Reading an article on a recent archaeological discovery in Jordan from the 9th century BCE in what was then the Kingdom of Moab, I was struck by the words on a Canaanite engraving. It referred to King Sheet who is quoted “… and I came and I saw ....” with the rest of the text missing. It immediately reminded me of Julius Caesar’s famous saying “Veni, Vidi, Vici” (“I came; I saw; I conquered”). Living in Jordan and working across the Middle East I am so often reminded how old civilizations were interconnected and how they constantly borrowed from one another. Today we are the product of these many civilizations; yet some people insist on taking a monocultural view of our origins.
As a Jordanian I find myself at the centre of the Old World from which so many civilizations have sprung. These are civilizations that predate the birth of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, yet were the origin of all three religions. The Moabites, like their contemporaries the Edomites and the Ammonites (whose main city is now present-day Amman, the capital of Jordan), peopled the three most well-known kingdoms that flourished in Jordan from around the 13th century BCE to, in Edom’s case, 125 BCE. They, in turn, were frequently overshadowed by the Nabateans, famous for their pink city of Petra, built possibly as early as the 5th century BCE. Coming from Jordan means that you are surrounded by history from north to south and east to west; you cannot escape it. The Decapolis, for example, was an alliance of 10 (or perhaps 12) Hellenistic cities established between 63 BCE and AD 106. 8 of these cities are in present-day Jordan. You simply cannot travel in Jordan without stumbling over an ancient city. You do not only sense, touch and feel history everywhere but smell it even in the Roman olive trees that still survive and are everywhere in mountainous north Jordan.
On the 31st January, Jordanians celebrated the end of Marbaaniyya - the 40th - referring to the first 40 days of winter. It’s followed by Khamseeniyya - the 50th - the second 50 days of winter. Marbaaniyya is considered as one solid block. If it starts sunny it will largely remain so for 40 days but if it starts with rain, it will rain throughout. The second block of 50 days is divided into 4 distinctive periods, each lasting 12.5 days and each with its unique features. These are called the Saud days. The first period is supposed to be the coldest when dogs are too cold to bark; the second is a rainy one when the land will absorb all the rain; the third is when the twigs of the trees will begin to show life; and the final period is when snakes and other reptiles emerge, marking the traditional beginning of spring. As ancient as these weather forecasts are, they are still believed to be the most accurate and are celebrated yearly as an integral part of everyday life. These traditions are shared across the Levant and the western parts of Saudi Arabia, suggesting that they are of Canaanite origin, although we cannot rule out Mesopotamian origins (present-day Iraq). Mesopotamians are legendary for their pioneering work in Astronomy and Mathematics.
The most famous Canaanites are the Phoenicians. They were a seafaring nation who at one time ruled the Mediterranean from Tyre in modern Lebanon to the shores of Iberia in present-day Spain, not forgetting their colony of Carthage in what is now Tunisia. Driving from the city of Ronda to Malaga some thirty years ago I enjoyed seeing miles after mile of olive tree groves, first introduced into the Iberian Peninsular by the Phoenicians. On this road to Malaga, I stopped by a roadside café to have a lunch of bread, olives and cheese and I could easily imagine myself in the mountains of northern Jordan. The name Malaga is believed to be of Phoenician origin. It means “Queen”, as also does the ancient Jordanian city of Malka. Not only that. It is said that in the initial days of the Arab conquest of Andalusia the first Arab tribes who settled in Malaga came from today’s Jordan. No wonder I felt so at home.
Just as Arabs conquered half of the known old world in the 7th and 8th centuries AD, we were conquered by every Tom, Dick and Harry. There is a fallacy about who the Arabs are, particularly of the eastern Mediterranean. To suggest that we are racially pure, or even semi-pure, Arabs is to fly in the face of all historical records. We are the descendants and inheritors of many ancient races, civilizations and cultures that were either indigenous to the land or conquered it at one time or another. We are the ones who made it into the 21st century, despite all the diseases, ethnic cleansing and conquests, to inherit this land. The fact that we call ourselves Arabs (to the annoyance of some) only refers to our language and the commonalities we share with our neighbors on the Arabian Peninsula.
Where I come from in the north of Jordan, to look at someone it is impossible to determine if the features are Arabic, European or African. Deep blue eyes coexist with dark features and frizzy hair in a mosaic that is not only true for north Jordan but the entire Levant. Some can trace their roots as far as Yemen in southern Arabia, yet others to the Crusaders or to Russia. There is no limit to the racial variations within this region and the best of DNA testing will flounder in our part of the world. We are the sum total of the ancient world and we are proud of this. If only others would see it this way.
Moreover, as I hope I’ve made clear, this racial mixture is not a recent phenomenon but dates back to ancient and pre-biblical times. As the biblical records, among many other sources, attest there were an astonishing number of intermarriages between those ancient kingdoms I mentioned at the beginning, from the time of Abraham through to that of David and Solomon. If ever there was an original Melting Pot in history, it was to be found in the Levant and Mesopotamia, thousands of years before the cosmopolitan cities of present-day America, Britain and France.
Despite the instability of the Middle East today, there is so much we can demonstrate to the world in terms of coexistence versus dominance. Our current troubles stem from those who perceive their strategic interest lies in continuing to interfere in our affairs. The Paris Peace conference after the First World War that was supposed to produce a Peace to End all Wars remains the very conference that produced all the future wars that have afflicted the Middle East to this day. The heart of the matter is that this ancient land and its people have survived bigger calamities than it is facing today. Like the Phoenix it and they will rise from the Ashes to take their place under the sun.