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Atlas of Jordan

Myriam Ababsa

Chapter four - Islamic and Ottoman Times (629 AD - 1918)

The Early Ottoman Era

Adnan Bakhit, Jean-Paul Pascual et Martha Mundy

Texte intégral

1Classical Byzantine and Arab historical sources mention that the province of «Jund al-Urdunn», Jordan Legion, extended over the north of the actual Jordan and the north of Palestine. Its capital city was Tabariyya (Tiberias). It extended parallel to both legions of Palestine I and II, and all of them were perpendicular to the Mediterranean.

2This kind of division ended with the crusaders occupation of the Levant, (Bilad al-Sham) coasts in the early twelfth century. A new divisional system was introduced, based on the «Niyabat» (provinces) or kingdoms. Niyabat Dimashq (Damascus) included Hawran, the north of the actual Jordan, Palestine, and Lebanon. The rest of Jordan became the Kingdom of al-Kerak, in the Ayyubid and Mamluk eras. The Niyabat was divided, for administrative purposes, into subdivisions, each of which was called Amal (sub province). So there was Amal of Barr al-Kerak, Amal al-Shawbak. Amal Zughar, and Amal Ma‘an. The north of the actual Jordan was part of Salkhad and Hawran region (fig. IV.12).

Figure IV.12 — Administrative ottoman divisions of Liwa Ajlun in 1596.

Figure IV.12 — Administrative ottoman divisions of Liwa Ajlun in 1596.

A. Bakhit

3After the Ottoman occupation of Bilad al-Sham in 1516/1517, almost the same previous divisions were applied in to Transjordan. Niyabat al-Kerak became known as Liwa Ajlun, which was divided into Nawahi, (singular, Nahiya). Hence, there was the Nahiya of Ajlun, Bani Alwan, al-Kura, al-Salt, al-Ghor, Allan, al-Kerak, and Kerak al-Shawbak, besides those of Bani Kinana, Bani al-Asar, and Bani Jahma. Each Nahiya included several villages, communities and bedouin groups. Daftar Mufassal Ajlun, no. (T.D. 975) and Daftar Tabu, no. (T.D. 185), dated 1005 AH, 1596 AD, refer to names of villages and their habitants, and the population groups and communities, which included Muslims, Christians, and some Jews. The region enjoyed stability, thanks to its being the route of the Hajj Sharif (Pilgrimage) caravans toward Makka (Mecca). The sultans and the walis (governors) of Damascus took great care of these caravans, they built castles and fortifications on the Hajj route, maintained the water sources and pools, and formed al Jarda (military patrols), to accompany the caravans and to protect them from the bedouins’ attacks, which could happen if the state did not give the bedouin tribes’ sheikhs (chiefs) their annual khuwwa (remuneration), or the Sultan’s surra (bourse), on time.

Liwa Ajlun during the Ottoman Period (1517 - 1918) | Jean-Paul Pascual

4After the conquest of Damascus in 1516, the Ottoman troops of Selim 1st proceeded to Egypt, which fell in 1517. Thus, Palestine and Transjordan came under Ottoman rule for four centuries (1517-1918). The territory of present-day Jordan was then mainly covered by the sub-governorate (liwa’) of Ajlun, consisting mainly of the districts (nahiya) of Kura to the north, Ajlun to the south and Banu Alwan (Mi’rad) to the east, as well as the three northern districts of Banu al-A’sar, Banu Juhma and Banu Kinana, bordering the Yarmuk. The whole region came under the control of the province of Damascus.

The Region of Ajlun

5The Ajlun region corresponds in part to the former territory of Gilead, occupied during Roman times by the cities of the Decapolis. It was wooded and mountainous country, producing cereals, favourable to the cultivation of olives (Ajlun oil was famous), it had always formed a refuge area for sedentary populations fleeing the attacks of nomads. It was called Jabal Jerash or ‘Awf, after the name of the turbulent tribe that occupied it during the Fatimid period (tenth century). The region was pacified by the Ayyubids (twelfth century) and a fortress, now known as Qal’at Ajlun, was built on the site of what is said to be a former convent. It played a role in the fight against the Franks. Partly destroyed by the Mongols it was rebuilt during the Mamluk period (end of XII-XV centuries) during which Ajlun was a district of the province of Damascus. In the Ottoman era, the sub-governorate (liwa’) of Ajlun was the richest and most populous of Transjordan.

Figure IV.13 — Administrative ottoman divisions of the Bilad al-Sham in 1596.

Figure IV.13 — Administrative ottoman divisions of the Bilad al-Sham in 1596.

6At the end of the sixteenth century, a tax inventory register (Daftar-i mufassal) tells us about the number of people and the economic activities of the sub-governorate (liwa’) of Ajlun, under the control of the province (wilaya) of Damascus. This register drew up an inventory of every village, listed the number of tax units (Khan = household) and taxes levied on agricultural and craft production. In the sixteenth century, Transjordan had about 400 villages with a population of about 35,000 people. In comparison, at the time Damascus had between 50,000 and 55,000 inhabitants.

Enumeration of the population by household (Khana).


Number of Muslim households


Number of Christian households






























Wadi Musa




Jabal Bani Hamida




Nomadic Tribes






Grand Total


Abu al-Sha’r, 2001; al-Bakhit, al-Hmûd, 1991; Hütteroth, Abdulfattah, 1977.

7The limit of the settled area roughly corresponded to the rainfall range of 250 mm to the east, the south and the hills overlooking the Jordan Valley. It was a more or less continuous line of border villages. Except in the south there were no isolated villages. Along with natural conditions, security played a decisive role in the establishment of villages. They were very small, 20 to 60 households, sometimes fewer. Among the larger towns, Ajlun, which was the most important had four areas, and about 1,500 people; Kerak, 1,400, the majority being Christians; and Salt, about 300 people, 40% Christian. Amman is not mentioned in any register, the site was probably used as a wintering place for nomadic tribes (fig. IV.14 and IV.15).

8Sedentary facilities which were few in the areas of Salt, Kerak, Jabal Kerak and Shawbak, were aligned on the crest of the escarpment overlooking the valley, taking their water from rainfall and springs located in the upper parts of wadis. Nomads were far fewer than the sedentary population; but in the district of Ajlun, they made up ¼ of the population. They were mostly nomads in the plains and steppes. In the Balqa’, tribes followed routes near the cliffs, those of the Shawbak region occupied the areas between the few villages. Some tribes which are important today, such as the Bani Sakhr, the Nu’aym, the Hasna (Hasma) and the Harbiyya were located in the same regions at the end of the century.

Figure IV.14 — Population Distribution in Bilad al-Sham in 1596.

Figure IV.14 — Population Distribution in Bilad al-Sham in 1596.

Figure IV.15 — The changes in density of settlement between 1596 and 1880.

Figure IV.15 — The changes in density of settlement between 1596 and 1880.

9The period from the late nineteenth century is also well documented. The maps presented here were made up by Martha Mundy, a professor at the London School of Economics. She used data compiled when lands were registered by the Ottoman administration in the context of the reforms in the nineteenth century. At the time, two forms of land rights coexisted: the system of collective ownership (musha’) and private plots. With few exceptions, the musha’ system predominated in the plains, individual ownership in the mountains. In wadi basins and the Jordan Valley where irrigation was present, land had a value higher than in the dry zones.

10In the nineteenth century, the villagers of the Ajlun liwa produced cereals, wheat, barley, millet, and vegetables for domestic consumption. Cash crops differed across regions: in the plains wheat and to some extent lentils predominated; in the mountain villages, such as Tibna, there were mainly olive trees (olive oil) and vines (mainly as raisins). In the area along the northern border by the Yarmouk, Kafarât, large scale olive farming, initiated by entrepreneurs from Damascus but also locals, dates from the late nineteenth century. The breeding of goats and bees, which are not mapped because of lack of data, was ubiquitous, and represented a supplementary source of income for villagers. Animals lived outside, but they were sometimes kept in caves or in houses for safety. The village of Tibna, the largest in the Ajlun area, had 280 households. Its lands were amongst the most extensive; lands in the east had some 10,000 olive trees, owned individually on communal lands. Houses were made of stone or earth and generally had just one large room, with a roof supported by big arches. Family life often took place on a large platform above the penned animals to benefit from the heat.

11If one compares the demographic situation of the nineteenth century with that of the sixteenth, the contrast is striking: population density had decreased significantly. The border of the cultivated area had declined westward pushed by the advance of nomadic tribes, the density of villages had decreased in most areas, the nomadic population had increased. Several reasons are suggested for this decline: the gradual decline of the administrative and fiscal organization of the Ottoman State which began in the late sixteenth century; the introduction of tax farming (iltizam) which weighed more heavily in the countryside; and the strong monetary devaluation in the late sixteenth century which lowered the income of those who were paid in cash. This desertion of rural areas affected regions differently. The plateaus and mountains of Ajlun experienced relatively stable conditions (less than 20% of desertions). The regions that were completely abandoned were those near the nomadic border, along the escarpment of the Jordan River, and small areas south of Ajlun (approximately 50% of desertions). The sparsely populated south appears less affected by the phenomenon. In the last quarter of the nineteenth century a demographic recovery began at the same time as a recovery of land abandoned in the previous centuries (fig. IV.16).

Figure IV.16 — Population and land use at the end of the xixth century.

Figure IV.16 — Population and land use at the end of the xixth century.

Martha Mundy

These three figures map information from the late 19th century Ottoman tapu registers for the qada `Ajlun, liwa Hawran, wilayat of Suriya held by the Jordanian Department of Lands and Surd veys. The maps suffer from the absence of data for a number of villages, most importantly in the southern part of the district, the registers for which should exist in the Tapu ve Kadastro Department in Turkey.

Types of land holding does not depict legal distinctions. Almost all of the land in qada Ajlun was miri (i.e. land held in usufructuary possession according to the 1858 Land Code) not mulk or waqf. Rather, the categories musha` and private plots show how land holdings were registered: musha` indicates that large fields across the village were held in shares by many cultivators; private plots that many smaller fields were held by one or several individuals.

Total number of houses gives data on numbers registered but does not reflect differences in average value and size of houses across the region; mapping the total taxable value of houses produces a somewhat different distribution.

See Mundy and Saumarez Smith, Governing Property, 2007, for a fuller discussion.

Dr. Martha Mundy

Table des illustrations

Titre Figure IV.12 — Administrative ottoman divisions of Liwa Ajlun in 1596.
Crédits A. Bakhit
Fichier image/jpeg, 204k
Titre Figure IV.13 — Administrative ottoman divisions of the Bilad al-Sham in 1596.
Fichier image/jpeg, 196k
Titre Figure IV.14 — Population Distribution in Bilad al-Sham in 1596.
Fichier image/jpeg, 204k
Titre Figure IV.15 — The changes in density of settlement between 1596 and 1880.
Fichier image/jpeg, 204k
Titre Figure IV.16 — Population and land use at the end of the xixth century.
Crédits Martha Mundy
Fichier image/jpeg, 203k

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