Ammon and the Ammonites make up one of the national groups east of the Jordan River mentioned by the Bible as enemies or subjects of Israel during the time of the Israelite monarchy, the Iron II period. They are best known from the seventh and sixth centuries BCE, when a large portion of the biblical and Assyrian sources that mention them were written and when their material culture flourished in the archaeological record.
According to the Bible (Gn. 19: 38), the eponymous ancestor of the Ammonites was the son of Abraham's nephew Lot, who had an incestuous relationship with his daughter while fleeing from the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. They probably first appeared toward the end of the Late Bronze Age or in the Early Iron I period (c. 1300 BCE), however, when a cluster of sites in the Amman region began to be settled by them or by others perhaps related to them (Amman, Baq῾ah Valley, ῾Umeiri, Jawa, Ḥesban, Jalul, Madaba). [See Amman; Baq῾ah Valley; ῾Umeiri, Tell el-; Jawa; Ḥesban; Madaba.] More such sites will probably be found in the future. These and subsequent settlements display a continuity of material culture throughout Iron I, Iron II, and the Persian period that indicates an ethnic and national continuum (Herr, 1992). National awareness reached its height in the seventh century BCE, when the Pax Assyriaca allowed the greatest intensification of settlement before Roman times and the development of a distinctive material culture that can be called Ammonite.
Several Ammonite kings (or chiefs) are known from a variety of literary evidence. The Israelite chief Saul fought with a corresponding leader in Ammon whom the Bible calls Nahash (“snake”), perhaps in the late eleventh century (1 Sm. 11: 1–12); and King David dealt with an insult from Hanun the son of Nahash (2 Sm. 10:1–4). Tiglath-Pileser III mentions a Shanib as king in a text dated to about 733 BCE (ANET 282), and two statues from Amman dated to the eighth–seventh centuries BCE, now in the Amman Museum, may represent kings: they claim to be of Zakur the son of Shanib and Yarih-Ezer. The Assyrian kings Sennacherib and Esarhaddon (early seventh century BCE) mention Budu'il (Assyr., Pudu-Ilu; Riekele Borger, Die Inschriften Asarhaddons Königs von Assyrien, Graz, 1956); and Ashurbanipal lists ῾Ammi-Nadab in about 667 BCE (ANET 294). A small bronze bottle from Tell Siran near Amman lists several kings, including ῾Ammi-Nadab I, his son Hiṣṣal'il, and ῾Ammi-Nadab II, the son of Hiṣṣal'il. Finally, a seal impression from Tell el-῾Umeiri was made from a seal belonging to a royal official who served a king named Ba῾alyasha῾, undoubtedly the Ba῾alis of Jeremiah 40:14, who appears in a story dated to about 582 BCE (Herr, 1985).
Probably as a result of Ammonite complicity in the murder of Gedeliah, the Babylonian-appointed governor of Judah, the Babylonians conquered Ammon and made it a part of their empire, but retained the Ammonite king (Josephus, Antiq. 10.9:7). The monarchy seems to have lasted through the Babylonian period but was replaced by a Persian provincial system similar to the one in Judah (Herr, 1993). The biblical reference to Tobiah (e.g., Neh. 2:10) as a Persian official in Ammon has created the mistaken assumption by some that he was an Ammonite ruler of the Persian government—however, no Ammonite would give his child a Yahwistic (Hebrew) name. Based on the occurrence of the name in two Aramaic tomb inscriptions at ῾Iraq el-Amir, the presence of a dynasty of Tobiads in the well-watered Wadi es-Sir west of Amman must be accepted. [See ῾Iraq el-Amir.] They may have been descendents of Nehemiah's Tobiah. It is possible that this family descended from the renegade prince of Judah, Ishmael, who escaped the Babylonian destruction of Judah by fleeing to Ammon and soon thereafter murdered Gedeliah (Jer. 40). The Ammonite presence apparently continued behind the scenes during the classical and Islamic periods, remembered in the name of modern Jordan's capital city, Amman.
The territory of Ammon centered around its central city, called Rabbat Ammon in the Bible. The ancient city is still preserved in downtown Amman, Jordan, on the hill called el-Qal῾a (“the Citadel”). Although the Iron Age I and Early Iron II territory of Ammon may have had slightly different borders, a common material culture—including pottery, script, and language—has been found at sites from Wadi Zerqa in the north to the southern edge of the hilly region north of Madaba and from the eastern desert to the Jordan Valley (late seventh and sixth centuries BCE), undoubtedly representing the Ammonite culture at its greatest extent (Herr, 1992). Biblical evidence suggests that Moab may have controlled the southern edge of this territory for a time (Hübner, 1992, pp. 131–157). Ammonite holdings in the Jordan Valley may have occurred only during the seventh and early sixth centuries BCE as well.
For most of its history, Ammon was probably little more than a city-state—that is, the capital city ruled a small territory on the central Transjordan plateau with satellite towns and villages in a relatively small hinterland. The finds from small excavations on the citadel of Amman reflect a major urban center (Geraty and Willis, 1986, pp. 11–17). Stone statues of kings or divinities, royal inscriptions such as the Amman Citadel Inscription (Horn, 1969), many small finds of superior quality, and the large size of the site all point to its central importance. Smaller towns in the surrounding hinterland fed the capital with agricultural produce gathered from their own territories. Several have been excavated: Tell Ṣafuṭ, Umm ad-Dananir, Saḥab, Jawa, Tell el-῾Umeiri, and Ḥesban. [See Ṣafuṭ, Tell; Saḥab.] Throughout the region are many small, isolated structures often built of megalithic stones. Early explorers interpreted them as towers for the defense of the capital, but the location of most of them (on spurs of hills with poor visibility above agricultural fields) suggests they were farmsteads. [See Farmsteads.] The few larger ones on hilltops may have served as military watchtowers.
The scores of farmsteads in the Ammonite region seem to have produced grain in the valley bottoms and fruit on the slopes. Strong evidence for wine production was found at several farmsteads in the ῾Umeiri region. [See Viticulture.] Together with an administrative center dating to the seventh-fifth centuries BCE at Tell el-῾Umeiri, the Ammonite monarchy seems to have helped farmers construct these farmsteads to produce wine for tribute to Babylon. The farmsteads continued into the Persian period. Along with agriculture, most families kept mixed flocks of sheep and goats, some cattle and a few donkeys and horses.
Social and Political Organization.
As was true of most of the tribal groups in the southern Levant during the early stages of the Iron Age, when they originated, individual loyalties were stronger to family and clan than they were to a cohesive “national” entity. The name bĕnê ῾ammôn, “sons of Ammon” (e.g., Gn. 19:38), seems to suggest an allied group of tribes or clans that, by Iron II, when the biblical name was used, had coalesced into a coherent and permanent tribal confederation with a chief or “king” as head (LaBianca and Younker, 1994). By that time national awareness was developing rapidly, faciliated by a national deity, Milkom, and the development of an Ammonite script out of Aramaic and a dialect (or language) related to other Northwest Semitic language groups (Phoenician, Aramaic, Hebrew, Moabite, and Edomite). Ammon appears as the name of a Persian province on three seals found at Tell el-῾Umeiri (Larry G. Herr, “Two Stamped Jar Impressions of the Persian Province of Ammon from Tell el-῾Umeiri,” Annual of the Department of Antiquities of Jordan 36 : 163–166).
Ethnicity and Material Culture.
Excavations have uncovered a strong similarity in the material culture within the boundaries mentioned above during the Late Iron II and Persian periods. Pottery forms frequently found in the Ammonite region are rare or unknown elsewhere (Lugenbeal and Sauer, 1972). Figurines, although similar to those found all over the southern Levant, have unique features that allow researchers to pinpoint them to the Ammonite region. Inscriptions are written in an alphabetic script similar to that of other Northwest Semitic peoples but with easily definable characteristics that can be isolated to Ammon (Herr, 1978; Aufrecht, 1989). Personal names from inscriptions found in Ammon also reflect typical patterns. Use of the theophoric element'Il (or 'El) is almost universal, inspite of the practice elsewhere of using national deities most of the time. Certain personal names are found more frequently in the Ammonite region than elsewhere, such as Tamak'il or 'Ilnadab (Aufrecht, 1989, pp. 356–376; Hübner, 1992, pp. 125–129). Many short inscriptions allow a basic description of the Ammonite dialect (Jackson, 1983; Aufrecht, 1987). All of these cultural features indicate that, by the eighth and seventh centuries BCE, Ammonites saw themselves as a distinctive ethnos even though Ammonite pottery may be related more to regional technologies than to ethnic practices.
Ammonite religion can be characterized as a limited polytheism or heterotheism centered on the deity Milkom, who seems to have been an 'Il (or 'El) divinity based on the bull imagery in Ammonite iconography (especially the seals) and the use of 'Il in the Ammonite onomasticon (Aufrecht, 1989). The few Ammonite names with the theophoric title ba῾al (“lord”) probably refer to Milkom. The Ammonite deity should not be equated with Molek, as 1 Kings 11:7 seems to do (mlk is the result of a scribal error for mlkm); therefore, Milkom should not be connected with rites of child sacrifice, as the mistaken connection of Molek with Milkom has suggested to some.
The Ammonites were one of the few peoples of the southern Levant to depict deities in statues. Several stone busts wearing crowns formed of the Egyptian atef symbol may depict Milkom (Piotr Bienkowski, The Art of Jordan, Liverpool, 1991, p. 41). The large Roman Temple of Hercules on the Ammonite citadel has led some researchers to suggest an identification with that Greek deity (Hübner, 1992, p. 259). The primary goddess was Astarte, probably seen as the consort of Milkom. One seal in typical Ammonite script even mentions a pious worshiper of the goddess at Sidon (Aufrecht, 1989, pp. 145–148). Scores of figurines of nude fertility goddesses probably are meant to depict her.
- Aufrecht, Walter E. “The Ammonite Language of the Iron Age.” Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research, no. 266 (1987): 85–95.
- Aufrecht, Walter E. A Corpus of Ammonite Inscriptions. Lewiston, N.Y., 1989.
- Geraty, Lawrence T., and Lloyd A. Willis. “Archaeological Research in Transjordan.” In The Archaeology of Jordan and Other Studies Presented to Siegfried H. Horn, edited by Lawrence T. Geraty and Larry G. Herr, pp. 3–72. Berrien Springs, Mich., 1986.
- Herr, Larry G. The Scripts of Ancient Northwest Semitic Seals. Harvard Semitic Monographs, 18. Missoula, 1978.
- Herr, Larry G., ed. The Amman Airport Excavations, 1976. Annual of the American Schools of Oriental Research, 48. Winona Lake, Ind., 1983.
- Herr, Larry G. “The Servant of Baalis.” Biblical Archaeologist 48 (1985): 169–172.
- Herr, Larry G. “Shifts in Settlement Patterns of Late Bronze and Iron Age Ammon.” In Studies in the History and Archaeology of Jordan, vol. 4, edited by Ghazi Bisheh, pp. 175–178. Amman, 1992.
- Herr, Larry G. “What Ever Happened to the Ammonites?” Biblical Archaeology Review 19.6 (1993): 26–35.
- Horn, S. H. “The Ammān Citadel Inscription.” Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research, no. 193 (1969): 2–13.
- Hübner, Ulrich. Die Ammoniter. Abhandlungen des Deutschen Palästinavereins, 16. Wiesbaden, 1992.
- Jackson, Kent P. The Ammonite Language of the Iron Age. Harvard Semitic Monographs, 27. Chico, Calif., 1983.
- LaBianca, Øystein S., and Randy W. Younker. “The Kingdoms of Ammon, Moab, and Edom: The Archaeology of Society in Late Bronze/Iron Age Transjordan, ca. 1400–500 BCE.” In The Archaeology of Society in the Holy Land, edited by Thomas E. Levy, pp. 399–415. London, 1994.
- Lugenbeal, Edward N., and James A. Sauer. “Seventh-Sixth Century B.C. Pottery from Area B at Heshbon.” Andrews University Seminary Studies 10 (1972): 21–69.
- McGovern, Patrick E. The Late Bronze and Early Iron Ages of Central Transjordan: The Baq῾ah Valley Project, 1977–1981. University Museum, Monograph 65. Philadelphia, 1986.
Larry G. Herr