Living Inside Umm el-Jimal
While Umm el-Jimal is primarily identified with its ancient inhabitants, the Druze and Masa'eid residents of the 20th century left their mark on the enduring stones as well. In addition to restoring some of the ancient buildings, archaeologists at the site have been investigating two other important sets of physical remains from the modern era.
During the early 20th century, it became a tradition for occupants of Umm el-Jimal’s ruins to record their family names on the large lintel stones over the doorways of buildings they used as homes, for storage, and as enclosures for their animals. Written on or scratched into the basalt in Arabic, the names created distinct spaces for families living inside the ancient site, much like modern neighbors might. In this way, the names formed signifiers of “ownership” or informal claim to the property, as well as possibly a means to find other community members. Oral history interviews from Umm el-Jimal confirm that for many decades, local residents largely defined property rights within the ruins in this manner.
Umm el-Jimal was known as a camping and watering site for Bedouin tribes since at least the 19th century, but became a more permanent home for the Masa’eid clan following the Druze’s withdrawal from the region in the mid-1930s. Some families settled down among the standing ruins, although not always permanently, yet maintained traditional ways of life by pitching their tents in and around the basalt buildings. While the tents remained the living quarters, buildings were used for storage and housing animals. Oral history traditions combined with archaeological research suggest this practice continued into the 1960s, when the Hashemite government began to encourage settlement for Bedouins throughout Jordan.
The Umm el-Jimal Project’s cultural heritage team and local residents continue to survey lintel inscriptions and tent sites from the modern period. More than 30 lintel inscriptions have been documented so far. In addition, almost 60 tent sites have been found in and around the main Byzantine town. Their prevalence suggests Umm el-Jimal became a significant regional stop for local nomads.
Project researchers are also working to identify, if any, the tent sites’ relationships to modern lintel inscriptions among the ruins; together, they form fascinating and integral remains of Umm el-Jimal’s modern history.