A STROLL along the streets of central Amman, Jordan's capital, presents no indication that this is an ancient city, whose continuous existence spans three millennia. Over a fifth of Jordan's population live here: 1.2 million people, from the very rich, whose expensive cars line the sides of the wealthier residential suburbs, to the very poor whose battered old cars compete with donkey carts for space on the squalid streets of the city's Palestinian refugee camps.
This has been an Arab country since the Nabataeans arrived in the sixth century BCE. After Greek, Roman, Byzantine and Persian rulers, the Muslim Arab armies conquered it, along with the rest of the Levant, a thousand years later. Subsequent centuries saw it slide into the oblivion of a remote provincial backwater, whose administrative status was often vague, whichever empire counted it as part of its dominions - its past glories forgotten, its mostly Bedouin inhabitants left largely alone.
Photo: Giacomo Pirozzi / Panos
Not until April 1949 did the name 'Jordan' mean anything other than the river which the British had determined should be its western frontier. Britain's formal control over the territory of the modern state began in July 1922 with the establishment of the League of Nations Mandate for Palestine. The territory east of the River Jordan was designated 'Transjordan', and administered separately with a king under British tutelage. In fact, Britain and France had decided on a dispensation for the Levant by 1916, when the Sykes- Picot agreement split the former Ottoman territories into two spheres of interest.
Having been elevated from the status of a neglected district of a remote Ottoman province into a fledgling sovereign state, Jordan, and Jordanians, have had something of an identity crisis ever since, tending to define themselves largely by what they were not - particularly not Palestinians. The picture has been rather confused from the outset.
The war after the establishment of Israel in 1948 left Jordan, as it was soon to become, in control of the West Bank (of the River Jordan, that is), whose population counted themselves very firmly as Palestinian. Furthermore, a large number of Palestinians who were dispossessed in the war fled to the East Bank, so that even after Israel conquered the West Bank in 1967, at least a third of Jordanians considered themselves Palestinians. The Gulf crisis of 1991 saw hundreds of thousands of Palestinians forced out of Kuwait, most of whom settled in Jordan, increasing their share of the population even more.
But it is the East Bank Jordanians who run the show. King Hussein was a boy when he succeeded his father in 1951. For the next 48 years he ruled the country with a firm grip, winning the loyalty of the largely tribal Jordanian population and laying down a clever and adaptable pro-Western framework for foreign policy while developing working relations with his largely hostile neighbours. He set clear guidelines for domestic policy, as well. There was never much in the way of representative politics to start with, but the imposition of Martial Law in 1967 and the dissolution of the National Assembly in 1974 left control firmly in the hands of the Palace, supported by an intelligence service which became a byword for ruthlessness even in the Arab world. Not until 1989 did democratic parliamentary elections take place. Political parties were legalized the following year.
In truth, that is about as far as democratization has got here. The King (Abdullah II succeeded his father in 1999) remains in charge, regularly exercising his right to dissolve the government, which he appoints, and effectively setting its legislative agenda.
At the centre of political debate is the peace treaty Jordan signed with Israel in 1994. Never popular, it has served as a rallying point for the political opposition ever since. But it is the issue about which the regime is most sensitive to criticism. Politics, as a result, has been almost stagnant since the treaty was signed.