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The Old Testament Kingdoms of Jordan

The Iron Age (c. 1200-332 BCE) saw the development and consolidation of three new kingdoms in Jordan: Edom in the south, Moab in central Jordan, and Ammon in the northern mountain areas. To the north in Syria, the Aramaeans made their capital in Damascus. This period saw a shift in the level of power from individual “city-states” to larger kingdoms. One possible reason for the growth of these local kingdoms was the growing importance of the trade route from Arabia, which carried gold, spices and precious metals through Amman and Damascus up to northern Syria.

Double faced female head, Middle Bronze Age. Ministry of Tourism & Antiquities

Pilgrim flask, Iron Age, Madaba. Ministry of Tourism & Antiquities
The bulk of the Biblical Old Testament took place during this period. There is little archeological evidence to fully support the Biblical account of the Israelites’ occupation of Palestine. Although archaeologists have demonstrated that certain cities supposedly taken by the Israelites were indeed destroyed during this period, it is equally feasible that they may have been sacked by invading Egyptian armies. It is probable that the “conquest” occurred more gradually than in the Biblical narrative, with the process more akin to waves of ethnic migration than a conventional military campaign.
According to the Biblical account of the Exodus from Egypt (c. 1270-1240 BCE), the Israelites requested permission to pass unharmed through the Kingdom of Edom. After having been denied permission, they skirted Edom to the east and continued north until they reached the borders of the Amorite country near Madaba. Not trusting the Israelites’ intentions, and not wishing to place the added strain of thousands of migrants upon his food and water stores, the Amorite leader Sihon refused them passage as well. This time, the Israelites fought back and defeated Sihon, occupying his territory.

According to the Bible, the Israelites then continued their northward trek into the Kingdom of Moab, where the Moabite king set up an alliance between the five tribal kings of Midian (the Hijaz of Arabia). The increasingly powerful Israelites triumphed over the Midianites as well, and some of the tribes settled in the conquered territories. The prophet Moses apparently climbed, or was carried, to the top of Mount Nebo, where, according to some sources, he died. Joshua then led the remaining tribes across the Jordan River into Palestine. A united Kingdom of Israel arose there about 1000 BCE with Saul and David as its first kings. After the death of David’s son King Solomon in 922 BCE, the kingdom divided into two, with Israel in the north and Judah in the south.

The relative ease with which the Israelites made their way north and west into Palestine says much about the situation in Egypt, which still nominally ruled the lands of Jordan and Palestine. Attacks from the “Sea Peoples” of the Mediterranean Sea had weakened the Pharaonic empire and allowed the Philistines to gain a foothold on Egyptian soil as well as in Palestine and Jordan. The primary contribution of the Philistines to local culture was the introduction of iron working to the region. Their superior skills in weapon-making gave them a military advantage and assisted in their early victories over the Israelite tribes. By around 1000 BCE, however, iron was in widespread use throughout the region.

In general, trouble for the Israelites was good news for the kingdoms of Jordan. The split into Israel and Judah in 922 BCE, combined with the invasion of the Egyptian Shishak against Israel four years later, allowed the three kingdoms a bit of breathing room and prosperity. After the death of King David around 960 BCE, Edom regained most of its former independence. The Edomites occupied southern Jordan and their capital at Buseira possessed at least one large temple or palace. They were skilled in copper mining and smelting, and had settlements near modern-day Petra and Aqaba.

The Moabites are best known from the Mesha Stele, a ninth-century BCE stone which extols the deeds of the Moabite King Mesha. He won a victory over the occupying Israelites, who were still clearly a major thorn in the side of the Moabites. The Kingdom of Moab covered the center of Jordan, and its capital cities were at Karak and Dhiban. The Kingdom of Ammon around 950 BCE displayed rising prosperity based on agriculture and trade, as well as an organized defense policy with a series of fortresses. Its capital was in the Citadel of present-day Amman.

The wealth of these kingdoms made them targets for raids or even conquest by the neighboring Israelites, the Aramaeans in Damascus, and the Assyrians with their capital at Ashur in northern Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq). From the ninth century BCE on, the Assyrians campaigned against the Aramaeans, and in the late eighth century BCE they captured Damascus as well as Samaria, the capital of the northern kingdom of Israel. The kingdoms of Ammon, Moab and Edom retained their independence, however, by buying the Assyrians off with tribute.

The Assyrian Empire came crashing down in 612 BCE, when Nineveh fell to an alliance of Medes of Persia and the Chaldean kings of Babylonia. In its place arose the Babylonian Empire and King Nebuchadnezzar, whose defeat of the Egyptians at Carchemish in 605 BCE threw much of the region into turmoil. Considerable population shifts took place under the Babylonians, exemplified by the Edomites’ migration from Jordan into the area in southern Palestine known as Idumaea. In fact, there was a decline in urban development and power swung back again to nomadic tribes. In 587 BCE, Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylon destroyed Jerusalem and deported thousands of Jews to Babylonia.

In 539 BCE, the Persians under Cyrus II ended the disruptive rule of the Babylonian Empire and paved the way for a period of more organized life and prosperity. The Persian Empire became the largest yet known in the Near East, and Cyrus’ successors conquered Egypt, northern India, Asia Minor, and frequently conflicted with the Greek states of Sparta and Athens. Internal turmoil continued in Jordan, with numerous clashes occurring between the Moabites and Ammonites.

Jordan and Palestine were placed under the control of a Persian viceroy with subordinate governors. Meanwhile, Cyrus freed the Jews from captivity in Babylonia and allowed them to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem. The Moabites and Ammonites interpreted this as a virtual declaration of sovereignty, and hence organized attacks upon the resettled Jews. They were led in this campaign by Tobiah, whom the Persians had appointed as governor. Tobiah set up a short-lived local dynasty, but ultimately the Persian leader Darius I (522-486 BCE) safeguarded the Jewish community and the temple was rebuilt.

After establishing the greatest empire yet known in the Near East, economic decline, revolts, murders and palace conspiracies weakened the Persian throne. In 332 BCE, Alexander the Great conquered the Persian capital of Persepolis (in modern Iran) and established Greek control over Jordan and surrounding countries.