Amman PDF Print E-mail
Written by Micah Key and Stephen Langfur
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Later history
 In the First Testament the name was Rabbath-Ammon. It may mean "the Great City of the Ammonites," but because the name Rabbah, a feminine form, sometimes appears alone, it may have referred instead to the chief goddess of the Ammonite pantheon, "the Great Lady" (just as Jeru-salem referred to the Canaanite deity Shalem, Beth-lehem to Lahmu, and  Beth-el to El).

Ammonite kingThe Ammonites first appeared around the same time as Israel, along with Moab and Edom further south. These groups were basically tribal. In each the main bond was kinship, for in the mountain country kinship is the only tie you can count on when the going gets rough. In the 13th and 12th centuries BC, the going got very rough indeed. We are not sure why, but it is clear that there was major famine. Masses of hungry people were on the move from the Balkans through Asia Minor to the northern border of Egypt. During the course of a century, from 1250 until 1150, Mycenaean Greek civilization vanished, and this was followed by the collapse of the Hittite Empire in Asia Minor. The big Canaanite cities fell, such as Megiddo and Hazor , and the dominoes kept tumbling down to the border of Egypt. In the midst of the turmoil, Egypt pressed its Canaanite vassals for grain. Many farmers took to the hills to escape the demand, becoming shepherds. A group known as the Arameans, who had long populated the fringes of the Fertile Crescent, moved southward and westward, while groups known in Egyptian texts as the Sea Peoples, including the Philistines, invaded from the Aegean. We have discussed this crisis elsewhere as the great upheaval . When the dust finally settled, around 1150, Egypt was gone from Canaan. The Philistines inhabited the southern coast. Israelite tribes had the highlands west of the Jordan and, in part, on the east as well. Moab and Edom were in place. And the Ammonites had established their capital, Rabbath-Ammon.

Like Edom and Moab, the Ammonites soon formed a kingdom (as Israel did soon after). The Bible traces their ancestry to Lot, nephew of Abraham, and on account of this the Israelites were not permitted to take their land Deuteronomy 2: 19). Later we find the Ammonites attacking the Israelites in Gilead, until Gilead's elders appealed for help to an outcast, Jephthah, who had built himself up as a local strong man. They begged him to subdue the Ammonites, which he did.

The Ammonites were not the first to establish a city here: there are parts of the wall as well as tombs from the time of the Hyksos four centuries earlier. The founders chose a spot 3000 feet high, near the desert but still in arable land, with a river running below . Its height provided good defense in one respect (better than in nearby Heshbon), though distancing it from the best water source. The location was excellent for commerce. If you study the map below, note that Rabbath-Ammon is sitting on the King's Highway , which stretches north-south along the easternmost line of rainfall. (Amman gets today 23 inches of rain per year, about the same amount as Jerusalem.) It is close to the intersection of this highway with the route that heads west-east from the Great Trunk Road through Jericho. Now, the King's Highway and the Great Trunk Road were the two main thoroughfares connecting Egypt with Damascus, whence traffic could continue to Mesopotamia. The link roads between them were also important. The way from the coast through Jericho was the southernmost good link, because further to the south lay major impediments (the Dead Sea , the Judean desert and the Negev ). The location at the junction, as well as defensibility and abundant water, gave Rabbath Ammon its importance.

Map of Amman's position

Archaeologists have found remains of structures from First Testament Rabbah, especially the 8th and 7th centuries. Tombs yielded pottery showing ties with Edom. There was also a piece of an inscription written in Ammonite; it concerns construction activities in the city, as commanded by the god Milcom. They also found the statue of Yerah-Ezer, an 8th-century Ammonite king, pictured above.

We can get an idea of Rabbah's mighty position with the help of the photo below. The pillars high up in the distance are on the site of First Testament Rabbah, although they belong to the acropolis of the later Roman city. The photo was taken from the river valley, where the Romans had a theater and forum.

Rabbath Ammon as seen from river

As so often in this region, the city's  "Achilles' heel" was water. In the First Testament period, people would choose a high place for defense, but the water was seldom up there. The pattern, in the case of major towns, was to dig a shaft that would provide safe access to the source from inside the walls. (See, for instance, Jerusalem and Megiddo.) At Rabbath Ammon, however, no shaft could have reached the river so far down, and the nearest good spring, Ain Ghazal, is about two miles distant. 

How then did the Ammonites get water?

They would have used cisterns, of course, but the amount of water provided by direct rainfall could not have sufficed in time of siege.

reservoir of Rabbath Ammon The only archaeological indication so far is a large underground reservoir on the summit's northern edge. It could go back to the Ammonites or earlier. To supplement runoff from rainfall, they may have hauled water from the river and stored it here.

We have a Biblical passage that bears on this vulnerability. Joab, King David's general, laid siege to Rabbath Ammon while David remained in Jerusalem. This was the setting for the story of David's lust for Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah the Hittite, who was fighting with David's army at Rabbah. (The story .) After the death of Uriah, followed by the death of the illegitimate child and the birth of Solomon, we have this (2 Samuel 12: 26-28): "Now Joab fought against Rabbah of the children of Ammon, and took the royal city. Joab sent messengers to David, and said, 'I have fought against Rabbah. Yes, I have taken the city of waters ('ir-ha-mayyim). Now therefore gather the rest of the people together, and encamp against the city, and take it; lest I take the city, and it be called after my name.'"

The passage implies two sites: the "city of waters" and the city proper. The first fell to Joab, the second to David. Perhaps the city of waters was a fortress at the river that was responsible for securing the water supply, while the main city was up above. (Compare the towers surrounding the Gihon spring in 18th-century-BC Jerusalem).

We shall encounter the same vulnerability 800 years later, but first let us span the history.

The Ammonites were able to wrest independence from the subsequent kings of Israel and Judah. When Assyria conquered the region in 735 and again in 721, they apparently moved into towns vacated by the Israelite tribe of Gad. These actions are reflected in Jeremiah 49: 1-2,

Of the children of Ammon. Thus says Yahweh: Has Israel no sons? has he no heir? why then does Milcom [or possible,  "their king"] possess Gad, and his people dwell in its cities? Therefore behold, the days come, says Yahweh, that I will cause an alarm of war to be heard against Rabbah of the children of Ammon; and it shall become a desolate heap, and her daughters shall be burned with fire: then shall Israel possess those who possessed him, says Yahweh.

In the 6th century BC, the Ammonites helped Nebuchadnezzar conquer Judah (2 Kings 24: 1-3). Their territory was peacefully absorbed as a province into the Babylonian Empire. After the Persians conquered Babylon in 539, it was taken over by them.