Map of Jordan
Map of Jordan. (Grolier Interactive Inc.)


Jordan is an Arab kingdom in the Middle East. Its official name is the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. The name comes from the country's location along the Jordan River in Southwest Asia and from the family of its rulers, the Hashemites. Jordan is a fairly young nation, although its people have lived in the region for many centuries. Once part of the Ottoman Turkish Empire, which was broken up after World War I (1914-18), it was established as a self-governing emirate (a territory ruled by an emir, or prince) by the British in 1923. It gained complete independence in 1946 as the Hashemite Kingdom of Transjordan. The name Transjordan (meaning across or beyond the Jordan) was later changed to Jordan.

The People

Nearly all Jordanians are Arabs. There are small communities of Circassians, Armenians, and Kurds. The Circassians are descendants of people who migrated from their homeland in the Caucasus mountain region of southern Russia in the mid-19th century. The Kurds are a non-Arab people of the Middle East. A large part of the population is made up of Palestinian Arab refugees who fled to Jordan during the Arab-Israeli wars of 1948-49 and 1967. Some of the Palestinians have settled in cities and towns. But many still live in camps built by the United Nations.

Some Jordanians are farmers. Others work in trade, commerce, government, and industry in the cities. There are also nomadic people of the desert who herd sheep, goats, and camels.

Religion and Language. The vast majority of the people are Muslims, including the Circassians and Kurds. There is a small Christian minority. The largest Christian group belongs to the Greek Orthodox Church. Arabic is the official language, but many people also speak English.

Education. The Jordanian Government has been making an effort to improve the educational system by training more teachers and building more schools. Many of the Palestinian refugee children attend schools supervised by a United Nations agency. The main institution of higher learning is the University of Jordan in Amman, the capital. Yarmouk University, in the city of Irbid, was founded in 1975.

Way of Life. More than 60 percent of Jordan's people live in cities or large towns. The rest live in villages in the countryside. The nomads traditionally traveled between settled areas and the desert each season, seeking pasture and water for their livestock. Nomads once made up a considerable part of the population, but only a small percentage of the people still follow this way of life.

The basic foods are vegetables, fruits, rice, and meat, eaten with a flat, round bread. Country people often wear traditional Arab dress, including a white or checkered head covering and a cloak or robe for men, and long skirts and shawls for women. City people generally wear European-style clothes or a combination of traditional and modern dress.

The Land

Jordan's borders have varied since it became an independent nation in 1946. Originally situated east of the Jordan River, it annexed the territory west of the Jordan--known as the West Bank--in 1950. The West Bank has been under the control of Israel since 1967. Jordan maintained some economic and political relations with the Arabs of the West Bank until 1988, when it officially severed all ties to the region.

The land consists of three main regions: the eastern desert; a high plateau in the west; and the Jordan River valley. The eastern desert makes up most of Jordan's territory. But the plateau is the most heavily populated region and the site of the major cities. The plateau drops sharply to the Jordan River valley, most of which lies below sea level.

The Jordan and its main tributary (branch), the Yarmuk, are the only important rivers. The Jordan flows into the Dead Sea, which is a salt lake. The shoreline of the Dead Sea averages about 1,296 feet (395 meters) below sea level, making it the lowest point on the surface of the Earth.

Climate and Natural Resources. Jordan's climate is generally hot and dry. In summer, temperatures may reach 120°F (49°C). In spring and early summer, a hot, dry wind called the khamsin blows in from the eastern desert. Rainfall is sparse, averaging less than 15 inches (380 millimeters) a year.

Jordan has a few natural resources. Only about 10 percent of its land is suitable for farming, and much of that has limited use because of a lack of water. Forests cover less than 1 percent of the land. Unlike some of its oil-rich neighbors, Jordan has no petroleum deposits. Its most valuable minerals are phosphates and potash, which are used chiefly in making fertilizers.

The Economy

Agriculture. Less than 10 percent of the work force is now engaged in agriculture. The chief crops are wheat, barley, oranges and other citrus fruits, tomatoes and other vegetables, olives, watermelons, and grapes. Sheep and goats, along with smaller numbers of cattle and camels, are raised as livestock.

Industry and Trade. Jordan's most important industries are the mining of phosphates and potash, and the refining of crude oil shipped by pipeline from Saudi Arabia. The leading manufactured goods include refined petroleum products, chemicals, fertilizers, cement, processed foods, leather products, and textiles.

Jordan is one of the world's leading exporters of phosphates. It also exports chemicals, fertilizers, fruits and vegetables, and livestock products. An additional source of income is the money sent home by Jordanians working abroad, mainly in other Arab countries of the Middle East.

Major Cities

Amman is Jordan's capital and largest city, with about one third of the country's population. Located in the north, about 50 miles (80 kilometers) east of the Jordan River, it is also the center of Jordan's commerce and industry. The city is an ancient one. In biblical times it was known as Rabbah Ammon. It later was ruled by the Greeks and then the Romans. A large outdoor theater dating from Roman times still stands. Amman was a small town under the Ottoman Turks, but it grew rapidly as the capital of Transjordan. The city's population swelled with the arrival of Palestinians fleeing the Arab-Israeli wars.

El Zerqa (or Zarqa), the second largest city, lies just north of Amman. It is the center of Jordan's oil-refining industry. Other major cities include Irbid, in the northwest; and Aqaba, Jordan's only port, located on the Gulf of Aqaba in the south.

The ruins of the ancient city of Petra are one of Jordan's most important historical sites. Identified with the fortress of Sela in the Bible, Petra was the capital of the Nabataeans, an Arab people, from the 300's B.C. until its conquest by the Romans in A.D. 106.


Jordan is a constitutional monarchy. The king is head of state and also exercises wide powers in the government. He appoints the prime minister, who heads the Council of Ministers. The king approves laws passed by the legislature, commands the armed forces, appoints judges, and has the power to declare war. The legislature is the National Assembly. It consists of the Senate, whose members are appointed by the king, and the House of Representatives, which is elected by the people.


Settlements existed in the Jordan region over 6,000 years before the birth of Christ. The biblical kingdoms of Ammon, Edom, Gilead, and Moab once covered most of the area of modern Jordan. Later, part of the Jordan region was incorporated into the Hebrew kingdom of Judah. Because it stood along a major trade route to the Mediterranean Sea, Jordan attracted many invaders. The Greeks conquered the region in the 4th century B.C. They were followed by the Romans (who ruled the area from the 1st to the 4th century A.D.) and later by the Arabs (in the 7th century A.D.), who converted the people to Islam. From 1516 to 1918, Jordan was part of the Ottoman (Turkish) Empire.

After the defeat of Turkey at the end of World War I, the League of Nations gave what was then called Transjordan (the region east of the Jordan River) as a mandate to Great Britain. Abdullah ibn Hussein, an ally of Britain, became the emir, or prince, of Transjordan. When Transjordan became independent in 1946, Abdullah became king of the new Hashemite Kingdom of Transjordan.

Transjordan and other Arab nations opposed the creation of Israel from part of the British mandate of Palestine. During the 1948-49 Arab-Israeli War, Transjordan occupied the West Bank of the Jordan River. In 1950 it adopted its present name--the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. King Abdullah was assassinated in 1951. He was succeeded briefly by his son Talal, and in 1952 by his grandson Hussein, who assumed power officially in 1953.

Recent History. Jordan lost the West Bank to Israel in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War. Many Palestinian Arabs fled across the Jordan River. Some joined the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), which became a powerful force and a challenge to Hussein's authority. A war between the PLO and Jordan in 1970-71 ended in a PLO defeat. But in 1974, Hussein acknowledged the PLO as the sole representative of the Palestinians.

In 1988, Hussein formally gave up his claims to the West Bank. In 1993, Israel and the PLO signed an accord giving Palestinians limited self-rule in the West Bank city of Jericho and in the Gaza Strip. Jordan followed, in 1994, with an agreement to end its state of war with Israel. Later Hussein played a key role in mediating peace talks between the Israelis and Palestinians.

Shortly before King Hussein died in February 1999, he named his eldest son, Abdullah II, heir to the throne.

Alexander Melamid
New York University