If you’re relying on public transport, the only feasible access to the eastern desert is via the industrial cities of Zarqa or Mafraq, both located northeast of Amman along the main Syria-bound highway. Neither is even remotely geared up for tourism, though: if you’re driving, bypass them both and aim for the big skies further east.
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Umm al-JimalIn 1913, the American archeologist H.C. Butler wrote: “Far out in the desert there is a deserted city all of basalt, [rising] black and forbidding from the grey of the plain.” The romance and sense of discovery accompanying a visit to UMM AL-JIMAL (literally “Mother of Camels”) remain, even though the plain is now irrigated, and a modern village with good roads has grown up around the ruins. The site, about 75km northeast of Amman, has been well excavated and is rewarding to explore – you could spend a couple of hours here, though the sun can be fierce: bring water, and plan to visit before 11am or after 3pm. Conservation work here was continuing as this book went to press; you may find access and on-site information have improved when you visit.
Umm al-Jimal was occupied from roughly the first to the eighth centuries. Following Queen Zenobia of Palmyra’s rebellion against Rome around 270 AD, the village was rebuilt as a military station on the fortified frontier of the Roman Empire. It prospered as an agricultural and commercial centre; a sixth-century conversion to Christianity resulted in fifteen churches going up. The town continued to prosper after the Muslim conquest, though an eighth-century onslaught of earthquake, plague and war led to the town’s abandonment, until it was resettled in the early twentieth century by Syrian Druze families and local bedouin.
Umm al-Jimal’s appeal lies in its ordinariness. Although it is roughly contemporary with the grand city of Jerash, only a day’s ride westward, Umm al-Jimal has no temples or impressive monumental buildings. There’s not even any evidence of the town’s original Roman name, which remains unknown. The archeologist who excavated the ruins, Bert de Vries, perceptively explained Umm al-Jimal as “a symbol of the real life of Rome’s subjects”.
Start a one- or two-hour walking tour at the barracks, which date from the fifth century. In the eastern wall the basalt slab door, which still moves on its hinges, gives onto a courtyard. The late Byzantine corner tower is inscribed with crosses and the names of the four archangels: Gabriel, Raphael, Michael and Uriel.
Picking a path between Houses 102 and 116, and left around House 104, will deliver you to the double church, two adjacent basilicas tucked into the houses around them, fronted by a small ablutions basin. Nearby House XVI’s lockable double doors would have fitted together snugly, and inside is a good example of a corbelled ceiling, the strong basalt beams supporting a much greater load than limestone could. Back behind you, the sheikh’s house (House XVIII) is outside on the left. Its large internal courtyard has a cantilevered staircase on the left and two in front forming a V-shape; stables were ranged at ground level, with bedrooms above. If you leave the courtyard through the gate here, you’ll spot a beautiful double-arched window three storeys up. The 2012 archeological season focused on restoration of this house: it may be in better shape when you visit.
From here, wandering north through the loose, clinking basalt leads to a huge reservoir – now fenced off – that was originally Roman. Just west of the reservoir, a scramble through House 82 brings you into House XIII, with mangers and an interlocking stone ventilation screen – partially obscured by a recently built arch – dividing space for livestock within the house.
It’s a 150m walk across to the four graceful and strikingly silhouetted arches of the West Church. The structure that remains is the division between the nave and a side-aisle; beautiful Byzantine crosses are carved on the arches. A little way south the cathedral sports a reused lintel stone mentioning Valens, Valentinian and Gratian, co-emperors in 371 AD. Close by is the praetorium, with a triple doorway. As you stroll you may come across a herd of beautiful white camels – they belong to a local sheikh.
Fans of Roman roads could drive to see a well-preserved stretch of the Via Nova Traiana, which survives near BAA’IDJ village. Take the perimeter road around Umm al-Jimal to the West Church and fork left; after 7km, a left turn at a T-junction, right at a small roundabout and straight on at a bigger roundabout will bring you after 600m to the cambered Roman road, which points north across the fields towards Bosra and south towards Amman.