In remote hilltop town, new pride in a biblical empire

Taylor Luck
A resident carrying vegetables passes through an archway proudly claiming "Capital of Edom," in the town of Busayra, southern Jordan, Oct. 11, 2020.

Two ways to read the story

  • Quick Read
  • Deep Read ( 5 Min. )

The area around Busayra, a hilltop town in southern Jordan, is famous for apples and guava, not empire. That wasn’t always the case. Biblical Bozrah was the capital of Edom, an empire from 3,000 years ago. At the civilization’s peak, archaeologists estimate, as many as 1 million Edomites lived in Bozrah and its surrounding villages.

Edomites leveraged their capital city’s position on an ancient caravan route to make it a crossroads for trade and make Edom the beating heart of Iron Age globalization.

Why We Wrote This

Whatever happened to the Edomites? Residents of the town built on the ruins of the biblical empire’s capital don’t know if they are descended from the Iron Age people. But the history, they insist, is their inheritance.

Not many years ago, Busayra’s residents knew little of the origin of the rock piles, stone walls, and pottery shards that poked out between homes and littered the hillside town. But educational and tourism initiatives have instilled great pride.

Safa Faris Hamed Al-Rfooh, director and co-founder of the Busayra Foundation for Cultural Heritage, grew up across the street from the remains of the Edomite ruling palace. “I heard it was built by the Edomites,” she says, “but I had no idea who they were or what was inside.”

“Now there is a sense in our community that we are home to a great civilization, and everyone wants to share it.”

The unusual yet familiar name is etched in Arabic on an imposing, blinding-white limestone archway at the entrance to the sleepy town, a welcome sign from millennia ago: “Capital of Edom.”

A passerby stops to reassure a wayward visitor.

“You’re in the right place,” he says, gesturing to the arch. “Welcome to the land of Edom.”

Why We Wrote This

Whatever happened to the Edomites? Residents of the town built on the ruins of the biblical empire’s capital don’t know if they are descended from the Iron Age people. But the history, they insist, is their inheritance.

Mentioned in the Bible and other Jewish texts and by Egyptian pharaohs and Roman historians, the Edomites ruled a closely guarded empire 3,000 years ago in southern Arabia and the southwestern Levant from mountainside fortresses and a fortified walled capital city, Bozrah.

Here in modern-day Busayra, a small farming town in southern Jordan built on and around the Iron Age Edomite capital, residents are anxious to welcome the world and share their Edomite heritage. 

It’s more than a tourism opportunity. It’s a matter of civic pride.

Yet despite being just an hour’s drive on a direct road from the famed rock-carved Nabataean city of Petra, which drew 1 million visitors in 2019, few tourists have come to Edom.

The only traffic to this town of 10,000 people are dented fruit and vegetable pickup trucks chugging up from the Jordan Valley and nearby orchards.

The area is famous for apples and guava, not empire.

Plans are afoot to change that, though the first hurdle was local education.

Sustainable heritage

Not many years ago, local residents knew little of the origin of the rock piles, stone walls, and pottery shards that poked out between homes and littered the hillside town.

Even fewer knew exactly what were the hilltop remains of what is now known to be the heart of the ancient capital, a site shared with the local boys school.

“I used to play in the site, but I didn’t know what it was,” says Safa Faris Hamed Al-Rfooh, director and co-founder of the Busayra Foundation for Cultural Heritage, who grew up across the street from the remains of the Edomite ruling palace. “I heard it was built by the Edomites, but I had no idea who they were or what was inside.”

Busayra Foundation for Cultural Heritage
Safa Faris Hamed Al-Rfooh, a researcher into the Edomite site of Bozrah and director of the Busayra Foundation for Cultural Heritage, stands at the entrance to a cultural festival in Busayra, in southern Jordan.

In 2014, the U.S. Agency for International Development and the American Center of Oriental Research teamed up with community activists to raise local awareness of the Edomite site’s importance, as part of the Sustainable Cultural Heritage through Engagement of Local Communities Project (SCHEP).

USAID-SCHEP organized residents to improve the site’s presentation and management and run activities in schools and other events teaching the site’s history to other residents.

Signage and paths were developed to guide visitors through the foundations and walls of the Edomite palace, temple, baths, a meandering market, and city gates, which stand at the highest peak in the town.

From this hilltop town overlooking windswept plains of wheat, olive groves, and guava trees, the Edomites ruled as early as the 13th century B.C. At the civilization’s peak in the 8th century B.C., some archaeologists estimate, as many as 1 million Edomites lived in Bozrah and its surrounding villages.

Edomites leveraged their capital city’s position at the midway point of the King’s Highway (still used today as Jordan’s Route 35), an ancient caravan route that ran from the Red Sea north to Damascus and beyond. The crossroads for trade between ancient Egypt, the Mediterranean, Babylonia, the Red Sea, and Arabia made Edom the beating heart of Iron Age globalization.

From here they controlled the trade of incense from interior Arabia, glass and papyrus from Egypt, Edomite copper, medicinal herbs from the north, and reportedly silks as far away as India.

Newfound passion

Today, Busayra residents have become passionate cheerleaders for the history and archaeology, ready with a sports fan’s fervor to discuss the Edomites’ greatness at a moment’s notice.

“People talk about the Nabataeans and the Romans as civilizations, but no one hears much about the Edomites who were an empire, and they only lived right here,” Khaled Saoud, a resident who works in ecotourism, says as he leans down and pats the ground with his hand. “We have to get visitors to see this for themselves!”

Taylor Luck
Stone walls and foundations of the ancient hilltop city of Bozrah, the 3,000-year-old capital of the biblical Edomites, are seen in Busayra, southern Jordan, Oct. 11, 2020.

“There were millions of people living on this soil 3,000 years ago,” says Ibrahim Rifai, carrying groceries through the modern Edom city gate. “We are walking on the foundations of a great civilization.”

“The Iron Age was a period of great civilizations; Ammon, Moab, Babylon,” says Ms. Al-Rfooh, who is completing her master’s dissertation on the Bozrah site. “And the Edomites were among the strongest of them all.”

“Now there is a sense in our community that we are home to a great civilization, and everyone wants to share it.”

To raise Busayra’s profile and continue conservation work, Ms. Al-Rfooh and others began promoting Edom and the range of Byzantine and Islamic sites later built upon its foundations to Jordanians and the wider world.

While COVID-19 has put tourist travel to Jordan on hold, Busayra residents have been hard at work creating experiences to welcome visitors once it returns.

Cooking classes

One initiative is the Edom trail, running past the sites in the city, and a second, longer 7-kilometer trail winding down the jagged valley below to the imposing, honeycomb rock-cut Edomite fortress of Sela. 

The Busayra Foundation has trained local residents to create pottery modeled off the shards found here. Visitors will be able to take mosaic workshops and a cooking class to learn to make ragaga, a local staple made of wheat dough strips, yogurt, and lentils – ingredients available to the Edomites.

Yet much is left to be learned from the site itself, and questions remain unanswered, such as the Edomites’ fate.

Several archaeologists believe Edom never recovered after the Babylonians sacked Bozrah in the 6th century B.C., leading the Nabataeans to claim much of their empire in the 4th Century B.C.

Edomites slowly migrated to Wadi Araba and the Negev in southwest Judea, where some say they produced historical figures such as Herod the Great, melded with the local population, and then disappeared from the historical record.

With centuries of migration between the Levant and the Arabian Peninsula, it is impossible to say whether Busayra’s residents are the Edomites’ direct descendants, but they insist it is their inheritance, and one they will share with all.

“The Edomites left this as our inheritance, and the best way to protect this 3,000-year-old treasure is to share it,” says Yazen Falah, a volunteer who now serves as the Foundation’s program manager.

“Our doors are open, our food is ready, our buildings are ready; as soon the coronavirus pandemic lessens and people can come – Edom is open again.”

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.