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Virtual Jewish World: Transjordan

Geographically, Transjordan (Heb. עֵבֶרהַיַרְדֵּן) includes the area east of the Jordan River, extending from the sources of the Jordan near the Hermon to the Dead Sea. However, the area north of the Yarmuk River (the Golan and Bashan) are regarded as a separate entity, while the area east of the Dead Sea and the Arabah, down to the Red Sea, is included in the region of Transjordan.

In its geographical configuration, Transjordan is composed of a series of three regions running from north to south: the eastern Jordan Valley; the slopes descending to the valley, which face westward and are well provided with rainfall; and the mountains which slope gently eastward and merge with the desert steppe. The settled part of this area covers 6,840 sq. mi. (17,500 sq. km.), of which the Jordan-Dead Sea depression comprises 215 sq. mi. (550 sq. km.), the mountain and hill region 2,617 sq. mi. (6,700 sq. km.), the high plateau 2,051 sq. mi. (5,250 sq. km.), and the sandy southern regions approximately 1,953 sq. mi. (c. 5,000 sq. km.). Politically, in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, the region of Transjordan is considered to include 28,320 sq. mi. (72,500 sq. km.) of steppe and desert in a broad strip joining Iraq and dividing Syria from Saudi-Arabia.

The settled area is cut by confluents of the Jordan flowing from east to west, and by rivers emptying into the Dead Sea: the Yarmuk, forming the northern boundary of the region; the Jabbok, separating Gilead from Ammon and the Peraea; the Nimrīn, usually the northern boundary of Moab; the Arnon, at certain times the boundary of Moab; the Zered, separating Moab from Edom and the mountains of Seir. The mountain range parallel to the Jordan on the east varies in height: in the ʿAjlūn (Gilead), Tell ʿIbbīn is 3,940 ft. (1,182 m.) high, Umm al-Daraj is 4,203 ft. (1,261 m.) high, and Qalʿat Ilyās is 3,640 ft. (1,092 m.) high. South of the Jabbok, Nabī Yūshaʿ reaches to 3,710 ft. (1,113 m.) and Mount Nebo to 2,650 ft. (795 m.); south of the Arnon, Jebel Sīhān is 3,550 ft. (1,065 m.) high and Jebel al-Ḥasāʾ is 113 ft. (1,234 m.) high; the mountains of Seir reach to 5,776 ft. (1,733 m.). The greatest rainfall is in the ʿAjlūn (c. 27½ in.; 700 mm.) and in the mountains of Seir (c. 15¾ in.; 400 mm.). Most of the cultivable area receives about 8 in. (200 mm.) annually, with a rainfall of about 3 in. (80 mm.) in the desert. The mountains of Gilead are still wooded; in antiquity the area was much more thickly afforested, as is borne out by the story of Absalom. There is evidence that a large area under cultivation extended eastward. Iron was mined near Jerash and copper in the Arabah (see Punon ).


Paleolithic and Mesolithic remains, the earliest traces of occupation in Transjordan, have been found in the mountains of Seir and in Wadi Nimrīn. A pre-ceramic Neolithic settlement was discovered at al-Bayḍāʾ, southeast of the Dead Sea. Megalithic constructions were found at Alfa Safat and al-ʿUdayma in the Jordan Valley. Near the latter site is Tulaylāt al-Ghassūl, a Chalcolithic site of great importance, which gave its name to the Ghassulian culture. From the Early Bronze Age onward, a certain pattern of occupation can be noticed, mainly in the southern part of Transjordan, as a result of the archaeological survey undertaken by N. Glueck: periods of settlement varied with periods in which the area was abandoned to nomads.

The first period of settlement lasted from approximately the 23rd to the 19th century B.C.E. According to biblical tradition, the early populations included the Zuzims at Ham in northern Gilead, the Emims in Moab, and the Horites in Mount Seir (Gen. 14:5–6). Possibly as a result of the invasion described in this chapter, there was a decline in the settlement of Transjordan from the 19th to approximately the 14th century B.C.E. Egyptian texts do not mention any cities in Transjordan within this span of time, except for those in the Jordan Valley proper: Pehel (Pella; Execration Texts, Thutmosis III and Seti I), and perhaps Zaphon (Tell el-Amarna letters), Zarethan (Execration Texts), and Kiriath Anab (Tell al-Shihāb on the Yarmuk; Seti I, Papyrus Anastasi I). Only in the 13th century, in inscriptions of Ramses II, are cities in Moab, including Dibon, mentioned for the first time. The biblical definition of the Egyptian province of Canaan (Num. 34) definitely excludes Transjordan, which was left to the Shasu nomads.

About a century before the Exodus, Transjordan was settled again by the Ammonites, Moabites, and Edomites, who formed a strong chain of kingdoms, with extensive areas under cultivation and a system of efficient border fortresses. Probably in the early 13th century, Moab was attacked from the north by Sihon, the Amorite king of Heshbon, who wrested the area north of the Arnon from it. The Israelites, coming from the wilderness, found it extremely difficult to cross Transjordan; finally they passed east of the settled area of Moab and Edom; their victory over Sihon gave them the entire Jordan Valley, the Gilead, and part of Moab. This area was allotted to the tribes of Reuben (from the Arnon to the Nimrīn Valley), Gad (from southern Gilead to the Jabbok and the Jordan Valley), and half of Manasseh (from the Jabbok northward).

In the period of the Judges these tribes were subjected to the kings of Ammon and Moab, until David eventually conquered all of Transjordan down to the Red Sea. In the time of Solomon, Israelite-controlled Transjordan was organized into the three districts of Ramoth-Gilead, Mahanaim, and southern Gilead (Gad; I Kings 4:13–14, 19). After the division of the kingdom, Ammon and Moab fell to Israel and Edom to Judah, but all three soon regained their independence. As is known from the Mesha stele, Moab was reconquered by Omri; it revolted against Israel in the time of Ahab, finally gaining its independence in the days of Joram, the last of the Omrid kings (851–842 B.C.E.; cf. II Kings 3). In later times Israel never succeeded in subduing Moab, which under Mesha had enlarged its boundaries to the edge of the Jordan Valley. However, the kings of Judah succeeded in ruling large parts of Edom in the ninth century during the days of Jehoshaphat and Jehoram, and again in the eighth century in the days of Amaziah and Uzziah.

With the eighth century B.C.E., the settled area of Transjordan began once more to shrink, a process which lasted until the Hellenistic period. The Assyrian king Tiglath-Pileser III deported part of the Israelite population from Gilead in 732 B.C.E. The Ammonites maintained their independence, and the Edomites threw off Judean rule in the time of Ahaz (743–727 B.C.E.). After the fall of Jerusalem and the deportation of its population by Nebuchadnezzar in 586 B.C.E., the Edomites moved into southern Judea and their place was gradually taken over by the Nabateans, a people known for outstanding achievements in agriculture, architecture, and art. Their kingdom was composed of sections of Transjordan, Palestine, and Syria, and Petra was their capital (fourth century B.C.E.). In the Persian period, Ammon was ruled by the Jewish family of *Tobiads , whose roots in Gilead dated back to the time of the Israelite monarchy.

In Hellenistic times, a new period of prosperity began for Transjordan, lasting until the Arab conquest. The Ptolemies or Seleucids founded a number of cities in the northern part: Gadara and Abila to the north, followed by Pella and Gerasa. Rabbath-Ammon became the city of Philadelphia and was separated from the area of the Tobiads, who ruled the region populated by Jews between Philadelphia and the Jordan (the Peraea).

Transjordan passed temporarily from Ptolemaic to Seleucid rule in 218 B.C.E. and permanently in 198 B.C.E. In the course of Hasmonean expansion, large areas of Transjordan were conquered by Jonathan (the Peraea), John Hyrcanus (Madaba and Heshbon), and Alexander Yannai (Moab to the Zered, Gerasa, Pella, and Gadara). In 63 B.C.E., Pompey restored the autonomy of the Greek cities, leaving only Peraea to the Jews. To strengthen the Greek element under Roman rule, he formed the Decapolis league, which included Philadelphia.

For a time, Herod ruled Gadara, which was restored to Syria after his death. In the First Jewish War, the Peraea was conquered by the Romans (68 C.E.), but its Jewish population remained. In 97, the city of Capitolias was founded at Belt al-Rās near Pella. In 106 Trajan annexed the Nabatean kingdom; the cities of Madaba, Esbus (Heshbon), Areopolis (Rabbath-Moab), Charachmoba, and Petra became part of the new province of Arabia, into which Philadelphia and Gerasa were incorporated. The cities of the area reached a height of prosperity in the second century C.E. under the Antonines, due to a new paved road (the Via Nova) running from Elath (Aila) to Bostra throughout the length of Transjordan.

Christianity gained an early foothold in Transjordan, when the Jerusalem community moved to Pella in 70 C.E. In the Byzantine period southern Transjordan was attached to Palaestina III, the rest to Arabia. Churches and monasteries were built in all the large cities and the bishops took part in church councils.

In the last centuries of Byzantine rule, Arab influences in the area were marked. The first battle between the Arabs and the Byzantines took place in 629, still in the lifetime of the prophet Muhammad, in Transjordan (in Mu’ta, near Karak). The final Arab conquest was effected in several stages: southern Transjordan was taken in 630, the mountains of Seir and Moab in 634, and the rest of the region in 635. With the battle on the Yarmuk in 636, Arab rule in the area was established.

In the early Arab period, the area up to Jerash was attached to the Jund al-Urdunn; central Transjordan, including Amman, to the Jund Filasṭīn; and the northern part to the Jund Dimashq (Damascus). Under Arab rule the northern part of Transjordan together with northern Palestine constituted an administrative unit called Jund al-Urdun, with Tiberias as its capital. Central and southern Transjordan, with the equivalent parts west of the river Jordan, became Jund Filastīn, administered from Ramleh. The Arab period marked the beginning of a new decline in the population, which became pronounced for centuries after the Crusades (13th to 19th centuries).

In the Crusades period, the Jordan Valley, part of the ʿAjlūn, and the mountains of Karak and Shawbak down to the Red Sea were combined into a principality known as Terre D'Outre Jourdain. As the Crusaders, and especially the rulers of the fortress of Montreal (Shawbak), threatened the pilgrims’ route to Mecca and even the holy cities themselves, Saladin attacked and reduced the Crusader fortresses before the battle of Ḥiṭṭin.

Under Mamluk rule Transjordan was divided between Mamlakat Dimashq (the districts (aʿmāl) of ʿAjlūn and al-Balqā ʾ) and Mamlakat al-Karak, which included Maʿān, Shawbak, Zughar (Zoar), and Karak. In the time of Baybars it was ruled by the last descendant of the Ayyubid dynasty.

In Ottoman times the population of Transjordan reached its lowest level and most of Transjordan was left to the Bedouin, although the sultans kept up a semblance of administration in the western areas. Most of the region was part of the vilayet of Damascus, divided into the Sanjak of Ḥawrān (to the Jabbok), the Sanjak of Nablus, which occasionally included the Balqāʾ, and the Sanjak of al-Karak. The southern sections, Ma’an and Aqaba, were part of the vilayet of Hijaz. However, Ottoman rule was nominal most of the time. Transjordan was regarded as the backyard of Syria and Palestine and concerned the Ottomans only during the annual pilgrimage, as the main Hajj caravan from Damascus had to cross it en route to Medina. Only in the second half of the 19th century, after the short-lived Egyptian occupation (1831–40) and during the reform period (Tanzimat), under Abdul-Ḥamid II, was resettlement begun. The Ottomans had extended their direct rule over Transjordan. Karak, the capital of its namesake sanjak, was the major city in the area and the jurisdiction of its governor stretched over most of sedentary Transjordan. Local population increased when Circassian refugees from Russian-occupied Caucasus were encouraged by the Ottomans (in 1861–64, and later after the Turkish-Russian war of 1877–78) to migrate to Palestine and Transjordan. In the latter, they settled in and around Amman, Zarqa, and Jarash.

The 19th century also witnessed growing European interest in Transjordan, mainly for archeological and historical reasons – in 1812 Burckhardt discovered Petra and, in 1806, Seetzen discovered Jarash. In the second half of the 19th century, the interest of the Palestine Exploration Fund as well as of Christian churches and missions in Transjordan yielded, inter alia, the discovery of the Mesha stele and the Madaba mosaic map. In 1900–08, the Ottomans built the Hijazi railroad from Damascus to Medina. About one third of the 1,200 km. line passed through Transjordan, bringing it closer to the administrative centers of Damascus and Istanbul, yet also triggering several rebellions in Karak.

For modern period after 1914, see also Jordan.


G. Schumacher, Across the Jordan (1886); idem, Karte des Ostjordanlandes (1908); A. Musil, Arabia Petraea (1907); R.E. Bruennow and A. Domaszewski, Provincia Arabia, 3 vols. (1904–09); C. Sternagel, Der Adschlun (1927); H. Rhotert, Transjordanien (1938); N. Glueck, The Other Side of the Jordan (1940); idem, Explorations in Eastern Palestine, 4 vols. (1934–51); A. Konikoff, Transjordan (1946); L. Harding, The Antiquities of Jordan (1959). ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: N. Lewis, Nomads and Settlers in Syria and Jordan (1987); R.S. AbuJaber, Pioneers over Jordan: The Frontier Settlement in Transjordan 18501914 (1989); E. Rogan, Frontiers of State in the Late Ottoman Empire: Transjordan 18501921 (1999).

[Michael Avi-Yonah / Joseph Nevo (2nd ed.)]

Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.