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History & Heritage


Amman, a city of refugees

Amman, the capital of Jordan, has a long history dating back to antiquity. Yet its modern evolution is defined by one phenomenon in particular: refugees.

The story of Amman begins in prehistory, where archaeological findings suggest the presence of Neolithic settlements, indicating early human activity in the area. However, the city’s first significant prominence emerged during the Iron Age as Rabbath-Ammon, the capital of the Ammonites. This period marked the city’s foundational urban and cultural development, with Rabbath-Ammon playing a central role in the regional geopolitics of the time.

The conquests of Alexander the Great in the 4th century BCE introduced Hellenistic influence to the city. This era saw Amman, renamed Philadelphia, integrated into the Hellenistic cultural sphere, evident in its urban planning and architectural remnants that still stand today.

During the Roman and Byzantine periods, Amman gained further prominence as part of the Decapolis, a league of cities with significant Greco-Roman cultural and political influence. The city flourished, with the construction of the Roman theater, the odeon, and other monumental structures, which illustrated the blend of local and Roman architectural styles and urban planning principles.


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However, in the subsequent Ayyubid and Mamluk periods, Amman experienced a relative decline in urban significance. While it remained a notable military and trade outpost, its prominence within the broader regional context diminished especially after Hisban regained its status as the main Mamluk city in the region. From then until the 19th century, Amman was somewhat of a terra incognita, a temporary place of residence of neighboring tribes, without much going on.

Another story, just up north 

The Caucasus region is one of the most diverse regions in the world. It’s inhabited by numerous ethnolinguistic and religious groups, including Georgians, Armenians, Azeris, Circassians, Dagestanis, Ossetians, Avars, etc. In the 18th century, the Caucasus region was a hotbed for the imperial ambitions of neighboring forces; the Ottomans, Persians, and Russians. The Russian Empire’s incursions into the Caucasus began in the late 18th century but escalated during the 19th century. The Circassians, known for their fierce resistance to external domination, became a significant obstacle to Russian imperial ambitions. The conflict was not merely territorial but also had ethnic and cultural dimensions, as the Russian Empire sought to consolidate its control over the diverse peoples of the Caucasus.

The influx of Circassians into Transjordan was a segment of the widespread migration of Muslims from the North Caucasus area of the Russian Empire. This movement occurred during the closing stages of the lengthy Caucasus War (1817–64), with over a million Muslims resettling in the Ottoman Empire. But following the 1877–78 Russo-Ottoman War, the number of Circassian exiles increased, and numerous found themselves in Transjordan, in the Amman area. These refugees, initially of the Shapsugh tribe, established the city of Amman. Before their settlement, the area of Amman lacked permanent residents. The main allure for choosing Amman was its abundant water supply. This nascent farming community thrived on two water resources: the springs of Amman, known as Ras al-Ayn, and the Sayl Amman stream, which meandered through the heart of the village.


A Circassian guard of Emir Abdullah, first monarch of the Kingdom of Jordan, 1940


They settled among the ruins of the Roman theater and used its stones in the building of their first homes in what became the Shapsugh Quarter. In the years between 1880 and 1892, a new influx of Circassian refugees arrived, shaping the next phase of resettlement. They formed distinct neighborhoods, known as the Qabartay and Abzakh Quarters, named after the Circassian tribes that founded them. The last Circassian sector to emerge was established by Kabardin newcomers who migrated from the Russian Empire around 1902. They chose to reside near the Amman springs, lending their neighborhood the name Ras al-Ayn.  By the 1910s, Circassian settlements in Amman already managed to produce a surplus of grain for sale.

“They came, the first wh came was the hârat al Shapsoug. Then after a while came ahl ‘Ammân in one wave, half came here and half settled in Jerash. Then came the third wave of ahl ‘Ammân also. They call them Yerlij, Yerlij’a meaning the first wave, the second wave. The last wave, we the Muhâjîrin came,” said a Circassian resident of Amman to anthropologist Seteney Shami.

Ottoman archives, namely the Suriye Vilâyet Salnamesi mention a 1900-1901 census that documents that in that same year, Amman had 400 hanes, or about 2000 people. However, these areas of Circassian settlements became increasingly attractive to neighboring traders. The Muhajir community’s establishment in Amman quickly drew the attention of Arab investors, integrating the area into the broader economic fabric of the Levant. Previously, the Levant’s grain market was largely concentrated in the Hawran plains, situated north of the Balqa region. The demand for Hawrani wheat surged during the Crimean War (1853–56), driven by increased European needs. The creation of wheat-growing settlements by North Caucasian Muhajirs and others, along with the Ottoman Empire’s extended administrative reach to Salt, significantly enhanced the region’s economic appeal. Amman’s inaugural Arab traders hailed from Salt, encompassing both established Christian and Muslim locals, as well as recent settlers like people from neighboring Nablus in Palestine. But Amman’s commercial light would shine following the establishment of the Hejaz Railway, which connected Damascus to Medina in the Arabian Peninsula. Trains embarked from Damascus at 8:00 a.m. and reached Amman by 9:00 p.m., significantly reducing the time to be from one major hub to a rising one, in a travel that would otherwise take days to complete. Amman was located near the railway and therefore acquired a significant advantage over other cities on the way to Damascus. The newly-acquired commercial importance of Amman continued to attract dignitaries from neighboring regions, who were now moving into the city by purchasing estates built by the first Circassian refugees. Both Levantine Christians and Muslims were part of the new influx in Amman, chiefly the Hanna, Mango, Abu Hasan, Mu’ashshir, al-Nabulsi, Abu Jabir, Musharbash, Hajj Hasan, Bakhit, Shâ’ir and al-Muflih families. 


Members of the Circassians Charity Association in Amman, Jordan, 1958.

During the Second World War, this merchant class in Transjordan experienced significant prosperity, a result of a blend of deliberate and incidental factors. The establishment of the Middle East Supply Centre (MESC) in 1941 by the British, aimed at regulating imports, exports, and the distribution of food, greatly benefited the merchants. Additionally, the era’s wartime scarcities and soaring prices further amplified the profitability of the region’s agricultural sector, making it more lucrative than ever before. In the same year, a Chamber of Commerce was established in the city, and its council was made of commercial magnates, including Syrians, such as Sabri al-Tabbâ, Subhi al-Halabi, and Ramzi al-Haffâr and Palestinians, such as Shawkat ‘Asfur and Ismail al-Bilbaysi, as well as native Transjordanians merchants, from this point onwards, the city consolidated its reputation of a commercial hub.

See also

5 reasons to travel to Jordan

Published on 4 December 2023