Iraq Al-Amir

Iraq Al-Amir

Just outside of Jordan’s capital lies an ancient castle and intriguing caves dating back to the Copper Age.

Nestled among hills just outside of Amman in Wadi Al-Seer is a quaint village filled with ancient stone secrets. Iraq al-Amir, which means “Caves of the Prince” in Arabic, is home to more than 10 caves that have been inhabited by various groups since the Copper Age, as well as the ruins of an Ozymandian castle.

One of these caves is lined with what appears to be seats, fit for a feast or a meeting; another has a more sepulchral appearance, divided by low stone walls into cubicles approximately the length of a supine adult; still another has a high ceiling over what appears to be carved walls, enclosing a spacious room that could have housed several families. While nobody permanently inhabits these caves anymore, shepherds do occasionally keep sheep or donkeys in them. These dark caverns are also home to numerous bats.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of these caves is the large carved words adorning the entrances to two of the caves. Written in an early Hebrew script (some argue that it is Aramaic, but it is likely just an early, non-standardized Hebrew script) are blocky letters that spell “Toviyah.” This is a Hebrew name that translates to “God is good” (tov=good, yah=God). Many scholars postulate that this is a reference to the powerful Tobiad family, an Ammonite Jewish dynasty.

Additional evidence supporting this theory lies just a short walk down the hill from these caves. Nearby Qasr al-‘Abed (“Palace of the Slave” in Arabic) was built by Hyrcanus, the governor of Ammon in the 2nd century BCE. Some people speculate that “slave” refers to Hyrcanus’s role in public service, which rendered him a “slave to the people.” Others believe that it references his subservience to the king; after all, during that time, what is now Jordan was caught in the power struggle between the Seleucids and Ptolemies.

In any case, there are some facts about this leader and the castle that have been established with relative certainty. Hyracanus was the head of the Tobiad family, whose existence—as well as a description of this castle and the surrounding caves—is recounted in the writing of the 1st-century historian Flavius Josephus’s book Antiquities of the Jews. The book describes a large white castle into which “animals of a prodigious magnitude” were carved. It also notes that at one point, the castle was surrounded by canals of water. While traces of the ancient moat are no longer visible to the amateur eye, any visitor to Qasr al-‘Abed can see that the structure is indeed decorated with carvings of lions. Though worn smooth by years of rain and wind, they still stand out prominently from the rest of the castle wall.

Although the fortress was quite severely damaged in the earthquake of 362, it was restored by the 1990s. Surrounded by verdant hills and wildflowers, it’s a popular day trip for locals, who, in late spring and during the summer, often have barbecues nearby.

The Qasr al-Abd (قصر العبد), literally meaning the “castle of the slave”, is a large Hellenistic-era palace from the first quarter of the second century BCE. Most scholars agree it was built by the Tobiads, a notable Jewish family of the Second Temple period, although the descriptions doesn’t mention that. The remaisn of the ancient complex stand in modern-day Jordan in the valley of Wadi Seer, close to the village of Iraq al-Amir (hence also known locally as the Qasr Iraq al-Amir), approximately 17 kilometers west of Amman.

The Qasr al-Abd is believed to be Tyros, the palace of a Tobiad notable, Hyrcanus of Jerusalem, head of the powerful Tobiad family and governor of Ammon in the 2nd century BCE. The first known written description (see Note 1) of the castle is from Josephus, a first-century Jewish-Roman historian.

In its heyday, the palace of Qasr al-‘abd would have resembled a ship floating on an inland body of water. It was built in an artificial lake fed by water from the nearby sources; this was brought underground to two fountains in the form of panthers. The palace dates to the second century BCE and may have been constructed as a summer residence by a prince of the Ammonite-Tobiad dynasty.

The palace is believed to have been badly damaged by the 363 CE Galilee earthquake. It preserved its original two stories due to the fact that was reused as a church during the Byzantine period.

The palace (measuring about 40 metres by 20 metres, and 13 metres high), with it massive stone-architecture and splending carvings, consists of two storeys topped by representations of lions, panthers and eagles. Although construction was never completed, the palace still stands as a model for luxurious architecture of the time and is a rare example of Hellenistic architecture in Jordan. The building was unfinished at the time of Hyrcanus’ death (as indicated by several incomplete carvings and columns on site), and was seized by Antiochus Epiphanes.

The structure was originally surrounded by a large excavated reflecting pool, leading Josephus to assume that this was a moat and the building a fortress. However, more recent evidence for the building’s original function being as a country pleasure palace has been presented by the Israeli archaeologist Ehud Netzer. It has also been suggested that the site was in fact intended to serve as a mausoleum of the Tobiads. In any case, it was never completed.

Josephus mentions the “beasts of gigantic size carved on it” (Antiquities of the Jews, Book XII, 230), and carved tigers or lions are still perfectly preserved on the remains visible today.

The palace-castle is built from some of the largest single blocks of any building in the Middle East, with the largest block measuring seven by three metres. However, these blocks were at most only 40 centimetres wide, making the building relatively vulnerable to the earthquake which eventually destroyed it.

Archaeologists have established that Qasr al-Abd once stood in a much larger estate, which was originally surrounded by a wall and included a park with trees and shrubs. A large stone olive press has been found on the site, suggesting the estate was partially self-sufficient in agricultural produce. Much of the estate now remains buried beneath the village of Iraq al-Amir.

One entrance to this palace leads to the four ground-floor rooms with a surrounding portico. The rooms may have been used for storing grain and as accommodation for the palace guards. In the north-west and south-east corners, two water tanks supply fountains in the form of panthers that pour water from their mouths.

On the upper storey, a central hall may had been used for celebrations; four bedrooms are placed at its corners. This storey has no ceiling, suggesting that the construction was never completed. The partially constructed masonry collapsed as a result of earthquakes and tremors, especially during the great earthquake of 365 CE. What remains of the monumental palace today is that which was restored and preserved by the Department of Antiquities in cooperation with the French Institute of Archaeology of the Near East.

Ancient Caves

A group of fiteen natural caves interspersed with corridos that lead to small rooms. The rooms are decorated with samll niches in the walls. The settlement in these caves dates back to the second half of the second century BCE, which is the same period of the settlement at Qasr al-Abd.

This is illustrated by the engraving on one of the facades of these caves (cave number 13), which consists of five Aramaic letters representing the name “Tobiad“. These caves were used as burial spaces, sheltersin times of crisis and later as houses for the local inhabitants.

The association of the site with the Tobiads is based on a cave inscription found nearby. The Hebrew name ‘Tuvya’ or ‘Toviyya’ (Tobias) is engraved (טוביה, but in a more Aramaic script

Probable Biblical Connection

The name Qasr al-Abd can be translated as “Castle of the Slave” or “Castle of the Servant”, a title which may refer to Hyrcanus himself, who, as governor, was a “servant of the king”. The biblical Book of Nehemiah mentions “Toviyya, the Servant, the Ammonite” (Neh. 2:10 – see Note 2); the Hebrew word used, “ebed” or “eved“, is translated here as “official”, but more generally means “slave” or “servant”). According to a dubious local Arab legend, Tobias was a commoner who fell in love with the daughter of a nobleman. When he asked for her hand in marriage, the nobleman said that Tobias could only have her hand if he built the so-called “Castle of the Slave.” After completing the castle, the nobleman had Tobias killed as he did not want his daughter marrying a commoner.