The area encompassed by the modern kingdom of Jordan only had borders drawn around it for the first time in the 20th century. Before then, it was generally seen only as a small part of a larger regional concern, principally Syria.
Jordan was one of the locations where Stone Age hunter-gatherers settled for the first time, building villages and domesticating animals. Settlement expanded during the Bronze Age (roughly 3000-1200 BC), when Jordan also features in the Old Testament record: Sodom and Gomorrah were towns probably located on Jordan’s side of the Dead Sea, destroyed in some kind of volcanic cataclysm, and the Israelites wandered through Jordan following their Exodus from Egypt.
During the Iron Age (1200-332 BC), Jordan clashed with the Israelites, then the Assyrians, Babylonians and Persians, finally coming under Greek control. Around this time, an Arabian tribe known as Nabateans settled in Jordan, naming their capital Petra. They became fabulously wealthy, controlling the lucrative trade in frankincense and spices between Arabia and Europe.
In 106 AD the Romans absorbed the Nabatean kingdom, building new roads across Jordan, beautifying cities and fortifying the desert frontier. By the 4th century, Roman security was beginning to crumble. Christianity was adopted and Jordan became a centre for mosaic art, with fine mosaics adorning many new churches in the region.
Islamic armies conquered the region in 636. Jordan flourished under the Umayyad dynasty (661-750), who ruled from Damascus, but when power shifted east to the Baghdad-based Abbasid dynasty, Jordan fell into neglect. The invading European Christian armies of the Crusaders briefly occupied Jordan in the 12th century, but under the Ottomans Jordan became a backwater.
Following anti-Muslim pogroms in Russia in the 1870s, Circassian refugees settled in Jordan – then largely deserted – re-founding Amman and ushering in Jordan’s modern history. After the Ottoman Turks were repulsed during the Great Arab Revolt of 1916-17, Jordan won independence, first as a British-controlled emirate in 1923 under Abdullah I – a monarch from the Hashemite family of Mecca – then in 1946 as a fully-fledged independent kingdom.
Under Abdullah I (died 1951) and then King Hussein (died 1999), Jordan has taken in huge number of refugees from conflicts around the Middle East – first Palestinian, then Iraqi and now, under King Abdullah II, Syrian – which has shaped the national character. As one of the West’s key allies in the Arab world, at peace with Israel, and yet closely bound into regional politics, with strong links to Iraq and Saudi Arabia, Jordan must play one of the trickiest fence-sitting roles in world politics.