlled modern Saudi Arabia, Jordan and parts of southern Syria. Faisal set up government in Damascus and dreamed of an independent Arab realm.

Glad of the help in weakening the Ottoman Empire (allies of Germany during WWI), the British promised to help Faisal. The promise was severely undermined, however, by the 1917 Balfour Declaration which gave stated and practical support to the establishment of a 'National Home for the Jewish people' in Palestine. This contradictory acceptance of both a Jewish homeland in Palestine and the preservation of the rights of the original Palestinian community lies at the heart of the seemingly irreconcilable Arab–Israeli conflict.

The Creation of Jordan

The Arab Revolt may not have immediately achieved its goal during peace negotiations, but it did lead directly (albeit after more than two decades of wrangling with the British) to the birth of the modern state of Jordan.

At the 1919 Paris Peace Conference the British came to an agreement with Faisal, who was given jurisdiction over Iraq, while his elder brother Abdullah was proclaimed ruler of Trans-Jordan, the land lying between Iraq and the east bank. A young Winston Churchill drew up the borders in 1921, and Abdullah made Amman his capital. Britain recognised the territory as an independent state under its protection in 1923, and a small defence force, the Arab Legion, was set up under British officers. A series of treaties after 1928 led to full independence in 1946, when Abdullah was proclaimed king.

Troubles with Palestine (1946–94)

If there is one element that defines the modern history of Jordan, it’s the relationship with the peoples on the other side of the Jordan River – not just the Jews but also (and perhaps more especially) the Palestinians, who today make up the majority of the population of Jordan.

Much of the conflict stems from the creation of a Jewish national homeland in Palestine, where Arab Muslims accounted for about 90% of the population. Their resentment was understood by Arabs across the region and informed the dialogue of Arab–Israeli relations for the rest of the 20th century.

New Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan

In 1948 resentment escalated into conflict between Arab and Israeli forces, with the result that Jordan won control of East Jerusalem and the West Bank. King Abdullah, reneging on assurances regarding Palestinian independence, annexed the territory and proclaimed the new Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan (HKJ). The new state won immediate recognition from Britain and the US, but regional powers disapproved of the annexation, added to which the unprecedented immigration of Palestinian refugees placed a strain on limited domestic resources.

In July 1951 King Abdullah was assassinated outside Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. The throne eventually passed to his beloved 17-year-old grandson, Hussein, in May 1953. Hussein offered a form of citizenship to all Palestinian Arab refugees in 1960, but refused to relinquish Palestinian territory. Partly in response, the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) was formed in 1964.

The Six Day War

After a period of relative peace and prosperity, conflict between Arab and Israeli forces broke out again in the 1960s, culminating in the Six Day War, provoked by Palestinian guerrilla raids into Israel from Syria. When the Syrians announced that Israel was amassing troops in preparation for an assault, Egypt responded by asking the UN to withdraw its Emergency Force from the Egypt–Israel border. Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser then closed the Straits of Tiran (the entrance to the Red Sea), effectively sealing off the port of Eilat. Five days later Jordan and Egypt signed a mutual defence pact, dragging Jordan into the oncoming hostilities.

On 5 June 1967 the Israelis dispatched a predawn raid that wiped out the Egyptian Air Force on the ground. In the following days they decimated Egyptian troops in Sinai and Jordanian troops on the West Bank, and overran the Golan Heights in Syria.

The outcome for Jordan was disastrous: it lost the whole of the West Bank and its part of Jerusalem, which together had supplied Jordan with its two principal sources of income – agriculture and tourism. It also resulted in yet another huge wave of Palestinian refugees.

Black September

After the 1967 defeat, the frustrated Palestinians within Jordan became increasingly militant, and by 1968 Palestinian fedayeen (guerrilla) fighters were effectively acting as a state within a state, openly defying Jordanian soldiers.

In 1970 Palestinian militants fired on King Hussein’s motorcade and held 68 foreigners hostage in an Amman hotel, while the rogue Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine hijacked and destroyed three Western planes in front of horrified TV crews. Martial law and bloody fighting (which claimed 3000 lives) followed. Yasser Arafat was spirited out of Amman disguised as a Kuwaiti sheikh to attend an Arab League summit in Cairo. A fragile ceasefire was signed, but it was not until midway through 1971 that the final resistance (around Ajloun) was defeated. The guerrillas were forced to recognise Hussein’s authority and the Palestinians had to choose between exile and submission. Most chose exile in Lebanon.

Relinquishing Claims to Palestinian Leadership

In 1974 King Hussein reluctantly relinquished Jordan’s claims to the West Bank by recognising the PLO as the sole representative of Palestinians with the right to set up a government in any liberated territory. By 1988 the King had severed all Jordan’s administrative and legal ties with the West Bank.

In the meantime profound demographic changes, including a sharp rise in population, particularly of young people, had reshaped Jordan. Economic migration, both from the countryside to the city and from Jordan to the increasingly wealthy Gulf States, together with improved education, changed social and family structures. Most significantly, Palestinians no longer formed an edgy minority of refugees but instead took their place as the majority of Jordan’s population.

The complete integration of Palestinian refugees into all aspects of mainstream Jordanian life is due in no small part to the skilful diplomacy of King Hussein. The numerous assassination attempts (there were at least 12) that dogged the early years of his reign were replaced with a growing respect for his genuine, deep-rooted concern for the Palestinians’ plight – which is significant in a region where few other countries were willing to shoulder the burden.

Peace with Israel

On 26 October 1994, Jordan and Israel signed a momentous peace treaty that provided for the removal of all economic barriers between the two countries and closer cooperation on security, water and other issues.

But there is a twist to the final chapter of relations between Jordan and Palestine in the 20th century. There was a clause in the treaty recognising the ‘special role of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan in the Muslim holy shrines in Jerusalem’. This inclusion aroused the suspicions of some Palestinians regarding the intentions of King Hussein, who at the outset of his long career had enjoyed more than just a ‘special role’ on the west bank of the Jordan. The treaty made Jordan unpopular within the region at the time, but in the longer term barely cast a shadow over the illustrious reign of one of the Middle East’s most beloved rulers.

Relations with Israel & the Palestinian Territories Today

It has been a long time since the historic 1994 peace treaty and the long-term effect of peace with Israel is still being assessed. While the treaty was branded by some Palestinians as a betrayal, the world at large regarded it as a highly significant step towards vital East–West ties. Flare-ups between the two nations continue to occur, not just over the fate of the Palestinian people but also over issues such as water supply, which many predict will replace oil as the issue of conflict of the next few decades, and more recently over the custodianship of and access to Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem.

The Iraqi Dilemma (1990–2017)

Arab Federation

For the past two decades Jordan has been preoccupied with its neighbours to the East rather than the West – a shift in focus necessitated firstly by the Gulf War and subsequently by the US-led invasion of Iraq.

Given that the founding fathers of the modern states of Iraq and Jordan were brothers, it is not surprising that the two countries have enjoyed periods of close collaboration over the years. In 1958 King Hussein tried to capitalise on this dynastic dimension by establishing the Arab Federation, a short-lived alliance between Jordan and Iraq that was intended to counterbalance the formation of the United Arab Republic between Egypt and Syria. Although the alliance did not last long, the connection between the neighbours remained strong, especially in terms of trade.

The Gulf War

When Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990, Jordan found itself in a no-win situation. On the one hand, the Palestinian majority in Jordan backed Saddam’s invasion, having been given assurances by Saddam that the showdown would result in a solution to the Palestinian question on the West Bank. On the other hand, King Hussein recognised that siding with Iraq would antagonise Western allies and risk Jordan’s US trade and aid. As a solution, he sided publicly with Baghdad while complying, officially at least, with the UN embargo on trade with Iraq. As a result, although US and Saudi aid were temporarily suspended, loans and help were forthcoming from other quarters, particularly Japan and Europe.

Despite these new streams of income, the Gulf War exacted a heavy financial penalty on the small and relatively poor, oil-less state of Jordan. Ironically, however, Jordan’s third wave of refugees in 45 years brought some relief as 500,000 Jordanians and Palestinians returned from the Gulf States. They brought with them a US$500 million windfall that stimulated the economy throughout the 1990s and helped turn Amman, in particular, into a cosmopolitan, modern city.

Growing Tensions with Iraq

Ongoing resentment about the outcome of the Iraqi refugee crisis is one reason for a cooling of relations between Jordan and Iraq; another reason is concern over the weakened state of Iraq, resulting in a general vulnerability of the region to radical terrorism – the reason behind Jordan's reintroduction of capital punishment in 2014. Anxiety over Iraq’s porous borders and incursions from Isis militants continues, and many in Jordan also fear that a weak Iraq leaves Jordan vulnerable to increased Iranian and Shiite influence.

The heightened tensions between Jordan and Iraq was further exacerbated in 2014 when more than 150 Sunni leaders from various groups opposed to the official government in Iraq met for a two-day meeting in Jordan’s capital, pledging to depose Nouri Al Maliki, the Iraqi prime minister. Although nothing came of it, and the Jordanian government denied involvement in promoting the opposition alliance, the Iraqi government retaliated by threatening to revisit agreements regarding fuel prices. Thankfully for Jordan this did not happen, but the country has been hit by the instability over the last few years occasioned by Isis control of much of Iraqi Anbar province, which lies just across the Iraqi border from Jordan. This resulted in a substantial drop in export revenue arising from Jordanian Free Zones as Isis forces levied high taxes on all Jordanian trucks passing through Anbar province. It remains to be seen what effect on Jordanian–Iraqi trade the apparent demise of Isis in Mosul in 2017 will bring.