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Atlas of Jordan

Myriam Ababsa

Chapter five - Territory and Nation Building (from 1918 onwards)

The Hashemites and the Creation of Transjordan

Nadine Méouchy, Norig Neveu und Myriam Ababsa


The Emirate of Transjordan | Nadine Méouchy

1After the withdrawal of the Ottoman troops from Syria and Palestine, in October 1918, the Arab nationalists set up an Arab government in Damascus, whose authority was to include all the Syrian provinces of Bilad al-Sham, from the Taurus Mountains to the Red Sea. From the outset, the occupation of these provinces by British and French troops jeopardised the smooth running of the government, under the leadership of the Hashemite Emir Faysal b. Hussein. However, on April 25 1920 at the San Remo Conference, the Allied forces of World War I, which dominated the League of Nations, assigned mandates: France was allocated a mandate for Syria (Lebanon was subsequently detached) and two mandates were allocated to Britain: for Iraq and Palestine (which included the Transjordanian territories) (fig. V.1).

2This spelt the end of the Arab kingdom of Damascus and determined the partition of the provinces of Bilad al-Sham, imposed by the French and British military occupations. The Syrian kingdom came to an end with the Battle of Maysaloun, on July 24 1920, and the French then entered Damascus. To promote the stability of Transjordan that the British saw as “the land bridge connecting Palestine and Iraq” (Amawi 1992), from August 1920 to April 1921 they encouraged “the creation of local governments” in Irbid (Ajlun), Jerash, Salt, Kerak and Tafila. These local governments, dominated by tribal clans and large landowners, were part of the Ottoman administrative structures set up in all Syrian provinces during the second half of the nineteenth century (Amawi 1992), amid the Tanzimat reforms. However, in 1921, the British decided to put an end to this unsuccessful experiment and created the Emirate of Transjordan, under the leadership of Emir Abdullah, Faysal’s brother.

Figure V.1 — The Middle East Transformations (1880 – 1950).

Figure V.1 — The Middle East Transformations (1880 – 1950).

The Great Arab Revolt on the One Jordanian Dinar Bill.

The Great Arab Revolt on the One Jordanian Dinar Bill.

The Hashemite dynasty of Jordan | Norig Neveu

The Hashemites are Sharifs or members of the Ahl al-Bayt*. Indeed, the Jordanian dynasty has direct lineage to the Prophet Muhammad through his daughter Fatima. She is also considered to be a descendant of Hashim b. ‘Abd Manaf, Muhammad’s great grandfather. At the beginning of Islam, the Banu Hashim were part of the Quraysh tribe from Mecca. Historically, the Hashemite family descends from two branches: the Abbasids – who disappeared in the sixteenth century - and the Alides **, the branch that the Hashemite family belongs to.

From the 10th century until 1924, the Hashemite family filled discontinuously the role of Sharif of Mecca and Medina. The Sharif’s duties were to ensure the supplies of the holy cities, organise the annual pilgrimage (hajj) and the safe passage of caravans travelling to Mecca and Medina for the hajj. While it is difficult to estimate the total number of Hashemite Sharifs, there were probably fewer than a hundred between the 10th and 20th centuries.

Following the package of reforms (Tanzimat) promulgated by the Ottoman Sultan (between 1832 and 1856), the territory of the Hijaz became an Ottoman province governed by a Waly who thus rivalled the Hashemite sharifs. In the 20th century, the Hijaz emirate had special political status within the Ottoman Empire. In the early 20th century, sharifs were highly respected throughout the Arab world and the Hashemite family prided themselves on educating young sharifs. In 1916, Sharif Husayn of Mecca, assisted by his sons and with the help of Britain, led the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Empire, which contributed to its downfall. When the territories formerly under Ottoman rule were divided out, Sharif Husayn was granted authority over the Hijaz kingdom, but not over the great Arab kingdom as the British had promised.

*: litt. “the People of the House” i.e. the Prophet’s family.
**: Alides: descendants of Ali, nevew and son-in-law of the Prophet.

Promises made by the British to Sharif Husayn and the Arabs | Nadine Méouchy

3The following commitments were made, mainly by the British:

  • Between July 1915 and January 1916 (during World War I), Sharif Hussein of Mecca and Sir Henry McMahon, the British High Commissioner in Egypt, negotiated the terms of engagement of the Arabs in the Allied camp against the Ottomans. McMahon accepted the principle of independence for Arabia, in which the Sharif included the Vilayet provinces of Mosul and Aleppo. These commitments were made through a series of letters, known as the “Husayn-MacMahon correspondence”.

  • On November 9, 1918, in a joint statement France and Great Britain recognized the legitimate aspirations of the populations of the former Bilad al-Sham to develop national governments.

4However, these promises and statements were contradicted by the Sykes-Picot Agreement secretly signed on May 16, 1916, which divided the region into five zones under French or British influence; by the Balfour Declaration (November 2, 1917) which granted British support for the Zionists for “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people”; and finally by the fact that the Peace Conference in Versailles, in January 1919, ruled on the fate of the Syrian provinces without ever receiving a single representative, only Prince Faysal represented the Hijaz.

Plate V.1— Jordan’ Flag.

Plate V.1— Jordan’ Flag.

“The flag symbolizes the Kingdom’s roots in the Great Arab Revolt of 1916, as it is adapted from the revolt banner. The black, white and green bands represent the Arab Abbasid, Umayyad and Fatimid dynasties respectively, while the crimson triangle joining the bands represents the Hashemite dynasty. The seven-pointed Islamic star set in the center of the crimson triangle represents the unity of Arab peoples in Jordan” (see​jo_anthem.html).

Borders set by Great Britain | Myriam Ababsa

5The Emirate of Transjordan was part of the Palestine Mandate under the rule of the British High Commissioner in Jerusalem. The borders of the Emirate were set by an agreement: in 1921, France transferred the District of Ramtha from Syria to Transjordan, while Ibn Saud gave up the areas of Ma‘an and Aqaba in 1925. At that time Transjordan covered 91,000 km², including 10,000 km² of fertile farmland located on a 65 km wide strip in the north, with 450 villages (Fischbach 2000, p. 67). The names and boundaries of the Ottoman provinces (liwa) of Ajlun, al‑Balqa’ and Kerak remained the same, and the Ma‘an Liwa was added in 1925. As was the case in Ottoman times, the maintenance or creation of new provinces formed part of a policy of centralization for the settlement of nomadic communities and the control of land, as well as border control. All these liwas were limited to the east by the Hijaz Railway line, beyond the 250 mm rainfall isohyet that demarcates dry farming areas from the desert (fig. V.3).

6When the British received the mandate for Palestine and Transjordan, the southern and eastern borders were undefined. The British demanded access to the Gulf of Aqaba while the Sultan of the Hijaz considered Ma‘an as part of his territory, because of its former inclusion in the Ottoman Vilayet of Hijaz. The British reached an agreement in November 1925, in Hadda, with Abd al-Aziz b. Saud, known as Ibn Saud, who was the Sultan of Nejd at the time, and who obtained the region of Kaf, in the Nejd, and most of the Wadi Sirhan in exchange for the territories surrounding Ma‘an. But the Sultan of Nejd refused to let Transjordanian tribes, especially the Bani Sakhr, the Bani Khalid, the Sirhan and Isa, graze in winter in the Wadi Sirhan, as was their custom. This diversion of the routes habitually travelled by these tribes brought about many inter-tribal conflicts and violent raids against the backdrop of Wahhabi expansionism.

7However, there was no agreement on Aqaba and so the British incorporated it into the Emirate’s territory. After the creation of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1932, Ibn Saud accepted the status quo regarding the strip of land in the Gulf of Aqaba. An agreement on Aqaba was finally reached in 1965: Jordan obtained 19 km along the Gulf and 6,000 km² in the south, in exchange for 7,000 km² along the Wadi Sirhan.

Diverse Populations

British Policy on the settlement of tribes

8The main tribes present in the Emirate of Transjordan at the time of its creation were the Bani Sakhr in the north, the Adwan in the Jordan Valley and the Huwaytat south of Kerak. The Rwala nomads from the outskirts of Damascus roam around the Wadi Sirhan. The Beni Khaled, Beni Hassan, Sirhan, Sardiye, and Isa were small tribes that were allied against attacks from the powerful Beni Sakhr, settled in the outskirts of Amman and in the north of the Jordan Valley. The Bani Sakhr were in conflict with the Adwan (who were present as early as the 16th century), the Ghazaoui and the Beshtawi of the Jordan Valley. The Huwaytat dominated in the region south of Kerak, down to Aqaba, and were divided into four branches: the Huwaytat from jabal Sharah (or Huwaytat b. Jazi), the Alawin (or Huwaytat b. Najd), the Huwaytat of Egypt (or b. Shahid) and the Huwaytat of Tihama. In addition, there were the Saidiyi, the Liyatene, the Shararat and the Bani Atiyah (fig. V.2).

9In winter, the tribes migrated from the highlands to the badiya in the east and the Jordan Valley and Wadi Araba.

10The British modified the tribal hierarchies and alliances in two ways: by prohibiting the practice of raids and putting an end to the protection tax levied on sedentary populations (khuwwa), that was the main source of income for Bedouins; and by classifying the tribes: as nomadic or semi-nomadic. Riccardo Bocco has shown that the State recreated the tribes in Jordan by establishing electoral quotas reserved for tribes that were therefore obliged to form alliances (Bocco 1996). A social contract was thus established between the Hashemite regime and the tribes, whereby the State reserved jobs in the army and the civil service for members of tribes and promised to provide essential services for them (transport, water, electricity) in exchange for unconditional support. Hence those Bedouins recognized as such by the State benefitted from a system of customary jurisdiction in the form of tribal courts (that were created in 1924 and operated until 1976), separate constituencies and reserved seats in parliament (6 seats in 2011).

Figure V.2 — Wandering Territory of Jordan Major Bedouin Tribes in the 1950’s.

Figure V.2 — Wandering Territory of Jordan Major Bedouin Tribes in the 1950’s.

11This British policy of settling the Bedouin was accompanied by the great land registration and land demarcation programme in order to establish a new property tax system. The new Land Code and the 1933 “Land Settlement Law” gave tribes no rights over the lands they roamed. They only had rights over the summer camps where they cultivated land.

12The Bani Sakhr were granted land on the outskirts of Amman and in the Jordan Valley, while the different groups of the Huwaytat received land in the region of Sharah Mountains and in Wadi Araba (Bocco 1996).

13The 1929 map of tribal districts shows the British administration’s determination to control nomadic populations (fig. V.3). It is reproduced here as a historical document, the mistakes in the Arabic transcription have been corrected by Dr. Raouf Abu Jaber and Dr. Waleed Gharaibeh. This document shows that in 1929 the inhabited zones of the Emirate of Transjordan fell within the boundaries of the Hijaz Railway lines for security reasons. Only those groups living near Amman could settle eastwards. It was not until 1935 that the desert was safe enough for the first tribal groups, the Bani Hamida, to develop agriculture to the east of the railway line, along the 250 mm isohyet.

Figure V.3 — The Territories of Jordan Main Families and Tribes in 1929.

Figure V.3 — The Territories of Jordan Main Families and Tribes in 1929.

The Jordanian nation and its Bedouin, the favourites of the regime

14It is a common misconception that Jordan is a country of Bedouins. Sedentary groups have always outnumbered the Bedouin, and half the Bedouin themselves were semi-nomadic at the time of the creation of the Emirate of Transjordan. However, the Bedouin were favoured politically and incorporated into the army, and their virtues of honour, frugality and courage were associated with those of the nation through a process of “cultural tribalization” (Massad 2001). As they began to abandon their nomadic lifestyle in 1930, they settled and gained access to education. The Bedouin had been strong supporters of the Hashemite regime since the 1930s through their role in the Arab Legion. During the 1970s they were economically marginalized, leading to riots in Ma‘an in 1988 and 2002. During the spring of 2011 and the Arab revolutions, some tribal groups managed to obtain from the King hundreds of hectares of miri State land, known as wajihat.

15From the fifties, the special legal status granted to Bedouins, who were used by the Hashemite regime to counter internal opposition movements, triggered strong popular opposition. Arab nationalist forces encouraged the king to Arabize the army and oust Glubb Pasha, the British officer at the head of the army. Politicized Bedouins began to criticize the special status of the Bedouin, seen as a British strategy to divide the nation. However, they were largely ignored and the Bedouin army regiments were used against the Palestinian Fedayeen during the “Black September” events in 1970.

16The special legal status of the Bedouins was abolished in 1976 in order to better unite the nation of Jordan. Yet, the Bedouin continued to be privileged in the army, and were favoured by a quota system in public universities. Last but not least, with the resumption of parliamentary life in 1989, seats were reserved for them in parliament.

Circassian and Chechen minorities

17The Circassians are a mosaic of peoples, languages and various socio-political organizations, grouped under the name Adyge, or “men”. In the late nineteenth century, the Russians drove them out of the north-west Caucasus towards the territories of the Ottoman Empire, which allocated land to them (de Bel Air 2003). The first Circassians and Chechens were accepted by the Ottomans in Europe (Turkey and Bulgaria) and to a lesser extent in the Vilayet of Aleppo. Following the massacres carried out by Circassian mercenaries in Bulgaria in 1876, in February 1878 Circassians were sent by boat from Greece and Macedonia to the vilayets of Beirut and Damascus, via Beirut, Acre (to Nablus) and Tripoli (to Homs). Some arrived in Amman at that time. Overall, 25,000 Circassians settled in southern Syria and about 15,000 settled near Aleppo in 1878 (Lewis 1987, p. 98). Many died of malaria and chickenpox, those who survived had to adapt their farming methods to the dry climate of the Middle East. The Ottoman government exempted them from tax and granted them access to miri land, which they defended fiercely against the Bedouins.

18In Jordan, the Circassians were responsible for border control and for developing agriculture on the steppe, where they created many new agricultural zones. They were supported by the Ottoman authorities and joined the ranks of the army, they later joined the troops of Emir Abdullah the 1st in the Transjordan Frontier Force and the Arab Legion. In the early 1920s, out of a total population of 300,000, there were only 7,000 Caucasians (6,000 Circassians and 1,000 Chechens).

19The first Chechens settled in Transjordan from 1902 in Zarqa, they subsequently founded Ruseifa in 1904, and Suweileh and Sukhnah in 1905. In March 1906, European sources estimated the number of Circassians to be 1,949 families in Qunaytra, 2,250 families in Transjordan, 670 families near Homs, 550 families in the vilayet of Beirut (including the Sanjaks of Latakia and Acre) and a total of 25,000 people in the Vilayets of Damascus and Beirut. After the creation of the Kingdom of Jordan in 1949, Amman had 640 families (Shabsugh and Kabarday groups), Wadi al-Sir had 370, Zarqa 790, Jerash 400, Naur 170, Suweileh 120, Sukhna 20 and Azraq Shishan 20 (Lewis 1987, p. 116).


Titel Figure V.1 — The Middle East Transformations (1880 – 1950).
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Titel The Great Arab Revolt on the One Jordanian Dinar Bill.
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Titel Plate V.1— Jordan’ Flag.
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Titel Figure V.2 — Wandering Territory of Jordan Major Bedouin Tribes in the 1950’s.
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Titel Figure V.3 — The Territories of Jordan Main Families and Tribes in 1929.
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© Presses de l’Ifpo, 2013