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Iraq-al Amir 360° virtual tour

Large megalithic stone blocks, Hittite lion carvings mixed with elements of Greco-Roman architecture – these are the characteristics of an extraordinary and yet controversial building in Iraq-al Amir (Arak-el-Emir ). Nothing is 100% sure about this building except for one thing – there are simply no similar structures not just in Jordan, but also in the entire Middle-East.

1. Unlocking the mistery

Arabic name of the ruins – Qasr-al-'Abd – doesn't help much to understand its former function since the word qasr means castle in Arabic (derived from Latin castrum ). In fact it could denote any ancient ruin, both a temple and a palace.

Some suggest that it could have been an unfinished Hittite temple that was later rebuilt by the Romans. This could be apparently be a solution to the mixture of the different architectural elements.

Another theory goes much further: it tries to connect the mysterious building with a nearby cave, carved into the hill just behind it. The cave bears one interesting feature: an exterior inscription with the name Tobiah.

1.1. Tobiah in the Bible

According to the Holy Bible, Ammon and Moab were born to Lot and Lot's younger and elder daughters. Descendants of  Ammon became the  Ammonites who are always portrayed as mutual antagonists of Israelites.

The name Tobiah appears in the Book of Nehemiah, a cup-bearer to Artaxerxes, king of Persia. Nehemiah always refers to him as Tobiah, “the servant” probably indicating an Ammonite official rank. In 445 BC, the Persian king sent Nehemiah to Judah as a governor of the province with a mission to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem after the Babylonian captivity and to purify the Jewish community. Tobiah unsuccessfully tried to prevent the efforts of Nehemiah in an ally with Sanballat the Horonite and Geshem the Arab. After being a governor for around 12 years, Nehemiah returned to the royal court to Susa. Meanwhile Tobiah established a close relationship with Eliashib, the high priest of the Temple in Jerusalem, whose grandson married the daughter of Sanballat the Horonite. During the absence of Nehemiah,  priest Eliashib converted a large storage room of the temple into a private room of Tobiah. Although there is some uncertainty in the Biblical text, it is very likely that Tobias conducted business there which was definitely against the law of  Moses since normally Ammonites would not even be allowed to enter the House of God. When Nehemiah realised what had happened, he returned to Jerusalem and threw all Tobiah's belongings out of the temple. He gave orders to purify and restore the room to its former state.

Finally, the building in Iraq-al Amir gets linked to Hyrcanus, a member of the Tobiad-family who ruled the Ammonites in the Hellenistic period (2nd century BC). According to the  Antiquities of the Jews written by Flavius Josephus, Hyrcanus erected a massive castle that was decorated with figures of animals. If it is identical with this monument in Iraq al Amir, then mixed styles of the present building can be attributed to the fact that the Tobiads favoured Greek culture and supported Hellenistic tendencies in Judaism. Josephus also describes that a water system with a deep canal was established around the building along with caves cut in a nearby rock that served as living quarters. There is however no direct evidence to support this theory and the cave with the exterior inscription much more resembles a tomb than a room for feasting or living in.

New archaeological discoveries are continuously improving our knowledge about Iraq-al Amir. Results of a systematic archaeological survey in 1996 indicate that a lot of Iron Age and early Persian settlements in the Iraq-al Amir region continued to flourish also during the Hellenistic period. Several rock-cut columbaria have been found in the area that could have been used to raise cultic doves in their small niches. C. C. Ji concludes it in “A NEW LOOK AT THE TOBIADS IN ‘IRAQ AL-AMIR” that during the Hellenistic period, Aphrodite was widely worshipped among the Tobiads and doves were used for cultic and magical purposes.

2. What to see

Early 20th century photos testify that visitors at that time could only stumble upon a pile of large stone blocks. A century later, much of the building has been reconstructed using the excavated architectural elements. Some of these stone blocks are measuring multiple metres. However they were relatively thick making them susceptible to earthquakes like the one that flattened the area in 362 AD. Layout of the building follows a rectangle with a size of 35 by 15 metres. Exterior carvings are the most interesting : a lioness with cubs, the panther fountain and figures of eagles. There are two Greek-influenced columned entrances opening to north and south. Following the entrances one can get to a series of chambers and corridors and can climb the staircase in one of the corners up to the first floor.

3. When to see

Although Iraq-al Amir lies just 17km from Amman, expect an hour or so to get there since it is off major roads. Forget an public transport to get there, hire a car with a driver in Amman instead. There are no specific opening times for the building, however there is usually a caretaker who opens the site for visitors.

4. Location

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