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Roman baths discovered during city works in Jordanian capital

The haphazard discovery of Roman ruins in Amman sparked questions about the fate of antiquities in the city’s downtown area amid calls for expanding the excavations.
People watch as workers uncover the ruins of a recently discovered Roman archaeological site in the Jordanian capital Amman, on December 14, 2020. - According to local media, the archaeological site was uncovered during works to install a water drainage system. (Photo by Khalil MAZRAAWI / AFP) (Photo by KHALIL MAZRAAWI/afp/AFP via Getty Images)

AMMAN — Jordanian authorities discovered on Dec. 12 antiquities dating back to the Roman era underneath the main street of downtown Amman, when they were excavating the area for installation of a water drainage system for flood control.

The excavation operations, led by the Greater Amman Municipality in cooperation with the Jordanian Department of Antiquities, uncovered Roman baths with heated cellars and a crematorium, in addition to pottery pieces and two headless statues.

Yazid Alayyan, director of the Department of Antiquities, told Al-Monitor, “The archaeological find dates back to the Roman era during the second century AD.”

“As a department, we are considering several options to balance the needs of the city and protect antiquities, such as moving the antiquities, changing the route of the box culverts [used in the drainage system], or making the area part of the Old City of Amman and developing it. For this reason, we formed a committee in cooperation with the engineers of the Greater Amman Municipality, to reach a quick solution that would help us make a decision. The Jordanian Antiquities Law clearly tasked the Department of Antiquities with the conservation of the kingdom’s relics,” Alayyan said.

“As part of the infrastructure work that the municipality has been doing due to recurrent floods in the downtown area, it installed box culverts for drainage of rainwater, which would damage the unearthed antiquities in the ground. The discovered site is believed to have been located on the historic [Amman] River, which is an extension of the Roman road. But, with the urban sprawl, the river was completely covered during the 1960s,” he said.

“The newly discovered Roman baths are located opposite the ancient Roman city in Amman, which includes a temple, the Roman Amphitheater and the Nymphaeum discovered in ancient times in downtown Amman,” Alayyan added.

He continued, “Part of this ancient Roman city that existed before the establishment of the modern city of Amman is situated under the Saqf al-Sail archaeological area [in downtown Amman]. Any excavation in this area will ultimately unveil new antiquities. So far, Roman bath heating cellars have been found, but the [traditional] mosaic shower rooms remain undiscovered.”

“The downtown area was known as Philadelphia in the Roman era and as Rabbath Ammon before that. Amman consists of nine ancient cities built on top of each other — one was built during the Stone Age; the others were built by the Assyrians, Babylonians, Ammonites, Moabites, Romans, Byzantines, Greeks and Islamists, and they include ruins also from the Bronze Age. Unfortunately, during certain periods, some monuments were buried due to earthquakes. Wherever one excavates in Amman, antiquities can be found. I wish that we had, as an Antiquities Department, the capabilities to reclaim lands and conduct excavation works, since we have only uncovered [an estimated] 20% of antiquities in Amman,” Alayyan noted.

He added, “Jordan contains 100,000 archaeological sites, 15 of which are registered in the records of the Department of Antiquities, where we work on excavation in light of the urban sprawl that negatively affects these antiquities, notably in the capital, Amman, that traces its history back to the Stone Age. The Ain Ghazal statues, which are among the oldest in history, were discovered there in 1974.”

According to the history of the city narrated by the Greater Amman Municipality on its website, Amman was named Philadelphia in the Roman period after Ptolemy Philadelphus, the Roman who occupied the city that fell under his control at the end of the third century BC.

The Romans rebuilt the city and inaugurated the Roman Amphitheater, its paved streets and the columns marked by a Roman urban character. The main landmarks of the Roman Empire in Amman include the Amman Citadel and Jabal al-Jofah, located opposite the Roman Amphitheater in the center of Amman. [It] boasts a surface area that exceeds 7,600 square meters. This square was built between 161-138 AD of the second century.

The executive director of roads at the Greater Amman Municipality, Raed Haddadin, told the Ammon News website in a press statement on Dec. 17 that “if the works [to build the water drainage system] are halted, then only 50% of rainwater would be drained,” which would not solve the problem of floods in the city. He added, “The water drainage system project is currently suspended until the specialized committee issues the final decision, knowing that 65% of the project has been completed so far.”

Experts in urban planning are concerned about the fate of these antiquities and warn against their burial to complete the municipality’s project. Murad Kalaldeh, a professor of architecture and urban planning at Al-Balqa Applied University, told Al-Monitor, “This discovery [of the Roman baths] is an opportunity to complete the excavations and uncover the remains of the antiquities that would benefit the commercial [downtown] area and transform it into a destination for tourists. The Greater Amman Municipality would be destroying these antiquities if it decides to bury or uproot this Roman bath.”

Meanwhile, Jordanians took to social media to express their anger at the destruction of a rock formation dating back to the Stone Age in the Dhiban area 70 kilometers south of Amman. The site of the so-called "Flying Rock" had become popular, as people would flock there to take pictures of themselves on the formation's bizarre shape at the edge of a cliff.

Jordan's security apparatus has opened an investigation into the incident.

“The municipality will restore the rock. We have received calls from engineers and volunteers to restore it, as it has become a tourist landmark,” Dhiban Mayor Adel Al-Janadaba told Al-Monitor.