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Atlas of Jordan

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Myriam Ababsa

Chapter three - The Time of Two Great Cities: Petra and Jerash (323 BC - 629 AD)

The Hellenistic Age – (323 - 30 BC)

Jean-François Salles

Texte intégral

1The period that historians call Hellenistic broadly extends from the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC until the first century BC - approximately 66 to 30 BC - when the Romans gradually took control of the Near East. The term Hellenistic refers to a cultural phenomenon known as “Hellenization” i.e. the extensive dissemination (begun at least two centuries before Alexander) of the Greek language in the Near East, as well as a series of new customs and philosophical, political or religious concepts, which were also new - the Septuagint is an indication of this phenomenon.

Figure III.1  —  Hellenistic Near East ca 260 BC.

Figure III.1  —  Hellenistic Near East ca 260 BC.

2The historical context of these three centuries is quite complex. With the demise of Alexander, his leading generals began to share the vast territory that he had dominated, from the Bosporus to the Indus, and also began many conflicts against one another. These confrontations lasted for almost two centuries. For the inland region of the whole coast, we note a few highlights, even though our sources (ancient texts) are very rare on what is now Jordan (fig. III.1).

  • After several years about which we know little, the coast (Palestine, Lebanon, South Syria) and Jordan came under the political supervision of the Egyptian monarchy in 301 BC, the Ptolemaic dynasty (all kings were named Ptolemy, the founder Ptolemy I was the son of Lagos). However, this authority was opposed from the outset by the Seleucid dynasty, heirs of Seleucus I, who reigned over the Middle East (Mesopotamia, Iran and part of Syria): five “Syrian Wars” took place during the third century BC.

  • The last of these conflicts resulted, in 198 BC., with the takeover of the entire disputed area: from Gaza to Antioch, from Amman to Damascus, by the Seleucid dynasty, which reigned, at least in theory after ca 140 BC., until the Roman Pompey created the Roman province of Syria in 65 BC.

  • Indeed, the Seleucid dynasty declined rapidly after the death of Antiochus IV (164 BC), the last ‘great’ king of the line, following numerous internal conflicts and some foreign wars. In the Near East, many people seized the opportunity to assert their independence, eg. Tigreans of Armenia, the Maccabees and the Hasmoneans of Judaea, as well as ‘brigands’ like the Ituraeans from the Beqa‘a. In Jordan, it was the Nabataeans, who reached Damascus in the first century BC.

3In this general context, we know little about Jordan itself. It seems there was a decline in population - fewer villages of this period - but this remains to be proven. We also know that large cities were founded, probably to house ‘retired’ military veterans from the Ptolemaic and Seleucid armies and ‘administrators’ (governors, tax collectors, military commanders, etc.) in Gadara / Umm Qays, Gerasa / Jerash and Philadelphia / Amman. But in all these sites, the Hellenistic levels, rarely regained, were largely destroyed by large Roman buildings. From a text, we know of Ptolemaic officers settled in Philadephia in the mid-third century BC., of the Tobiad family, tax collectors in Jerusalem; the last known Tobiad, Hyrcanus, lived in Wadi al‑Sir (or Iraq al-Amir) in the early second century BC. We know that the Seleucid King Antiochus III conquered Amman during the Third Syrian War, after having destroyed the Ptolemaic garrisons located in the centre of the country (218/7 BC). But we also know that it is a Nabataean, Aretas, who drove from the region of Amman the high priest of Jerusalem, Jason, who had taken refuge there in 169 BC, that Judas Maccabeus briefly conquered northern Jordan in 164/3 BC; that a conflict between the Nabataean Obodas and the Hasmonean Alexander Jannaeus led to the capture of Jerash, briefly, by the Judeans, etc. As mentioned above, the political situation in the region remained unstable, and is known only through brief episodes.

4This did not prevent Jordan from developing economically, since it seems that there was a gradual development of farmland, especially on the eastern side of the Jordan Valley, and that the region soon proved to be a required point of passage for major international trade; caravans from Arabia coming from the south or the centre of Jordan (Amman or Jerash) to Damascus, or trade with neighbouring kingdoms, probably Judaean (bitumen, dates, perfumes), and perhaps Phoenician (luxury goods).

5As for the Hellenization of the region, it never really happened until the Roman period, as evidenced by the extreme rarity of Greek inscriptions from the Hellenistic period (Jerash, first century BC, possibly also second century BC).

Iraq al-Amir

6The village of Iraq al-Amir in the valley of Wadi al‑Sir, south-west of Amman, is home to one of the most original monuments in Jordan, and perhaps in the Hellenistic Near East: Qasr al‑Abd (castle of the servant) (plate III.1). Other nearby ruins (ruins of a village from the same period, an isolated house, a fountain perched on the cliff), which are barely visible today, and a few written sources, suggest that the site was the centre of a vast estate belonging to a powerful family, the Tobiads, which extended from Philadelphia/Amman (a Tobiad is known of there) to the lower slopes of Wadi al‑Sir, a green valley with a lot of rainfall and rich in agricultural production (fig. III.2).

Plate III.1 — Iraq al-Amir: Hyrcan Palace

Plate III.1 — Iraq al-Amir: Hyrcan Palace

Ifpo 2004

7The history of this site is known only through a single text written in Greek by the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus (1st century AD.), an anecdote which is no doubt based on real events. Hyrcanus (born around the late third century BC.) was the youngest son of Joseph the Tobiad, he was a tax collector for the entire region on behalf of the Ptolemaic sovereigns (Egyptian), based in Jerusalem. Despite the opposition of his brothers, he succeeded his father in the same position, and travelled to Egypt. Upon his return, he escaped an assassination attempt in a town where loyal supporters of the Ptolemaic started to compete fiercely with others supporting the party of the Seleucid Antiochus III, who was attempting to regain the region. Hyrcanus fled and took refuge in the family estate of Wadi al-Sir (which the Greek author refers to as Tyros), where he remained for twenty years “fighting the Arabs,” the text tells us, the Nabataeans.

Figure III.2 — Iraq al-Amir and the Tobiad Territory.

Figure III.2 — Iraq al-Amir and the Tobiad Territory.

 

8He then began the construction of a large prestigious building, living meanwhile in the natural caves of the cliffs of the wadi, which he had adapted to entertain his friends and to house his riders. But around 170-168 BC., returning from a military campaign in Egypt, Antiochus IV, the successor of Antiochus III, conquered Jerusalem, plundered the Temple (where the treasure of Hyrcanus was kept), and seemed to want to fight this “powerful” man who was very independent and perhaps still loyal to the Ptolemies. Upon hearing this, Hyrcanus committed suicide. We hear no more of the Tobiad family after that date.

Figure III.3 — Restitution of the Palace.

Figure III.3 — Restitution of the Palace.

F. Larché

9The Qasr building, first excavated by an American mission, then by a French mission that restored it, is quite a striking sight; the huge building blocks sometimes weigh several dozen tons. The design is quite simple: a ground floor to keep agricultural products in rooms ventilated by high windows, with two basins and an upper floor with a reception room, which can only be reproduced graphically. The building’s decoration is original: friezes of running or confronting lions on the entablatures, eagles at the corners of the upper level, wide-mouthed felines outside each of the interior basins which act as overflows. Architectural and artistic influences are diverse: Eastern for the ground floor design and the eagles, Greek for the upper floor (oikos) and part of the decoration, Egyptian for other details of the decor or architecture (fig. III.3, III.4 and III.5). That is the originality of this building which is unique in the very short Hellenistic period.

Figure III.4 — Drawings of the lions.

Figure III.4 — Drawings of the lions.

J.-P. Lange

Figure III.5  — Drawings of the panthers.

Figure III.5  — Drawings of the panthers.

J.-P. Lange

Umm Qays.

Umm Qays.

M. Ababsa

Pella (Tabaqat Fahl).

Pella (Tabaqat Fahl).

M. Ababsa

Table des illustrations

Titre Figure III.1  —  Hellenistic Near East ca 260 BC.
URL http://books.openedition.org/ifpo/docannexe/image/4894/img-1.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 200k
Titre Plate III.1 — Iraq al-Amir: Hyrcan Palace
Crédits Ifpo 2004
URL http://books.openedition.org/ifpo/docannexe/image/4894/img-2.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 72k
Titre Figure III.2 — Iraq al-Amir and the Tobiad Territory.
URL http://books.openedition.org/ifpo/docannexe/image/4894/img-3.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 172k
Titre Figure III.3 — Restitution of the Palace.
Crédits F. Larché
URL http://books.openedition.org/ifpo/docannexe/image/4894/img-4.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 200k
Titre Figure III.4 — Drawings of the lions.
Crédits J.-P. Lange
URL http://books.openedition.org/ifpo/docannexe/image/4894/img-5.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 60k
Titre Figure III.5  — Drawings of the panthers.
Crédits J.-P. Lange
URL http://books.openedition.org/ifpo/docannexe/image/4894/img-6.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 76k
Titre Umm Qays.
Crédits M. Ababsa
URL http://books.openedition.org/ifpo/docannexe/image/4894/img-7.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 140k
Titre Pella (Tabaqat Fahl).
Crédits M. Ababsa
URL http://books.openedition.org/ifpo/docannexe/image/4894/img-8.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 192k

© Presses de l’Ifpo, 2013

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