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Atlas of Jordan

Myriam Ababsa

General Introduction

Texte intégral

1Jordan has always been an exception in the Middle East due to the political stability that has reigned since the country’s Independence in 1946, despite the challenge of integrating several waves of Palestinian, Iraqi and - more recently - Syrian refugees. Thanks to this stability and the peace accord signed with Israel in 1994, Jordan is one of the first countries in the world for development aid per capita. Its economy is driven by remittances from its 260,000 expatriate workers in the Gulf, by revenues from tourism as well as by foreign aid from the United States, Saudi Arabia and the European Union. With a population of 6.5 million in 2012, Jordan aspires to become an emerging country, but faces major economic challenges due to its near total dependence for energy, its structural unemployment and a lack of any real economic policy or integrated land management policy to create jobs, curb urban sprawl and protect its countryside. The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan covered both banks of the Jordan River in 1949, and offered full citizenship to the Palestinian refugees who live in majority in the cities of Amman, Russeifa, Zarqa and Irbid, and who, contrary to popular belief, make up less than half of the total population.

2This presentation of Jordan’s geopolitical and macroeconomic features fails to capture the political and societal issues revealed by in-depth analyses of the spatial resilience and territorial dynamics at work in its districts and towns. The aim of this atlas is to provide the reader with key pointers for a spatial analysis of the social, economic and political dynamics at work in this country that is full of the complexities of the Middle East. This requires the use of multiple scales: the world, greater Europe and Western Asia, but also Jordan’s regions and towns, and Amman’s neighbourhoods (old, modern, commercial, residential, informal and wealthy districts). We must also describe Jordan’s nation-building; the relations between important urban families, influential bedouin tribes, tribes settled in rural areas and Palestinian refugees. Any study of Jordan must also examine the old solidarities between the two banks of the Jordan River (economic ties between Salt and Nablus, Kerak and Hebron), especially as the West Bank was incorporated into the administrative structure of Jordan from 1949 to 1988 (and has been occupied by Israel since 1967).

The challenge of a geographical, historical and contemporary atlas

3This atlas aims to explain the formation of Jordanian territories over time. Jordanian, European and American experts associated with the Institut français du Proche-Orient were asked to study the spatial resilience of old structures: the complementarities among land areas (cultivated fields, steppe and scrubland) dating back to the Neolithic period; trade dynamics along the valleys (Wadi Jordan, Wadi Araba and Wadi Sirhan); and inherited administrative systems (urban structures of the first kingdoms of Amman, Moab and Edom; trade between Damascus and Jerusalem under the Ottoman Empire; and State control stopping at the borders of the Ottoman Bilad al-Sham and the Hejaz). Settled populations (ma’mura) fluctuated for centuries across the boundary of dry farming areas, depending on the modes of state control of nomadic tribes and the technical expertise of water supply systems. The pilgrimage route developed along this boundary, along the ancestral route linking the south of the Arabian Peninsula to Damascus, which for centuries was the eastern limit of settled populations.

4To study this long period of time, we must first discuss the unique physical geography of the land to the east of the Jordan River and the Wadi Araba. Jordan and Israel share the banks of the Dead Sea graben, which is the lowest point on earth (423 metres below sea-level). This graben creates huge altitude differences and gradients between the valleys and plateaus at 1,000 m above sea-level, which give rise to the country’s most remarkable landscapes: beautiful wadi valleys (Zarqa, Mujib and Hasa) that have been cut into canyons, which over the centuries formed the boundaries of various kingdoms. Jordan is also exceptionally arid; it has the world’s fourth lowest volume of water per capita (145 m3 per year). Fossil water has been pumped intensively for half a century, and groundwater is pumped beyond its recharge rate, which is a serious strategic problem (Chapter 1).

5In the historical section of the atlas, historians study Jordan’s administrative organization to ascertain whether the territory lying to the east of the Jordan River and the Wadi Araba was peripheral or at the heart of a kingdom. This determined whether armies and taxes could be levied under the Persians, Nabateans, Romans, Byzantines, Umayyads, Abbasids, Crusaders, Ayyubids, Mamluks, Ottomans and the British. Urban hierarchies are studied to show which fortified town best took advantage of their situation, to describe trade routes and road networks, and explain land use (mining, agriculture and early industry) (Chapters 2, 3 and 4).

6The contemporary section of the atlas studies the nation’s population and its geographical distribution. The stability of the Hashemite regime depends on the Jordanian social contract whereby Palestinian refugees are full Jordanian citizens and the kings of Jordan are guarantors of their right to return. The population of Transjordanian descent is organized into large urban families or into tribes in rural areas, and many work in the army and the government. Although they are the foundation of the regime, they occasionally also demand better distribution of national income, particularly in the southern and eastern districts, as was the case in Ma’an in the late 1980s, in 1996 and in the 2000s. Jordan is the fifth most militarized nation in the world in terms of military spending, the ratio of army personnel to active population and heavy armament per capita (behind Israel, Singapore, Syria and Russia); and its 100,000 soldiers and 65,000 reservists traditionally support the Hashemite regime. However, its veteran officers are discontent and tired of corruption and of the feeling that Jordan has become a substitute homeland for Palestinian refugees (manifesto of the committee of military veterans, 1 April 2010). Since February 2011, the ‘Arab Spring’ protesters have been calling for the establishment of a true parliamentary monarchy, better representation for the inhabitants of large towns (which are home to the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists) and an end to corruption. The sudden rise in the price of petrol, oil and gas in October 2012 resulted in a massive protest movement - concerning the whole population - that the regime is struggling to contain.

7Jordan’s stability also depends on its land use and changes thereof: transfers of agricultural land, registration of grazing land and building on farmland. Jordan was one of the few Middle Eastern countries to draw up a cadastre for farmland in the 1860s and guaranteed villagers either collective (muchaa) or private ownership. British land policy then gradually replaced collective ownership with private ownership, leading to the fragmentation of agricultural land in the 1950s. The absence of land reform has allowed large landowning families connected with the kings of Jordan to establish their political power (Chapter 5).

8Jordan’s population is concentrated in the arable land that covers one tenth of the country. It experienced rapid urbanization from the 1970s onwards, driven by the economic boom of oil-producing countries and the diversification of jobs in construction and the service sector. The population has undergone major changes in its demography and its family structures. The fertility rate is falling but remains high at 3.6 children per woman, which is all the more surprising as 90% of women are educated and 80% live in towns. Finally, like other countries in the Middle East, Jordan has a very interesting and largely unknown phenomenon known as “badal”, or the tradition of marriage by exchange of sisters and brothers, which avoids the cost of dowries and supposedly protects women from domestic violence (Chapter 6).

9The chapter on Jordan’s economy explains the rentier economy, but also analyzes each sector and discusses the failure of decentralization. It shows that the proliferation of special economic zones and qualified industrial zones has led to a territorial breakup with strategic locations (Amman and Aqaba) coming under the Prime Minister’s Office (Chapter 7). Chapter 8 discusses the poverty reduction policies and job creation strategies implemented by successive governments. Social disparities are studied in detail, particularly in the capital in a chapter on urban policy, which is essential since half the population lives in 2% of the country. The collapse of the municipal structure, following the Arab Spring of 2011, is analyzed in Chapter 9. The last chapter presents the energy and environmental challenges that Jordan is facing and the solutions provided by megaprojects and development (Chapter 10).


10Unlike Lebanon, Jordan has a plethora of surveys, studies, official reports and consultants, and unlike neighbouring Syria, Jordan has trained high-level engineers. Moreover, the Jordanian government and universities are very open to scientific cooperation projects. It was therefore a pleasure to seek out statistical and cartographic data with the wholehearted collaboration of my counterparts. Given this wealth of data, I chose to focus on unusual aspects rather than on volume of data, and to use international sources to place things in perspective. Whenever possible, I have represented data at the very local level of sub-districts (qada) and more often at the level of governorates. In both cases, I have chosen to exclude the steppe lands populated by fewer than five people per square kilometre in order to give a realistic representation of population distribution and development and social disparities within the country.

11The project began in 2006 with the completion of a geo-referenced database, in collaboration with the Royal Jordanian Geographic Centre (acquisition of a Digital Elevation Model, of the Jordan Transverse Mercator projection system, and the purchase of 1:100,000 scale maps that were scanned and geo-referenced). The Department of Statistics was extremely helpful, providing us with the 2004 census for each locality in an excel spreadsheet. With the help of engineer Eyad Ghatasheh, I geo-referenced every Jordanian locality for the three censuses of 2004, 1994 and 1979. This allowed me to calculate average annual growth rates for the periods between censuses taking as a basis the 2004 administrative structure (grouping communities following that system). Several Jordanian institutions (RJGC, MWI, GAM and the Ministry of Municipalities) provided me with geo-referenced files (roads, administrative boundaries, land use etc.).

12The chapters on contemporary dynamics were written between 2009 and 2012, whenever possible diachronic and chronological elements are given to keep data up to date. I decided not to include references or notes in the text. Sources are shown on maps and relate to the general bibliography, which is organized in sections with possibilities for further study.

13I hope that this thematic atlas will be useful to those who love Jordan, to its students and government employees, to guide the country towards balanced development, with the well-being of its people and the preservation of its outstanding heritage in mind.

Jordan administrative limits and main localities.

Table des illustrations

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© Presses de l’Ifpo, 2013

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