Iraq al-Amir, a Hellenistic splendour, stands out near Amman

Friday 17/07/2015
A general view of an unfinished palace dating back to the Hellenistic period on the western edge of the Jordanian capital.

Amman - For those who want to see one of the few remaining structures, if not the only one, from the Hellenistic period in Jordan, a village on the south-western edge of Am­man is the place to visit.
Iraq al-Amir, which means “Caves of the Prince”, is the name shared by a palace, nearby caves and the bigger town surrounding these at­tractions in a lush valley, sliced by a stream from natural mountain springs in Amman’s Wadi el-Seer suburb.
However, like dozens of biblical and historic sites across Jordan, Iraq al-Amir is largely ignored by the government. Attention is usual­ly given to attractions that generate income, such as the famed Petra — a city carved in rose-red stone by the Nabataean Arab tribe that inhabited northern Arabia and the southern Levant 2,000 years ago.
Much of Iraq al-Amir is unguard­ed, which allows herders to use the ruins, including the caves, as shelter for sheep, goats and other animals, or as a dump for nearby homes.
“It’s a beautiful place but the fa­cilities and infrastructure are not good at all,” said tourist Adriana Ju­kantytar of Finland.
She said her group of 23 Nor­dic citizens over 60 had problems walking in the stony and hilly area, where there was no pavement for pedestrians.
“Some people in the group also wanted to use the restroom but there were none on site, except in a coffee shop kilometres away,” Ju­kantytar, 62, said.
“It’s sad that such a treasure is wasted.”
Tourism Ministry officials were not available to take calls from The Arab Weekly.
Arriving at Iraq al-Amir, 15 kilo­metres from Amman, a signpost points left from the road to a handi­crafts village. To the right, there are caves carved into the cliff.
About 500 metres south of the town is the reconstructed Qasr Al- Abd, Arabic for the “Palace of the Slave”. It is thought to have been built by Hermanus Tobiad, the governor of ancient Ammon, also known at the time as Philadelphia, in the second century BC.
The governor was called the “Slave of the People” for serving his community. Having been defeated by the Seleucid forces of Antiochus IV in 175 BC, the governor killed himself, leaving the structure un­completed.
Soon after that the Tobiad Dynas­ty died out.
In the palace’s vicinity, much of the village is in ruins, with its Otto­man buildings crying out for resto­ration. A column section of a Byz­antine church stands as a reminder of days gone by.
Howard Crosby Butler’s Prince­ton University Archaeological Ex­peditions in 1904 gave the first de­tailed description of the site but it was not until 1976 that work started on its restoration when French ar­chaeologists spent three years cata­loguing and a further seven years on reconstruction.
A trip up quite a few stairs of a newly built stone pathway lead­ing to the various caves on the cliff, brings into view a large, care­fully carved rectangular doorway that runs into a network of interior rooms.
Inscriptions in Aramaic sug­gest that the caves were carved by members of the Tobiad Dynasty for defensive refuge against attack, or perhaps as tombs.
There are many caves in the sur­rounding hills that date to the Cop­per Age.
From the caves, it’s an easy stroll down to the Qasr al-Abd.
Historians suggest that substan­tial modifications were carried out on the site during the Byzantine period but the area was destroyed by an earthquake in 362 AD. How­ever, opinions remain divided as to whether the building was a palace or a temple or perhaps a combina­tion.
The tiny rooms, which occupied the ground floor, were almost cer­tainly used for storage, with the up­per floor used for accommodation or religious purposes.
At the entrance, “Tobia” is en­graved in Aramaic. There is also a carving of a lioness sheltering a cub. The palace’s exterior was once richly decorated but only a few fea­tures remain.
The animal carvings on the ex­terior walls are the site’s highlights — the carved panther fountain on the ground floor, the eroded eagles on the corners and the lioness with cubs on the upper level of the back side.
“I found the village to be abso­lutely delightful,” Agnes Vilder­man, a German tourist, said.
“I am surprised at the ease of which one can go around the caves and the palace. You can walk every­where and touch whatever you like. “I love trying to imagine what the palace looked like and how its peo­ple lived in and around it. Perhaps as the people in this area sustain the lovely handicraft village, so did the palace’s people sustain it for its master at the time.”