Umm al-Jimal, Jordan’s ancient black basalt city

Wherever you go, you can be sure that someone else was there hundreds or thousands of years before you. There are incredible ancient places hiding all around us. Let’s go find them!

Archaeology in Jordan? What comes to most people’s minds is Petra, the assumed ancient capital of the Nabataeans, with its impressive ruins mostly dating to the 1st century BC. Carved inside the towering red sandstone cliffs and built from the same local rock, it’s also known as the ‘Rose City’. But there is plenty more to Jordan’s archaeology than that.

About one fifth of Jordan is covered by the Black Desert, Ḥarrat al-Shām, with its natural basalt pavements. Despite the searing heat, the Harrat in the Northeast of Jordan is filled with archaeological remains, and physical traces of a bustling human past, including huge prehistoric stone structures, boulders carved with petroglyphs, and ‘desert castles’ from the Umayyad period (7th – 8th centuries AD) – all made of black basalt.

Umm al-Jimal literally means ‘Mother of Camels’

Umm al-Jimal (or Umm el-Jimal) on the western edge of the desert. Built almost entirely of black basalt, the ruins of this ancient settlement extend over more than 0.5 km2. While parts of it date back to the Nabataean period, the most impressive remains are Byzantine and Umayyad.

Today, you can still walk through the city’s streets, surrounded by facades of well-preserved three-storey houses with vaulted ceilings, staircases and arched windows, more than 1200 years old. The settlement was gradually abandoned during the 9th century AD as a result of natural disasters and political shifts.

Colours of natural and built environments

Throughout history, local geology had a tremendous impact on the colours of cities and the identities of their inhabitants.

What is the dominant building material in your hometown

What’s the colour of your local rocks? Are you living in a rose city like Petra, or in a beige or greenish one? Do you experience a sense of familiarity when you are in an old town anywhere else in the world which is dominated by the same colour?

It’s fascinating to think about how people in the past would have experienced the colours of natural and built environments. Imagine Nabataeans from Petra and Umm al-Jimal visiting modern-day Glasgow – would they experience the city differently, depending on the colours of their hometowns?

Visitng Umm al-Jimal

Visit Jordan has information about visiting Umm al Jimal. If that’s just a dream, you can learn more about the ‘Mother of Camels’ from its international archaeological project.

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Raphael Kahlenberg

Written by Raphael Kahlenberg

Raphael is a geoarchaeologist who is doing a PhD at Durham University on geoarchaeological approaches to human-environment relations at Lindisfarne. He loves prehistory, protohistory, and using microarchaeology approaches to understand the past, including infrared spectroscopy, phytolith analysis and soil micromorphology.

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