Paradeisos found

An estate in Jewish Hellenistic Jordan is in peril today.

jordan river 88 (photo credit: )
jordan river 88
(photo credit: )
It is, as Josephus said, a "paradeisos." The first-century Jewish historian describes it in detail in his Antiquities of the Jews, Book 12, and he gets most of it right. As you leave the sprawling western suburbs of Amman, you enter a desert of few trees and shrubs, and after 20 minutes you suddenly spy a green patch that grows larger and larger as you approach and soon it becomes this paradise of greenery and classical ruins. To the north, it is hemmed in by high limestone cliffs riddled with caves, and to the south, it is cut off by the deep gorge of the Wadi es-Tsir. In between are terraced fields of fruit and vegetables dotted with small houses surmounted by dovecotes. You have arrived at Airaq al-Amir (also spelled 'Iraq el-Emir) that Josephus called Tyros. It was the estate of Hyrcanus ben Joseph, one of the first Hellenizers, who had to flee from his brothers in Jerusalem after he had usurped the tax-collecting rights of their father Joseph ben Tobiah. He fled to the family property across the Jordan, near Rabbat Ammon, and there he transformed it into a Hellenistic country estate, but he was not its founder. That was one of his ancestors, Tobiah the Ammonite servant (court official), who had opposed the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem by Nehemiah. Another was Tubias the animal breeder who supplied exotic animals to his royal Egyptian customer Ptolemy II from this estate in Ammon. Hyrcanus's father Joseph had been tax-collector for Ptolemy IV Philopator for 22 years and had brought prosperity to himself and his compatriots in Palestine, until such time as his energetic youngest son Hyrcanus bribed his way in Alexandria to take over the lucrative position. When he escaped the wrath of his father and older brothers, Hyrcanus found himself cooped up in Tyros and he made the best of it. He transformed the ancient fortified village into a palatial mansion and cleared out the old caves and turned two of them into triclinia, or Roman-style banqueting halls. He rebuilt the little old shrine into a miniature Greek temple and he started work on his masterpiece, the Qasr al-Abd, the "Castle of the Slave." This magnificent ruin is an enigma. It is built of enormous stone blocks that weigh up to 50 tons and it stands within a low area that was meant to be a moat-like lake. The Arab legend has it that the local prince, the Emir of the Cliffs (Airaq al-Amir) went off on the annual Haj pilgrimage to Mecca and left his beautiful daughter in the care of his slave. The slave fell in love with the girl and she agreed to marry him if he built them a fine castle. The slave moved heaven and earth, and giant stones, to construct the palace, and had just completed it when the emir returned. In shock the slave drops the last massive monolith on himself and dies. The Qasr al-Abd is indeed a miracle. The lower story is built of massive honey-colored limestone and has two panther-shaped fountains at the base, in pink dolomite. Above that is a frieze of rampant lions, male and female, at each corner, the females sheltering young cubs feeding from their teats. In contrast to the heavy base, the upper story is all lightness and air with another group of animals, this time a pair of eagles at each corner, ready to fly off into the firmament. What does all this mean? The first men to rediscover the monument were two British naval commanders on a jaunt round the world. After Europe, they strayed into the East and stumbled across the monument on June 13, 1818. Luckily they had with them William John Bankes, an eccentric English aristocrat who had a good knowledge of antiquity and recognized the ruins as those of Tyros, as described by Josephus. He made sketches of the monument and of a one-word inscription on the caves, but could not decipher it. The naval officers published their travels in 1823, but it was not till 1863 that a group of French savants, directed by Félicien de Saulcy, examined the ruins in more detail. De Saulcy declared the main ruin to be an Ammonite temple, dedicated to Chemosh or Moloch, and he discerned a "sacred way," which he said would be lit by flaming tapers to convey the mortal remains of the Ammonite kings from the temple up to their last resting place in the caves. This romantic picture was rejected by later explorers, but the notion of the Qasr al-Abd as a temple remained even into the 1960s, when the first professional archeological expedition was mounted from Jerusalem by the young American scholar Paul Lapp. By that time the cave inscriptions - a second one was later found - had long been correctly read as TOBYAH, showing the connection with the family of Beit Tobiah. Unfortunately, due to his early death, Lapp was never able to complete his work and it was a French team under Ernest Will and François Larché which restarted work in 1976 and was able to restore the monument to some of its original glory. Not surprisingly there were stone slabs that they were unable to replace even with their modern crane. To date the Qasr looks magnificent standing on the raised plot that was destined to be an island in a lake, all part of the plan developed by the young Hyrcanus in the years between 198 and 170 BCE. Will and Larché quite rightly rejected the idea of a temple and called the building Le Château du Tobiade Hyrcan. But it could not have been that, standing in the middle of a lake that made it virtually inaccessible, nor would a château have been built with such enormous base stones, which made the ground floor very dark, and which Will declared to be a simple storage area. No store rooms were ever built to such a wonderful scale and magnificence. A château may have had external animal decorations, like the lions and eagles, but what was their purpose, and what was the raison d'être of the lake? No, this building, which was never finished before Hyrcanus was killed and had to give way to the forces of the Seleucid (Syrian) emperors, was intended to be a grandiose mausoleum for the mortal remains of the distinguished Tobiad family, whose last scion was anxious to see them commemorated before they died out with his own generation, as he had no sons to follow him. In good Hellenistic fashion, he built the ground floor of giant stones that could not be easily moved or robbed. He built the upper floor of thin columns and wide openings that would give pleasant ventilation to the triclinia, the banqueting feasts, that would be held on special occasions to commemorate the dead, and he made a lake around it to show its separation from the world of the living, in good Greek (and Jewish) fashion. And why the lions and eagles? The groups of lions at each corner were the conventional Greek way of guarding the tombs of heroes from thieves and robbers, and the eagles were the symbols of the afterlife that transported their souls to heaven, as was done for every Roman emperor. And the panthers? They were something special. When de Saulcy and his men were exploring the site, they were attacked by two panthers and managed to fight them off. The area had been a famous hunting ground for wild animals and it is likely that the Tobiads had adopted the panther as a mascot, just as King Feisal I of Iraq in 1925 had a young leopard as his pet animal, which he led around on a chain. By building the two panther fountains, Hyrcanus wished to demonstrate the power of his family in taming such a wild animal, in putting it to good use by giving water to man, and at the same time showing his own family pretensions to royalty and power. The glory of Tyros came to an end in about 167 BCE, before the later victories of the Hasmoneans. After that it suffered from earthquakes and neglect, though it is possible that King Herod or one of his grandsons used the estate for a time. Today, though it is only 15 kilometers out of Amman, it is hardly visited, except by holiday-makers who make it a place for summer picnics and are busy building weekend villas on the grounds. This is a great pity, as the original historical aspect of this marvelous site is being steadily eroded. The place needs lots of visitors, to make it clear to the Jordanian authorities that they have here a prime tourist attraction, equal to that of Jerash and Petra, if only they will look after it and make it more accessible to visitors, and stop the encroachment of ever more unsuitable modern châteaux. The writer is a fellow of the Albright Institute of Archeological Research, Jerusalem.