Kingdom in the desert: A crossroads of geography, culture and history

 

The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan covers an area of 89,342 sq km and shares 1635 km of land borders with Iraq, Israel, the Palestinian Territories (the West Bank), Saudi Arabia and Syria, as well as 26 km of coastline on the Gulf of Aqaba in the south. Topographically, the country is divided into three main areas: the Jor-dan Valley (part of the Great Rift Valley), which runs from north to south in the western part of the king-dom and is known south of the Dead Sea as the Wadi Araba; the highlands region (running roughly parallel to the Jordan Valley and Wadi Araba, to their east); and the eastern desert plateaus (known as the Badia). The country’s largest body of water is the Dead Sea, which is the lowest point on earth and is named in reference to its high salt content that prevents any marine life from living within it. The highest point in the country is Jabal Umm Ad Dami, which has an ele-vation of 1854 metres and is located near the border with Saudi Arabia in the far south.

The largest city is the capital, Amman, located in the north-west of the kingdom. The governorate of Amman had an estimated population of 2.5m at the end of 2012, according to the Department of Statistics (DoS). Other major cities include Irbid in the north of the country near the border with Syria, which is an impor-tant university town; Zarqa, which sits north-east of Amman and is now on the verge of forming a metrop-olis with the capital, thanks to heavy industrial build-up and population expansion; and the port and resort city of Aqaba in the south.

POPULATION: Jordan’s total population stood at approximately 6.4m at the end of 2012, according to IMF estimates, and is mainly concentrated in the north-west of the country. The Amman governorate accounted for just under 39% of the total population in 2012, and Irbid and Zarqa governorates made up a further 17.8% and 14.9% of the total, respectively. The three governorates alone accounted for more than 70% of the total. The country’s population is rel-atively young, with nearly 60% of Jordanians under the age of 24 and around 37% under the age of 14. The kingdom is also heavily urbanised, with 17.4% of Jor-danians living in rural areas. The DoS estimates that the population will reach 9.1m by 2030.

The country is overwhelmingly Arab, though Circas-sians and Armenians each make up around 1% of the population, according to the kingdom’s latest census in 2004, and there is also a significant number of Jor-danians of Chechen origin. Most of Jordan’s non-Pales-tinian population is thought to be of Bedouin descent, and a large number of Jordanians (particularly in rural southern areas) continue to self-identify as Bedouin and maintain aspects of the Bedouin lifestyle, though few are now fully nomadic. Approximately half of Jor-dan’s population is thought to be of Palestinian ori-gin, with large numbers of Palestinians having fled to the kingdom during the 1948 and 1967 wars with Israel. The number of registered Palestinian refugees and their descendants in Jordan stood at around 1.9m in 2010. Over the years many refugees have opted to take Jordanian citizenship, which is available to them, and many Palestinians have also chosen to voluntar-ily move to the kingdom, further increasing the size of the community over time.

RELIGION: Roughly 92% of Jordanians are Muslims, and nearly all follow the Sunni tradition. There are also a number of Jordanian Christians, most of whom are Greek Orthodox, accounting for 6% of the population.

Beginning in the 19th century, the kingdom’s Chris-tians have largely been concentrated around the city of Madaba (having moved north from Karak follow-ing an earthquake), which remains an important Chris-tian centre and contains several important churches famous for their ancient mosaics. However, many have now moved to major cities such as Amman.

The kingdom contains several important biblical and pilgrimage sites, notably Bethany-Beyond-the-Jordan, where Jesus is said to have been baptised by John the Baptist, and Mount Nebo, from which Moses is said to have been given a view of the promised land.

Major mosques include the King Abdullah Mosque in Amman, built in 1989 and known for its large blue dome, and the King Hussein bin Talal Mosque, the largest in the capital, which was designed by Egypt-ian architect Khaled Azzam using a mix of Ummayad and Ottoman styles and inaugurated in 2006.

CLIMATE: Around 75% of Jordan’s territory has an arid desert climate, though the west of the country has Mediterranean weather and the northern high-lands (including the capital Amman) receive signifi-cant rainfall and snow in the winter. The hottest months in Amman are July and August, when the temperature ranges between daily averages of 19°C and 31°C, and the coldest month is January, when the temperature generally ranges between 4°C and 11°C. January and February are the wettest months, with average pre-cipitation in Amman of 63.5 mm, while the period from June to August usually sees almost no rainfall.

LANGUAGE: Arabic is the official language of the kingdom, the language of instruction in schools and used in the media, literature, formal occasions and offi-cial communications. As in all Arab countries, the everyday spoken language – aamiyeh – differs sub-stantially from standard literary Arabic. In keeping with the kingdom’s geographical location, Jordanian aamiyeh is close to the colloquial Arabic spoken in the rest of the Levant region (such as Syrian and Pales-tinian), and also has some notable similarities to Egypt-ian and Saudi colloquial dialects, making Jordan’s local tongue easily comprehensible to a large part of the Arabic-speaking world. However, the local dialect varies throughout the kingdom in terms of vocabu-lary and pronunciation, with urban aamiyeh differing from that spoken in rural areas and by Bedouins. Eng-lish is also taught in schools and is widely spoken.

CULTURE: Jordanian culture is heavily influenced by Bedouin tradition, of which storytelling, singing and poetry form an important part. Prominent modern Jor-danian writers include Mustafa Wahbi Al Tal, one of the best-known Arab poets of the 20th century. The capital hosts a number of art galleries, such as the National Gallery of Fine Arts and Darat Al Funun (“Hous-es of the Arts”), and several theatres. Cultural events held in the kingdom include the Amman Internation-al Theatre Festival, the Jerash Festival of Culture and Arts, and the Aqaba Traditional Arts Festival.

CUISINE: The national dish is mansaf, a Bedouin meal of mutton cooked in dried yoghurt and served with rice which is enjoyed on special occasions. Other dish-es include maglouba, a chicken, vegetables and rice dish cooked in a pot that is then flipped onto a plate, giving the dish its name, which translates roughly as “upside down”. The staple Jordanian diet includes rice, hummus and various forms of white cheese. A popu-lar desert is kanafeh, a sweet and syrupy cheese pas-try that is generally regarded as Palestinian in origin.

Traditional hot drinks include tea, taken black with sugar and sometimes flavoured with herbs and spices like zaatar (thyme), as well as coffee prepared in both Turkish and Arabic style: the former is dense and con-tains unfiltered coffee grounds, while the latter is thinner and heavily flavoured with cardamom. The country produces its own wine, much of which comes from the Madaba region where many Christians reside.

ROYAL FAMILY: The royal family is of the Hashemite dynasty, which traces its descent back to the Prophet Muhammad and which ruled the Hijaz, including the holy cities of Medina and Mecca in modern-day Sau-di Arabia, between the 13th century and the early 20th century (while recognising the sovereignty of the Ottoman sultan from 1517 onwards). Under Emir Sharif Hussein, the Hashemite family was a key ally of the British during the First World War, leading the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman empire. In 1921 Hus-sein’s son Abdullah was awarded the throne in what was then the British-controlled Emirate of Transjor-dan, which gained independence in 1946. King Abdul-lah reigned until his assassination in 1951 and was succeeded by his son King Talal, who set forth the king-dom’s 1952 constitution that remained in place and largely unchanged until 2011. King Talal abdicated the following year and was replaced in turn by his son, King Hussein, who ruled for nearly 50 years. Hussein’s reign witnessed a number of major events, including the loss of the West Bank and East Jerusalem to Israel in 1967, conflict verging on civil war between the Jor-danian military and Palestinian militants in 1970-71, as well as political reform and liberalisation in 1989, which saw the lifting of martial law, the legalisation of political parties and the holding of elections for the first time in over two decades. In 1994 King Hus-sein signed a peace accord with Israel.

Hussein died in 1999 and was succeeded by the fourth and current king, Abdullah II. The king and his wife, Queen Rania, who is of Palestinian origin, have four children. The eldest and next in line to the throne is Crown Prince Abdullah bin Hussein, who was born in 1994. Notable political developments under King Abdullah include the wholesale revision of the con-stitution in 2011 and the recently announced plans for a transition towards a more parliamentary system.

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