Iraq al-Amir: Jordan’s springtime archaeological attraction
Iraq al-Amir - Passing through Amman’s endless traffic jams and heading towards the curvy roads of Wadi al-Seer, named after a prehistoric queen who ruled the area, rests a little-known site built by a Persian prince in the second century BC. Surrounded by olive trees and uninterrupted springs, the place is shrouded with a mysterious history.
Iraq al-Amir, 30km from the centre of Amman, sits among green meadows, proudly presenting a roofless Qasr al-Abed (Palace of the Slave) constructed by Prince Herkanus the Ammonite of the Tobias family and used extensively in the Byzantine period.
The name itself is a mystery to many people because the word “Iraq” in Arabic means “cave in the mountains.” The site, designated as “Caves of the Prince,” includes 15 caves that are usually empty but sometimes host shepherds and their sheep. They are worth having a glimpse inside.
“Not many know the mystery of such a site, which usually hosts families for a weekend picnic due to its closeness to Amman,” said Rana Naber, an archaeological and cultural activist. “However, the site hides a lot of history and it is worth discovering, especially the palace built in a very unique rectangular design with engravings of lions, tigers and eagles to symbolise power and glory.”
“The two-floor, 38 metres in length, 18.5 metres wide and 10 metres in height palace stands majestically watching over the carved caves in the near mountain,” Naber said.
“The palace was built using hard limestone, high-crystalline and white stones while the limestone sedimentary rocks, known as the ‘white dolomite,’ were used for the carved shapes of lionesses and lions found on the lower walls at the north-eastern and south-western corners,” she added.
The magnificent architecture of the site attracted the attention of tourists and engineers and architects, said architect Wael Koroh.
“Every stone of the Qasr al-Abed tells a story of architectural wonder and this palace is a unique masterpiece as you cannot find anything like it that is why engineers tend to learn from it,” Koroh said.
“The 15 caves that face the palace area have an artistic value and you can easily enjoy a remarkable panorama of the landscape by standing on the upper-level caves,” he said.
There are six caves on the lower level on the cliff that can be reached by staircases of stones. The rest are higher.
“The caves are full of secrets. They were used as shelters by many civilisations that settled there with their animals. Some have inscriptions that are still obvious today,” Koroh said. “Cave No 13, for instance, has a visible inscription in Aramaic of the name ‘Tobias,’ which many believe refers to the family of Prince Herkanus, who ordered the construction of the famous palace.”
The adjacent village of Iraq al-Amir is promoted by its inhabitants, who formed the Iraq al-Amir Women’s Cooperative Association, founded by Noor al-Hussein Foundation in 1993 to help women of the village increase income through traditional weaving, paper making, ceramics and cooking, skills that are shared with tourists visiting the area.
“The association located in the Ottoman part of Iraq al-Amir overlooking Qasr al-Abd has ten renovated historic farmhouses that accommodate the workshops and activities,” Naber said. “In addition, they have a visitors’ centre, a knowledge centre, showrooms and guesthouses, which were built in 1925. The work of the association brings colourful experience to tourists looking for something new.”
In 1996, a Jordanian archaeological mission led by the Department of Antiquities uncovered remains of a small church dating to the fifth or sixth century in front of one of the caves.
The findings led to another mission at Al Bassah Cave in Iraq al-Amir where Jesus and his followers are believed to have rested as they passed through Jordan, said site discoverer Mohammad Waheeb, a Jordanian professor of archaeology at the Hashemite University.
The cave has an arch-shaped gate and is topped with engravings of crosses inside a large triangle with important religious significance to Christianity.
“What we found was really amazing,” Waheeb said, “a church inside one of the caves that shows the secrecy in spreading Christianity and another church outside the cave that shows the second stage of publicly spreading Christianity.”
“There is a strong belief that Christ visited these caves and stayed in one of them and the Bible does refer to that,” he added.
Iraq al-Amir is very popular with Jordanians and foreign visitors, especially in the spring when one can enjoy the greenery, bulging springs and exuberant atmosphere.