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Villes, pratiques urbaines et construction nationale en Jordanie

Myriam Ababsa
Rami Farouk Daher

Première partie. Villes et construction nationale / First Part. Cities ant Nation Building

The Creation of Jordanian National Identity. A Short Museographic Story of a Complex Process

La création de l’identité nationale jordanienne. Petite histoire muséographique d’un processus complexe

Irene Maffi


L’article analyse la façon dont les politiques culturelles de muséographie ont participé à la création d’un sentiment d’allégeance à la monarchie hachémite et à l’État jordanien. Les pratiques liées au patrimoine culturel ont profondément affecté ce qu’Irene Maffi nomme « les politiques de la mémoire  » et ont contribué à la production d’une nouvelle identité qui devait devenir l’identité nationale jordanienne (Maffi 2004). L’auteur rappelle que ce processus de construction identitaire a évolué tout au long du xxe siècle du fait des guerres israélo-arabes qui ont entraîné les vagues de réfugiés palestiniens et le changement des frontières nationales. Elle montre que la quarantaine de musées créés en Jordanie depuis 1951 tendent à faire coïncider l’histoire nationale avec la narration dynastique hachémite, l’histoire de la Jordanie devenant ainsi l’histoire hachémite. En conséquence, les récits locaux des tribus et des familles citadines ne sont présents qu’intégrés dans la version officielle du passé qui est avant tout hachémite. Aussi est-il particulièrement intéressant d’étudier l’apparition de musées privés et leurs relations dialogiques avec l’État comme autant d’outils d’expression démocratique (Maffi 2006, Daher 2007). La muséographie jordanienne est ainsi pleinement le miroir de l’évolution sociopolitique de la sociétés locale et exprime les ambiguïtés de la construction nationale jordanienne.

Texte intégral

1This article focuses on the cultural policies of the Jordanian State in the domain of museography from its inception until the year 2000. Briefly analyzing the main phases of the Kingdom’s history, I will try to show the importance of these policies and examine the way they affected the political unification of the national community and the creation of a sentiment of allegiance to the Hashemite monarchy and to the Jordanian State. I will demonstrate that practices related to cultural heritage have profoundly affected what I have called ‘the politics of memory’ and contributed to the production of a new identity which was to become the Jordanian national identity (Maffi 2004). This was a very long process characterized by several conflicts, which deeply affected the creation of a common national identity and were sometimes at the origin of important changes in its nature (Massad 2001). During the 20th century the definition of the Jordanian national identity changed more than once, mainly in relation to regional political and military events. Indeed, the Arab-Israeli wars, the displacement of thousands of Palestinians and the shift of geopolitical borders pushed the Jordanian authorities to transform their version of the national identity in order to cope with the demographically and politically unstable context.

1. The Hashemites, Transjordan and the Palestinian people

2When the British created the Emirate of Transjordan in 1921, its territory and the local administration were under the jurisdiction of the government of Palestine, since technically they were part of the same Mandate (Wilson 1987). There were no real borders between the two entities and the Palestinian pound was used on both Banks of the Jordan River. The British resident in charge of controlling the political decisions of Emir Abdullah and his ministers was an officer under the authority of the High Commissioner for Palestine.

  • 1 With the exception, of course, of the Jewish population which was to settle only in the territory o (...)
  • 2 During the Ottoman era the populations of British Palestine and of the Emirate of Transjordan had c (...)

3People, animals, possessions and commodities circulated very easily between the territories of the two colonies1. Hence the separation existing between Palestine and Transjordan was not comparable to that between two modern and independent states, or even between other colonies of the region, such as Lebanon and Palestine. The absence of real borders allowed the local population to maintain, at least to a certain extent, the traditional commercial, familial and tribal relationships across the Jordan2 and contributed to the preservation of the sense of a common identity among those who were to become the Palestinians and the Transjordanians after the creation of Palestine and the Emirate of Transjordan. Furthermore, the indigenous population of Transjordan had no significant urban tradition and consequently had not constituted an important cultural and political centre in the region during the Ottoman period (Rogan and Tell 1994). The local intelligentsia played a minor role in the cultural life of the Arab provinces of the Empire and barely took part in the emergence of the Arab national movement, unlike the case in Palestine, Lebanon and Syria during the last decades of the Ottoman rule and the beginning of the colonial period.

4All these factors determined a political and cultural ambiguity, which was to become a constant feature of Jordanian identity, at least until the end of the 1980s when King Hussein declared the administrative and juridical separation between Jordan and the West Bank. Furthermore, after Independence (1946), this uncertainty concerning identity was reinforced by the policy of the Hashemite monarchs, which aimed at integrating the territory of Palestine into the Kingdom of Jordan (Shlaim 1988). Indeed, the annexation of the West Bank in 1950 and the assassination of King Abdullah a year later, were the result of the plans that the Jordanian monarch had tried to implement in order to enlarge the territory of the Emirate. The ambitions of the Jordanian monarch were clearly expressed in the school books of the 1950s where the entire territory of British Palestine was described as Jordanian and the maps of the Kingdom included not only the West Bank, but also the cities and villages that had been included into the State of Israel (Katz unpublished paper). At the same time, Jerusalem had a major political and religious function for the Hashemites as they exploited the city’s sacred status to legitimize their power, evoking their traditional role as protectors of Islamic holy sites. This explains why important campaigns of restoration and conservation of the Haram al-sharif were undertaken by the Jordanian State and particularly by the Hashemite kings who, using their personal wealth, funded some major works necessary for the preservation of Islamic holy sites (Katz 2005).

5Another factor of ambiguity that hindered the formation of a strong Jordanian national community, as Benedict Anderson would put it, were the Arab-Israeli wars that followed the foundation of the Israeli State. During these conflicts, a sizeable share of the Palestinian population settled on the East Bank of the Jordan, whilst Jordanian citizens were massively mobilized in order to defend the Arab territories against the Israeli enemy. Those two events were at the origin of a deep emotional involvement of Jordanian citizens in the destiny of the Palestinians, who were considered as brothers since they were members of the Arab nation and had long established ties with the land east of the Jordan. The involvement of the Jordanian population was also motivated by the military, economic and political engagement of the country in the wars against Israel.

6To sum up, the colonial period and the first decades after Independence constitute a phase of Jordanian history during which national identity was extremely difficult to demarcate since it faced many obstacles and ambiguities.

2. The creation of Jordanian identity

  • 3 During this period the Palestinians and the Transjordanians were designated in the official discour (...)

7Nevertheless, the ambivalence of the relations between the Transjordanian people and their Palestinian ‘brothers’3 was at the same time an opportunity for the Hashemites to create a new Jordanian identity, or a pan-Jordanian identity, which was different from the Transjordanian identity as well as from the Palestinian identity (Abu Odeh 1999). The 1950s and the 1960s were a seminal period that allowed the Hashemite dynasty to formulate a new identity for a newly founded country. In order to realize this enterprise, they used the repertoire of myths and stereotypes inherited by the colonizers, to which they added freshly created elements (Massad 2001). The miscellanea produced by this creative operation had the hybrid nature, which is common to all forms of national identity but which is particularly evident in postcolonial States. This is why many authors have tended to consider Jordanian identity as being more artificial than the identities of other countries of the region. Yet, if we consider the origin of the national identities in any country of the modern world, we will be forced to admit the fabricated nature of all of them, as many historians and anthropologists have demonstrated. Even ancient European States with a very long bureaucratic tradition developed a national identity only during the 19th century under the influence of intellectual movements or official policies (Anderson 1991). Furthermore, Italy, Germany and Switzerland were formed more recently than some colonies of North Africa and at the end of the 19th century their national identities were far from being perceived as authentic by their inhabitants.

8The Hashemite project to create a Jordanian national identity had to struggle against two main obstacles: the formation of a strong Palestinian national identity that had already begun during the colonial period, and at the same time the emergence of a Transjordanian nationalist movement (Khalidi 1997; Anderson 2005). The latter originated during the 1920s to oppose the policy of the Hashemites aiming at integrating into the government individuals who did not come from the indigenous population. These two movements elaborated their own conception of national identity and peculiar historical narratives that were rather different from the Hashemite version of Jordanian history. Finally, Israel contributed strongly to animate the debate, since at the end of the 1970s the Israeli right-wing parties started to use the slogan “Jordan is Palestine” in order to justify their policy towards the Palestinian people inside historical Palestine. In this way, they intended to promote the idea that the Palestinians did not have any rights over historical Palestine because they already had their homeland that was to be identified with the Jordanian Kingdom. Israeli propaganda exacerbated existing domestic conflict, which opposed the Jordanian citizens of Palestinian origin and the Transjordanians. This conflict began at the end of the 1960s and culminated in the events of Black September (1970) when following bloody clashes the Palestinian nationalist movements were forced to leave the country.

3. The first Transjordanian museums

9In order to create the pan-Jordanian identity, or the Jordanian identity as it is usually called, the Hashemites employed different strategies. This article will focus on some of the cultural policies undertaken in the domain of museography as they have played a crucial role in the fabrication of the Jordanian national identity (Maffi 2004).

  • 4 G. Lankester Harding played a fundamental role in the formation of the archaeological heritage in J (...)
  • 5 It is true that even the Museum of Palestinian Archaeology in Jerusalem was created because of the (...)

10A fundamental political act in this domain was the creation of the first Jordanian museum on the top of the hill of the Citadel in Amman, which was to become the first archaeological museum of the Kingdom. It was created in 1951 by Gerald Lankester Harding, a British archaeologist who at the time was the General Director of Antiquities4. Until that date, all the pieces found during archaeological excavations on the East Bank had been transferred to the Museum of Palestinian Archaeology in Jerusalem. Since during the Mandate period, the Emirate of Transjordan was considered a sort of appendix of Palestine, the British never thought about the possibility of building a museum in the Emirate of Transjordan. Hence, the sites and the pieces discovered in Transjordan were considered as part of the Palestinian civilization, and its history as a section of the glorious Palestinian past. Transjordan was regarded as a region where no important autonomous cultures had developed in ancient times, and was therefore considered as a periphery of more important flourishing civilizations like that of Palestine, Syria and Mesopotamia. The result was that the Transjordanian archaeological heritage was not considered as a separate property of the Transjordanian Emirate, but was treated as a part of the Palestinian cultural patrimony. Furthermore, the British had no intention of spending money on a country that they regarded as poor, inhabited by nomadic or semi-nomadic tribes, and that did not offer any lucrative resources. Museums were thus not a priority for the British officers, who were more interested in settling the nomadic population, pacifying the country, and struggling against epidemic illnesses5.

  • 6 Even after the annexation of the West Bank, the Jordanian government concentrated its investments i (...)
  • 7 The QDAP was the journal of the Palestinian Department of Antiquities. The Transjordanian Departmen (...)

11The foundation of the Citadel’s museum was a political act whose meaning was clear. It intended to demonstrate that Jordan has its own historical dignity and is an independent country, which deserves its own cultural institutions6. Significantly, during the same year of the museum’s foundation, the Jordanian Department of Antiquities created the first national archaeological journal, the Annual of the Department of Antiquities of Jordan (ADAJ), which replaced the Quarterly of the Department of Antiquities of Palestine (QDAP)7 edited in Jerusalem, where all the archaeological reports about the East Bank were published until the end of the Second World War.

  • 8 A possible reason for this similarity is that Lankester Harding worked at the archaeological museum (...)

12Despite the desire to affirm Jordanian autonomy from Palestine, the model of the new archaeological museum at the Citadel was the Museum of Palestinian Archaeology in Jerusalem. Although the conceptual organization of the exhibition was the same, though on a smaller scale, the majority of the display pieces came from the excavations conducted on the East Bank8. The order of the display was strictly chronological from Prehistory to Islamic time: Umayyad, Abbasid, Ayyubid and Mameluk. Each chronological section contained smaller subdivisions dedicated to different sites that were put in relation with one another. Although the original structure is still visible, the conceptual order of the exhibition underwent several modifications during the following decades: new showcases were added and some parts of the previous display were cancelled to leave room for new sections and newly discovered objects. The original consistency of the museum’s exhibition; a model of British museography from the first half of the 20th century, today constitutes only the frame of a more recent conceptual order superposed on the previous one.

13At the time of its foundation, the museum wanted to valorize the originality of Jordanian civilizations and to stress the continuity and the antiquity of ‘national’ history. The museum at the Citadel was also built to symbolize the importance of Amman, which was a new regional capital needing to valorize its political and cultural role. In fact, Amman was considered by many, Europeans and Arabs, as being less dignified than ancient urban centers like Jerusalem, Damascus and Beirut. The Jordanian authorities thus wanted to confer upon Amman the distinction the Kingdom’s capital deserved.

14During the 1950s no other museums were founded in the country. Those years were characterized by many political and social tensions. After the murder of King Abdullah in 1957, there was a tentative coup that brought about the suppression of democracy in the country for over thirty years. It was only during the 1960s that three new archaeological museums were created in Jordan: the first at the University of Jordan in Amman (1962), the second in Petra (1963) and the third in the city of Irbid (1964). These museums were small and were destined to exhibit pieces coming from the excavations conducted in those three areas respectively. They represent the first examples of regional museums in the country. It has to be remembered that the decentralization of museums became an official project which was first explicitly mentioned in the Five Year Economic and Social Development Plans of the 1960s (Maffi 1998) and which became a constant feature of the policies of the Jordanian State. The systematic implementation of this long term project explains the presence of so many of these institutions in the country. Today, despite the small size of the Kingdom and its relatively brief history, there are more than forty museums in Jordan.

4. The development of Jordanian museography

  • 9 The great majority of the population lives in the capital or in the two neighboring cities of Zarqa (...)

15During the 1970s and 1980s a large number of museums were created in the Kingdom. Although the new museums were situated in different regions, the majority of them were in the capital or in neighboring cities. The concentration of the new institutions in the northern part of the kingdom was motivated by the demographic distribution of Jordan’s citizens9 as well as by the desire to increase the cultural prestige of Amman.

16The museums founded during this period were not only much more numerous than before but were also of a different kind. At the beginning of the 1970s the first two museums of popular traditions and of folklore were created in Amman inside the ancient Roman theatre. The first museum of folklore was founded in 1971 and, as with the case of the Citadel museum, its creation was an act with strong political and symbolic meanings. The Jordanian Museum of Popular Traditions was established some years after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, when tensions were highest between the Jordanian government and the Palestinian nationalist movements, ending in the tragic events of Black September. Soon after the occupation of the West Bank by the Israelis, the Palestinian fedayns conducting the guerilla movement against the Zionist forces moved their camps to the East Bank. Therefore, after each attack carried out by the fedayns, Israeli retaliations were directed against the villages and refugee camps situated in the Jordanian territory next to the border. The relations among the different components of Jordanian society became more and more difficult until a civil war broke out when some leaders of the Palestinian guerrilla declared that they wanted to overthrow the Hashemite monarchy and create a Palestinian State. The reaction of the Jordanian authorities was extremely harsh: the refugee camps where the fedayns were hidden were bombed and the civil population was caught up in the armed conflict.

17The Jordanian Museum of Popular traditions was founded at this very time and it took on a meaning largely determined by the domestic situation. It is worth mentioning the history of the collection of pieces that were to be exhibited in this museum. During the 1960s a group of Jordanian women of Palestinian and Transjordanian origin belonging to the elite and living in Amman had been collecting costumes and objects related to daily life on both Banks of the Jordan. They would go to rural villages, Bedouin encampments and refugee camps to buy costumes, plates, pottery, utensils, furniture, carpets, rugs, etc. The aim of collecting these objects was to represent the popular culture of both components of the Jordanian population, i.e. of the West and of the East Bank of the Kingdom. At the time, the words ‘Palestine’ and ‘Palestinian’ were forbidden in public discourse. The Palestinian territory was designated as the West Bank of the Kingdom and its population did not have the right to officially claim its own particular identity, i.e. the Palestinian identity. The authorities made all efforts to give a unified image of the Jordanian population. If the Palestinians had to abandon their identity in order to become Jordanians, the Transjordanians also had no right to claim a particular identity. Both groups had to accept the Hashemite version of the pan-Jordanian identity. It was only after Black September that things started to change: in the public administration a process of ‘jordanization’ of personnel began, aiming at the preferential employment of citizens of Transjordanian origin who were seen as more reliable (Abu Odeh 1999). During the same years, when groups of Transjordanian citizens started to express strong hostility toward Jordanians of Palestinian origin, the old Transjordanian nationalism regained popularity.

18The Jordanian Museum of Popular Traditions, which was planned before these events and which was to be built in the old city of Jerusalem, assumed a new meaning and was established in a different place. While it had initially been planned to symbolize the success of the long process of identity construction of the two previous decades, a process aimed at cementing the two main components of the Jordanian population, the new political circumstances transformed it into the space for a symbolical reconciliation between them. Thus, the official inauguration of the museum in 1971, instead of being the fulfillment of the Hashemite project aimed at building a unified national community, became an act of reconciliation of the two main components of Jordanian citizenship which had been separated by the deep fracture of the civil war.

19The museum also transmitted another important message directed towards the Israeli occupiers. As the founder of the museum explicitly affirms in the catalogue: one of the objectives of this institution was to preserve Jordanian identity and particularly the cultural traditions of the West Bank that were under the threat of the Israeli oppression. This statement was motivated by the desire not only to reaffirm the internal cohesion of the Jordanian population, but also to counter Israeli attempts to appropriate Palestinian culture as a component of Israeli identity (Moors 2000).

20After the creation of this museum, three new folklore museums were founded in the capital and in Madaba: the first in the Roman Theatre of Amman opposite the existing Museum of Popular Traditions (1975), the second at the Jordan University (1977) and the third in Madaba, a town south of Amman (1978). The Madaba museum is of particular importance since it is the first example of a museum which combines archaeology and popular traditions in Jordan. This type of museum is present in several Arab countries and is interesting because it illustrates a particular vision of the past (Davis and Gavrielides 1991; Montigny 1998). The juxtaposition of the archaeological past and popular traditions represents the continuity of the nation as well as its antiquity (Baram 1991). The continuity and the antiquity of the national past constitute a way of legitimizing the existence of the modern postcolonial State, despite its recent creation by European colonizers. This representation of the national past is the result of an idealization of the recent history of the country. In the vast majority of these archaeological-folkloric museums, in Jordan as elsewhere, the popular traditions are a creation of the urban elite which fabricates an idealized recent past where rural and pastoral traditions refer to an idyllic vision of a world that never existed (Canclini 1990). As the recent past is too fraught with social divisions and potential conflicts which, if evoked and exhibited, may jeopardize the legitimacy of political leaders, modern history is transformed into folklore. The museographic representation of popular culture is thus a fabricated narrative elaborated by the political elite. Folklore is less the mirror of the real traditions and costumes of the native population than the discourse of the dominant classes about the nation. The collection of folkloric pieces, which is often regarded as the result of campaigns aiming at rescuing a vanishing culture, is in fact a construction and a selection operated from above.

  • 10 I would like to remind the reader that the Palestinian identity was characterized as mainly rural ( (...)

21If we look at the Jordanian museums of popular traditions, these characteristics are very evident. The folklore is identified with Bedouin and peasant traditions that are inscribed in an idyllic dimension. These groups are represented as if they had no history, and had never witnessed any social and cultural transformation. Though the world of tradition is a fiction, a ‘pastoral allegory’ (Clifford and Marcus 1986), it is regarded as a universe incarnating the essence of the Jordanian people. Furthermore, the elements which make up Jordanian folklore correspond to the official representation of the national identity. These museums mirror the Hashemite construction of Jordanian national identity as it was fabricated during the first decades after Independence. The main traits of this vision are present: the Bedouin culture is regarded as the core of Jordanian identity and at the same time the Palestinian component, which is represented as mainly rural, is integrated into Transjordanian national traditions. The urban culture of both Banks of the kingdom is almost completely removed from the representation and the peasant culture of the East Bank plays a minor role when compared to the nomadic and pastoral components. It is worth mentioning that the ‘bedouinization’ of Jordanian society has been a fundamental process affecting not only the cultural domain but also other aspects of society, such as the legal, administrative, and military spheres (Layne 1994; Bocco 1996; Shryock 1997; Massad 2001). The folkloric museums were only a part of the ideological machine created in order to fabricate and legitimize a specific Jordanian identity, characterized by a strong emphasis on its Bedouin component. Without going into details, it is also noteworthy that the incorporation of Bedouin and tribal elements into the Jordanian identity allowed the Hashemites to integrate the previous tribal system into the State and to build a specific character for the newly founded kingdom (Bocco 1996)10.

5. Modern history museums

  • 11 Note the short but extremely rich article by Laurie Brand about the multiple identities of Palestin (...)

22Several other museums were created during the 1970s and 1980s. These new institutions were of several types: not only archaeological and folkloric museums, but also modern art, military, philatelic, numismatic, Islamic, and natural science museums. An important new category of museums emerged during the 1990s. When they appeared they seemed to fill the empty space left by the folkloric museums since they covered the historical period idealized in these institutions, inscribing it in a chronological dimension. I am referring to the museums of modern history that are dedicated to the narration of the events of the two last centuries. These museums were founded around fifteen years ago, at a time when Jordan had finally abandoned the idea of considering the West Bank as part of its national territory. Indeed a new phase in the history of the Jordanian national identity started after King Hussein’s 1988 declaration in which he affirmed the rupture of the administrative and juridical bonds between the Kingdom of Jordan and the West Bank. This act came at the end of a long process, and marked a turning point comparable in many ways to the annexation of the West Bank. Yet, the 1988 declaration entailed a decision which opposed that taken in 1950 by the late King Abdullah and therefore had very different consequences. Whereas in 1950 the Palestinian population officially residing in the West Bank obtained Jordanian nationality, in 1988 that category of citizens lost the nationality together with the related rights and duties. After the separation from the West Bank, Jordan therefore had to relinquish its demographic, geographic and cultural components and to completely redefine the national identity. Despite the loss of the territory West of the Jordan, it is worth mentioning that more than half Jordan’s current citizens are of Palestinian origin and for this reason the Palestinian cultural component could not be completely removed from the official version of the national identity11.

  • 12 This is not completely true, since the Martyrs’ Memorial military museum founded in 1977 anticipate (...)

23The modern history museums constitute an interesting place to understand how the Hashemites have tried to readjust the national narrative to the new geopolitical situation. The museographic representation illustrates a possible compromise, which is not to be seen as a new creation since it was already present in the official historiography of the previous decades. The new element is not to be identified with the contents of the version displayed but with the fact that until the 1990s this official memory had never found a place in a museographic exhibition12. The proliferation and decentralization of modern history museums also indicates the necessity of disseminating this version of the Jordanian national past and identity in order to reach all citizens in every part of the country.

24The fundamental aspect of this representation is that if Jordan exists it is because the Hashemites have created it and therefore the national history coincides with the dynastic narration. This means that Jordanian history is Hashemite history. As a result, in these museums the modern history of local tribes, peasants and the urban population is almost completely erased to give way to the Hashemite past. Hashemite history is superimposed on the various local narrations which, when possible, are partially integrated into the official version of the past.

  • 13 During the 1990s the situation started to change among Jordanian historians. A new attention for tr (...)

25This explains why Jordanian modern history does not begin in Transjordan but in the Hejaz in the Arabian Peninsula at the end of the 19th century with Sharif Hussein bin Ali, the father of the late King Abdullah and the leader of the Great Arab Revolt. The events which took place in Transjordan during the last decades of the Ottoman era and its local figures are completely absent from the representation, although the written and material sources on this period are numerous and accessible13. In these museums it is only when the history of the Emirate begins (1921) that some fragments of the local past emerge making the narration more “national” and less dynastic. Yet, the Transjordanian past is less important than the dynastic narrative, which is often associated with regional history, including the events that took place in Syria and Iraq. In fact, the Hashemite narration follows the destiny of the dynasty’s members, even if it is not directly related to Jordanian history as is the case of Sharif Hussein and Prince Faysal who was to become the first king of Iraq.

26The effects of this historical vision are manifold. First of all, the representation is always centered on the Hashemite monarch of the period in question. His life, his acts and his achievements are the only elements stressed by the exhibition. For instance, during the Mandate period, Emir Abdullah occupied center stage and his biography is wholly identified with the past of the emerging Jordanian nation. In modern history museums, the rhythm of Jordanian history is generally determined by the accession to the throne of the Hashemite kings. Each historical period coincides with and is named after the reigning king and is characterized on the base of his personality. Thus, the Mandate period until 1951 is called “the founding period” and is identified with the late King Abdullah who is also designated as “the founder”. We can say that the symbolic and chronological division of national history is fully determined by the succession of Hashemite sovereigns.

  • 14 Things started to change after the year 2000: for example a new museum is going to be opened in Sal (...)

27A second effect of this mise-en-scène is the almost total deletion of the historical period preceding Abdullah’s arrival in Transjordan (1920). When the period before the foundation of the Emirate has a place in museographic representation, its main actors are not the indigenous inhabitants but the Hashemites, and the stage is not the Transjordanian territory but the Arabian Peninsula. The only local fact often evoked is the decision of the tribes living in the south of Transjordan to join the Hashemite army during the Great Arab Revolt. What about the period between 1850 and 1914 when the Ottoman domination once again became effective in the region after several centuries of nominal presence? In modern history museums, this period is an empty space, waiting to be filled14. While the origin of this void is the necessity for the Hashemites to legitimize their power and as a consequence to monopolize the representation of Jordanian history, there is also another reason. Local and tribal narrations are regarded as dangerous since they constitute a risk for national unity. The official reason for this amnesia is that the Hashemites came and saved the country from the internal divisions caused by constant tribal conflicts, and the competition between towns and local families. Following this version, one would have to admit that they were the only unifying force to which all Transjordanians could refer in order to find a common and transcendent authority. Nevertheless, the obliteration of Transjordanian history derives more probably from the fear of the dynasty to give voice to local narratives showing the existence of an indigenous elite already integrated into the Ottoman administration. This elite might claim the right to exert power in Jordan and endanger the legitimacy of the Hashemite dynasty.

  • 15 During the First World War Sharif Hussein founded an agreement with the British in order to struggl (...)

28Moreover, narrating the history of the late Ottoman period would also mean highlighting the role of British colonization. The Mandate period is a very sensitive topic, because it is strongly connected with the accession to the throne of the Hashemites. The British not only created the Emirate of Transjordan, but they conferred the power upon Prince Abdullah, one of the sons of Sharif Hussein bin Ali15. Thus, Ottoman history is an extremely risky arena for the Hashemites since it is strongly related to two different but important threats towards the legitimacy of their power. Their authority is jeopardized by the existence of a class of Transjordanian notable families and perhaps even more so by the role played by British colonizers when the Emirate was created. How could the Hashemite monarchs justify their legitimacy, if they had to explicitly represent the fact that they reached power in Jordan only because European colonizers decided to create the Emirate and to offer it to them? The analysis of these potential dangers allows a better understanding of the function of the myth that represents Jordan as a desert and wild land before the foundation of the Emirate. Although the Hashemites did not create this myth, they have shown great interest in nurturing it, since it allows them to deny local history and valorize their role. Finally, I would like to stress that the Hashemite version of national history seems to be a crucial element in order to create a general consensus around a common narration which might, at least theoretically, reconcile all the components of the Jordanian population.

Concluding remarks

29The elements evoked above are only a fragment of a very complex historical process which has been analyzed in much more detail by several authors. My objective was to show how seemingly marginal places like museums may play a very meaningful role that is cultural and political at the same time. The analysis of these institutions may thus be extremely rich and allow the researcher to understand very interesting aspects of the observed socio-cultural context. If we look at the Jordanian case, the evolution of the museographic policies of the State allows us to follow the process of identity building and to understand the changing meanings of its various components during different historical phases. Indeed, Jordanian museography is a mirror of the sociopolitical evolution of local society and clearly expresses the ambiguities and conflicts entailed in the Hashemite project of the construction of a State. The particular stories of each institution and of the several typologies of museums existing in the country are also meaningful as they reveal local and national dynamics as well as regional and international connections. Museums constitute a complex arena, which is deeply political and can become a place of contact but also of conflict (Clifford 1997). This is also true for Jordan where private collectors, tribal leaders and even ordinary citizens have started to develop dialogic relations with the State through the collection and exhibition of objects related to their past, thereby expressing their own conception of identity (Maffi 2006; Daher 2007). They interact with the Hashemite version of the past exhibited in public museums and create their own narratives that are incarnated by their collections of objects. Some private and tribal museums, which have also appeared in Jordan, sometimes convey a contradictory and conflicting vision of Jordanian identity and of the Kingdom’s history. These phenomena show that cultural heritage is an important source of power and of resistance that appears as a potentially democratic device.


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1 With the exception, of course, of the Jewish population which was to settle only in the territory of British Palestine, following the decision of 1922 which limited the Jewish national home to the area situated west of the Jordan (Laurens 1999).

2 During the Ottoman era the populations of British Palestine and of the Emirate of Transjordan had constant and close ties since they were part of the same State (Rogan 1999; Abu Jaber 1989).

3 During this period the Palestinians and the Transjordanians were designated in the official discourse as the members of the same big family whose father was the Hashemite monarch. The use of this metaphor is significant because it allowed the integration of the two components of the Jordanian population by employing the language of kinship, which was and still is very powerful in the indigenous society (Layne 1994).

4 G. Lankester Harding played a fundamental role in the formation of the archaeological heritage in Jordan. He arrived in the region in 1936 and from 1939 to 1956 was the Director of Antiquities in Jordan. He is the author of the book The Antiquities of Jordan (1967) which was translated into Arabic in the 1940s with the title Athar al-Urdun (1942).

5 It is true that even the Museum of Palestinian Archaeology in Jerusalem was created because of the donation of the Jewish millionaire Rockefeller. For this reason after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war this institution was also called the Rockefeller Museum.

6 Even after the annexation of the West Bank, the Jordanian government concentrated its investments in the East Bank trying to improve the social and economic conditions of this area of the Kingdom. The majority of the cultural institutions founded during this period were situated east of the Jordan (Goichon 1972).

7 The QDAP was the journal of the Palestinian Department of Antiquities. The Transjordanian Department of Antiquities founded in 1923 did not have its own journal until 1951.

8 A possible reason for this similarity is that Lankester Harding worked at the archaeological museum of Jerusalem before coming to the Emirate of Transjordan.

9 The great majority of the population lives in the capital or in the two neighboring cities of Zarqa and Irbid situated respectively on the East and on the North of Amman.

10 I would like to remind the reader that the Palestinian identity was characterized as mainly rural (Sayigh 1979; Swedenburg 1995; Pirinoli 2005).

11 Note the short but extremely rich article by Laurie Brand about the multiple identities of Palestinians in Jordan in order to understand the complexity of the definition of this category of citizens (Brand 1995).

12 This is not completely true, since the Martyrs’ Memorial military museum founded in 1977 anticipated the conception of the modern history museums created in the 1990s.

13 During the 1990s the situation started to change among Jordanian historians. A new attention for tribal and local history developed and numerous monographies were published in the Kingdom. Local and tribal historians participated in this enterprise alongside official authorized scholars (Shryock 1997; Chatelard 2002; Jungen 2004).

14 Things started to change after the year 2000: for example a new museum is going to be opened in Salt in the old Abu Jaber house where some fragments of the city’s Ottoman history will be represented (Maffi 2002).

15 During the First World War Sharif Hussein founded an agreement with the British in order to struggle against the Ottoman Empire and gain the independence of the Arab provinces.


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