by Lauren Erker
Rural life in Jordan during the Ottoman period is a topic that has received little attention from archaeologists. While there is a rich corpus of historical writings on the late Ottoman period due to the Tanzimat reforms, archaeological literature on the subject remains scant. Any tour across the landscape of Jordan will reveal remains of the Ottoman period, the most obvious being the Ottoman hajj forts (Fig. 1), many of which were constructed or reconstructed during the early Ottoman period. Less conspicuous are the remains of villages, which are usually located within or near modern villages (Fig. 2). Sometimes they are majestically poised on tops of hills, or along the slopes of wadis, hidden from view. Approaching them from afar is a special experience: sometimes they blend into their surroundings well, being constructed of local limestone and nari (calcrete/caliche), but just as often they feature local basalt in the construction, making them a striking image in the landscape. In other cases, the modern villages have grown around the old Ottoman-period structures (for example, Fig. 3), which were often themselves built on earlier remains. Many of these villages were occupied for centuries and thus hold special historical value to Jordan, although they are often overlooked for scientific study in favor of ancient sites.
Popular discourse has it that archaeological sites of the later periods do not hold the same romantic associations and mystery that those of the ancient periods do, and this has unfortunately led to their being forgotten, by locals and academics alike. Although the late medieval/early modern periods have not often been considered with a great deal of seriousness by archaeologists, this is slowly changing, as the inherent value that these villages have to our archaeological knowledge is beginning to be understood. These multi-period sites are valuable not only because they have earlier occupation levels; it should be made abundantly clear that the current hierarchical perception of time periods in the field of archaeology is an archaic viewpoint that must be left in the past. The fact is that these villages represent continuity, a topic not often favored by academic research, as sudden changes in the archaeological record present a mystery to be solved. However, it needs to be acknowledged that continuity is what archaeology is meant to examine as well—what everyday life was like for people: not just in those moments of crisis and war, but what characterized the lives of people, most of whom fell within the social category of “peasantry” (or fellahin). Ironically, this class made up the majority of the population, yet they remain the least understood.
One of the ways that we can begin to understand the lives of the fellahin in Jordan is through the study of the villages they left behind, which are steadily disappearing. Many are currently in ruins and as of yet have not been systematically excavated. Places of the later periods in this region are often seen only for their worth in terms of cultural heritage, and while they are of course important in this respect, they also hold great value in terms of advancing our archaeological knowledge of the region. However, simply preserving them for future generations is not enough; understanding their inherent value begins with devoted academic engagement.
Ottoman archaeology is an historical archaeology, and it represents an opportunity to bridge the fields of history and archaeology, both of which have serious weaknesses in the study of this period in Jordan. In terms of historical sources, the first century of Ottoman rule in the region was fairly well recorded through tax registers and regularly conducted cadastral surveys, making their combined analysis a perfect tool for the archaeologist, who studies processes as they occur over long periods of time. Unfortunately, this practice was discontinued after this first century of rule, but this in itself reveals something important about state and local relations, indicating that state presence was ephemeral, if not completely nil. The general lack of textual data thereafter has been historically interpreted as something of a dark age in the region, where Bedouin raids and lawlessness became the norm. However, this is a gross oversimplification of the situation that does not take into account the archaeological data. What is indicated by material evidence is rather a process of ruralization, where local rulership and industries would prevail. But, as is well known, history is almost always written from the perspective of the ruling elite or by those of higher classes who were literate. A case in point are the European travel accounts that abound for the region of the “Holy Land,” where pilgrimage became popular from the 19th century on. While many of these narratives contain useful information on the various villages and landscapes of Jordan, they must be read with great caution, given the prevailing ethnocentric viewpoints of the time.
The way of life in Greater Syria would change again with the reintroduction of direct Ottoman rule via the Tanzimat. These reforms were meant to recentralize Ottoman rule and utilize the vast agricultural potential of the region to the benefit of the state, whose treasury was pitifully empty after the many wars engaged in with Europe. The Ottomans saw Greater Syria as an economically beneficial tool, provided they could manage to organize the lands to work in their favor. In the end, the many reforms regarding land tenure were to prove unsuccessful, with their overall plan backfiring, as land was gradually collected by wealthy landowners at the expense of both the state and the peasantry.
The remains of the villages that we see today are a reflection of the prevailing situation during the late Ottoman and early (British) Mandate period. As agricultural production decreased due to the profitability of employment in manufacturing industries, people left their villages for lives in the towns and cities. However, many of these old villages are still being occupied in some form (Fig. 4)—usually as stables for animals, or as storage units, where they continue to remain an integral part of the village fabric. As such, these places are truly temporal palimpsests, the physical depictions of centuries-old processes of rural life in Jordan, with every region having its own unique characteristics and each village its own stories to tell.
Lauren Erker is a PhD student in the Islamic Archaeology Research Unit at the University of Bonn in Germany. She received her BA in anthropology from Metropolitan State University in Denver, Colorado, and her MSc in late antique, Byzantine, and Islamic studies from the University of Edinburgh, and she has held an ACOR-CAORC Predoctoral Fellowship (2021–2022). Having excavation and survey experience in the states of Colorado and Wyoming as well as in the countries of Oman, Israel-Palestine, and Jordan, she now works for the American Center of Research as archaeologist for the Amman Citadel project. Her dissertation is a socio-archaeological analysis of rural settlement in Palestine and Transjordan during the Ottoman period.