Thinking Aloud: For Jordanians, Identity Rooted in the Present

Feb. 22, 2015 by Darius

When I was in Jordan recently, I visited several museums.  The museums were very interesting, not because of what they contained but because of what they didn’t have.  In any visit to a Jordanian museum, it quickly becomes apparent that, historically speaking, “Jordan” doesn’t exist, and there is nothing uniquely Jordanian.  This lack of history impacts the country and national identity today.

Every museum I went to (probably about a half dozen in all, in Amman and throughout the rest of the country) displays an eclectic collection of objects from different eras.  There’s early Bronze Age pottery and ceramics.  In later times, Jordan was a part, but not a central part, of a whole host of empires from around the area.  In a museum, you’ll see Roman coins (and even a Roman milestone), and, after the Romans, coins and weapons from various Islamic empires: the Umayyad Caliphate (based in Damascus), the Abbasid Caliphate (based in Baghdad), even the Fatimid Caliphate (based in Egypt).  Later still, there are some artifacts from the Ottoman era.  What do all these have in common?  They’re not Jordanian.  In fact, just about the last notable native Jordanian culture was the Nabateans, the builders of Petra just before the Roman era.

The modern country of Jordan, of course, was created when some British ministers got together and drew lines on a map after World War I.  Jordan’s royal family was not even from within the lines on the map, having been brought in from the Hejaz in what is today western Saudi Arabia.

Talking with Jordanians, it was clear they are aware that Jordan doesn’t have a long and illustrious history to draw on to create a national identity.  Even the king, though popular in some quarters, doesn’t command the reverence due to the king of Morocco, for instance.  (The Moroccan ruling dynasty goes back to the 17th century.)

That isn’t to say Jordanians don’t have a sense of national identity, though.  It just means they’ve had to work harder to create one.  Based on my personal interactions with Jordanians, it seems much of this national identity comes from what Jordan is not: dangerous and unstable.  With a few exceptions, Jordan has always been the bright spot in a very troubled region.  That has never been truer than the present.  Many people I talked to brought up the idea that Jordan is an island in a sea of war, chaos, and violence in the Middle East.  If there was a national sentiment, it seemed to be “Better than the neighbors.”  Jordanians often listed Jordan’s neighbors – Palestine, Egypt, Syria, and Iraq – all places one would choose not to emulate.

Really, though, the past aside, there’s something to be said for now being the only decent place in the neighborhood.  For Jordanians, it seems to be enough.

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3 Responses to Thinking Aloud: For Jordanians, Identity Rooted in the Present

  1. Charles says:

    Hey Darius, loved this post, thanks for writing! I’ve been to Jordan once, but only for a week and I didn’t get a chance to visit the museums. Can I ask, which museums did you visit specifically? I’d like to see if they have websites to learn more about their collections and programs. Thanks!

    • In Amman, I visited two rather small museums. One was up on the Citadel and had all kinds of the artifacts I talked about across thousands of years of history. The other was attached to the Roman theatre and focused on Jordanian and especially Bedouin culture, featuring traditional embroidery, metalwork, and the like. The museum at the theatre also had some mosaics in the basement. Outside Amman, I visited another small museum on the top of Mt. Nebo, which had the Roman milestone, among other things, and I saw a few museums or at least collections in the town of Madaba, which showed mostly Roman/Byzantine-era mosaics. Finally, there’s a very small museum in Ajloun Castle with local artifacts. None of these museums consist of more than a few rooms and the signage/information is a bit lacking. There’s also the Royal Automobile Museum in Amman, but that’s obviously quite different.

  2. Charles says:

    Thanks! I’ve been to the small museum attached to the Roman theatre, but not the others.

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