Located just south of the Syrian border, the ancient city of Umm al-Jimal is known for its the signature black basalt stone. Inscriptions found at the site span five languages: Arabic, Greek, Latin, Nabataean, and Safaitic, showing the rich and diverse groups who have inhabited it.

Paleolithic hunter-gatherers laid traps in the area, and after the domestication of animals, nomads would graze their herds in the area. The first recorded settlement was of these same nomadic Arab peoples hosting Nabataean trade caravans who used Um al-Jimal as a stop in their routes between Petra and Damascus. Although few structures from this period remain, excavation teams have found inscriptions on stones that were reused by later inhabitants.

When Roman powers came to occupy the area in the second century CE, they constructed military fortifications and used the city as part of Limes Arabicus, the line of garrisoned forts that protected the Roman province of Arabia. The castellum (watch tower), Great Reservoir, praetorium (emperor or general’s residence), temple, and other structures that still stand today can be traced back to the time of Diocletian and Constantine.

By the fifth or sixth century CE, the town was a prosperous Byzantine hub that was home to more than 6,000 people, marking its transition to a primarily civilian population. It was also during this period that many residents converted to Christianity, explaining the remains of fifteen churches and other Christian symbols that can be found at the site today. After the Muslim conquest, the agricultural community continued to prosper, and additional buildings were constructed at Umm al-Jimal.

Tragedy struck in 749 CE when an earthquake rocked the town of Umm al-Jimal. This combined with a pandemic, drought, and the shift of the seat of political power to Baghdad from Damascus, led to the gradual depopulation and eventual abandonment of the city during the ninth century CE. As urban living fell out of favor, the nomadic economy that existed before the Nabataean settlement returned.

For more than one thousand years, the city lay deserted, the basalt masonry remaining largely unperturbed by the passage of time. In the early 20th century, Druze fleeing persecution in Syria and Lebanon arrived in the area reconstructing the existing buildings, where they lived until 1932 when the modern border between Syria and Jordan cut their access to Jebal Druze. After the Druze departed, Arab Bedouin settled in the area.

Excavation and Conservation:

Primary work at the site is done by The Umm el-Jimal Project began as an archaeological research program in 1972, founded by Dr. Bert de Vries to continue work first begun by Howard C. Butler and the Princeton University Expedition to South Syria in 1905 and 1909. Today it is an ongoing collaborative enterprise between the project and its international partners, including the residents and Municipality of Umm al-Jimal the Jordanian Department of Antiquities, Jordan’s Ministries of Education and Tourism, the American Schools of Oriental Research (ASOR), American Center of Oriental Research (ACOR), and Open Hand Studios.

In 2007, this collaborative group began a new phase of research and work to continue integrating the academic and archaeological context of Umm al-Jimal with the site’s physical conservation, the modern community’s everyday life and cultural heritage, sustainable development, and public dissemination of results via an educational curriculum as well as on-site and virtual museums. The work has uncovered inscriptions, ceramics, human remains and architecture. In June 2015 the project launched a new round of community engagement and archaeology ventures funded by the USAID SCHEP.

USAID SCHEP is working to create a local tourism economy which strengthens the role of the community by improving the presentation and interpretation of the site for local residents, guides, and visitors. Much of this has focused on creating a tourist path throughout the site and installing interpretive panels so that visitors can experience the full history of the site. USAID SCHEP also trains residents of modern Umm al-Jimal to serve as professionals in sustainable site management. This has included providing employment opportunities for 63 local residents and 13 continuing professional development opportunities.

USAID SCHEP’s work has focused on preserving the Commodus Gate, on the west side of the site. This entrance lies near the municipality of Umm al-Jimal’s planned downtown revitalization project, which will host local restaurants, crafts, and other businesses. Another element is the site management plan USAID SCHEP and the Department of Antiquities are developing to help preserve site and nominate it as a UNESCO world heritage site. 

Host Community:

The Msa’eid tribe, who had long been grazing animals in the area made a home for their community among the ruins beginning in the 1930’s. They not only repurposed existing structures, but they also constructed a town surrounding the area, which has grown steadily since the 1950s.  In an effort to preserve the ruins, the Department of Antiquities fenced off the area in 1972 and the people of Umm al-Jimal moved outside of the site itself to form the community that still exists today.

Currently, the population of Umm al-Jimal is around 6,500 people, with more than 45% of the population living in poverty.  Zaatari refugee camp, the largest camp for Syrian refugees in Jordan, lies directly outside of Umm al-Jimal. The influx of the Syrian population has also directly impacted the community.  Despite these challenges and poor economic indicators, the area is home to a vibrant community.

One piece of this community is the Umm al-Jimal Women’s Cooperative Society, which provides training, participation, and leadership opportunities in the fields of handicraft production, food and hospitality, cultural tourism, site preservation and maintenance, and business development. 

Additionally, residents of Umm al-Jimal have come together to form the Black Jewel Cooperative Society. The main goal of this cooperative is to improve community well-being by preserving its cultural heritage and environment through sustainable, income-generating programs.

The community of Umm al-Jimal is inexorably linked to the site itself, and SCHEP is proud to work with archaeologists and community members to showcase both the town and historic site. Continued exploration of the site of Umm al-Jimal will be pared with responsible, sustainable, and grassroots development within the community itself.

For More on Umm al-Jimal check the project's website and Facebook

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About the history of Umm al Jimal 

Project Director: Bert DeVries