Umm el-Jimal PDF Print E-mail
Written by Micah Key
A corner in Umm el-Jimal The locals call it “Umm el-Jimal," “the Mother of Camels.” Today it is a rough rectangle of ruined buildings, half a mile long and a third wide, constructed out of the local basalt. Its ancient identity has been forgotten, and in recent centuries, before archaeological work began, only the Beduin and their camels camped here—hence the present name. Its remote location in the bleak north of Transjordan, surrounded by volcanic rock, assured its preservation: there was no large population nearby to reuse the stones.
Umm el-Jimal lay 15 miles from the important city of Bostra, but the village itself had no world-historical importance. There are no grand monuments or temples. Yet its remarkable state of preservation rewards the visitor with a glimpse of a small town in Roman and Byzantine antiquity. 

The original town, founded by Nabataeans, lay southeast of here. The town whose ruins we see developed after the Romans acquired the Nabataean Kingdom in 106 AD. It became part of the newly formed Province of Arabia. A few years later, the Emperor Trajan built a new road, replacing the King’s Highway: the Via Nova Traiana. En route to Bostra, its northernmost point, this passed six kilometers west of Umm el-Jimal, and a secondary road branched to the town. Connected thus to the Roman imperial network, the population grew to 2000-3000.

Umm el-Jimal aerial view

In the 3rd century, to protect its holdings from the rebellious Queen Zenobia of Palmyra, Rome fortified the village with a military unit, beginning its transformation into an army outpost. In the 4th and 5th centuries, still trying to protect the interior cities from the Persian Sassanids and nomadic raiders, the emperors Diocletian and Constantine created the Limes Arabicus, a defensive network that included Umm el-Jimal. A new town center with a fortress and walls went up, as well as a public building known as the Praetorium (presumably an administrative center). In the 5th century barracks were built. In their southeast tower, which stands to a height of six stories, the names of the archangels—Michael, Uriel, Gabriel and Raphael—are inscribed. Given the lack of a natural water supply, several large reservoirs were constructed.

Umm el-Jimal SW section

Umm el-Jimal: Corbelling According to Trombley, Christianity came to Umm el-Jimal early in the Byzantine period. The nearby metropolis of Bostra had its own bishop at the Council of Nicaea in 325. Christianity must have radiated out to the suburbs, including Umm el-Jimal. This had a Christian graveyard by 344, as the following inscription attests:

This is the memorial of Julianos, weighed down by long sleep, for whom his father Agathos built it while shedding a tear beside the boundary of the communal cemetery of the people of Christ, in order that a better people might always sing of him openly, being formerly the beloved faithful [son?] of Agathos the presbyter, aged twelve. In the year 239 [of the era of the Provincia Arabia = 344 AD].

The Byzantine era saw Umm el-Jimal at its height. The population peaked at about 10,000. During the 5th and 6th centuries, 14 churches were constructed.

The 159 houses that have been identified in the fortified town were all built in a simple, Middle Eastern style: a single low opening, a courtyard, and several rooms opening from the central courtyard. It seems that when a man from the family married, he simply built another room adjoining the original house. In some of the houses, stone sinks and mangers can still be seen, attesting to the rural lifestyle. Animals dwelled on the lower floor and people slept on the upper, as was common throughout the Levant. Even the many churches resemble Middle Eastern forms rather than Hellenistic ones: most seem to be attached to a particular household.

Of Umm el-Jimal’s 14 churches, the biggest and most striking is the West Church, originally built into the city wall itself. The only part of it still standing is the arched division between the nave and a side-aisle.

Umm el-Jimal: West Church

In the 7th century, the armies of newly born Islam swept up from the Arabian peninsula. Umm el-Jimal became part of the Umayyad Caliphate. It remained under Islamic influence after that, but with the shift of the political center away from nearby Bostra to Damascus, the town became increasingly irrelevant. A plague and an earthquake in 749 AD convinced the remaining inhabitants to seek a livelihood elsewhere. By the 9th century, Umm el-Jimal had become a black, half toppled campground for the Beduin and their camels.