Ain es-Sukhna in the Ottoman period

Martin Wilson

Raisons d'etre

“Down this debatable land the Ottoman Government had planted a line of Circassian immigrants from the Russian Caucasus. These held their ground only by the sword and the favour of the Turks, to whom they were of necessity, devoted’’ (Lawrence, 1939, 340).

Overlooking a common failing of 20th century western visitors to differentiate between one group of Caucasian immigrants and another, the old Chechen township of Sukhna (Fig. 1), 10km north of the industrial city of Zarqa, stands today as one of the best-preserved material testimonies of the late Ottoman government’s efforts to bring order to this unruly desert fringe in Transjordan. It is one of three settlements that were established by Chechen groups in Jordan during Ottoman rule, the others being, Sweileh, near Amman, and Zarqa.

The Wadi az-Zarqa and Wadi edh-Dhuleil Archaeological Project presented the opportunity to examine the early history and development of Sukhna through both physical remains and less tangible aspects of the past (Wilson, in press). Notably, throughout the 20th century, the preservation of the history of Sukhna depended almost entirely upon received tradition. Subsequently, therefore, a significant proportion of the historical data dealt with throughout the study has been acquired effectively through dialogue with the direct descendants of the founding families. Wherever possible, attempts have been made to explore the integrity of oral accounts - by investigation in the field, documentary research, and the examination of old photographs (Plate 1) and maps.  As many as possible of the old properties within the old township were visited, together with the surrounding farmland, enabling the preservation by record of the material survivals of the everyday past. The results of an independent local genealogical and historical study (Arslan, 2002), which was being undertaken concurrently, were generously imparted, presenting the opportunity to discuss, compare, and ratify oral accounts and field observations.

The first settlement at Ain es-Sukhna

The Chechen settlers of Sukhna represented a comparatively small ethnic group of the Caucasian peoples who arrived in the Turkish province between 1876 and the first decade of the 20th century, following systematic expulsion by Russia. The migration of the Chechens to Transjordan during the Ottoman period took place in five waves, between 1903 and c.1909. Their settlement has been outlined both in broad demographical studies (e.g. Peake Pasha, 1958; Lewis, 1987) and in specific research of the Circassians (Shami, 1982), the region’s largest immigrant group. In return for loyalty to the Ottoman state and territorial guardianship, the Chechen farmers received land and respect, a mutually beneficial deal which lasted thirteen years, until the end of Turkish rule.

The first group of Chechens arrived at Zarqa station in 1903 and within three months had set about building the township of Zarqa.

It is important to consider the backdrop to events, namely, the indigenous environment along the nearby main watercourse, the Nahr az-Zarqa, and the government’s need to protect the recently constructed Hijaz Railway which had reached Zarqa the previous year. Zarqa was, until then, no more than a broad camping ground on the pilgrim route, the Darb al-Hajj al-Sham, amongst the ruins of a Roman staging post. The railway line effectively demarcated the frontier, beyond which, to the east lay the desert, a harsh, unfamiliar and potentially hostile territory. The state’s donation of land along the river to the Chechens undoubtedly disrupted the local Arab population, the Beni Hassan, who had been cultivating a significant extent of it for many decades (c.f. Oliphant, 1880, 236). The medieval stone fort known as Qalat Shabeeb, or Qalat Zarqa, situated a mile west of the railway halt and about 600m east of the river, had, for many years, been a store for the tribe’s grain and flour (Merrill, 1881, 397). Fertile land on the desert fringe was coveted by immigrant and Arab alike. But unless an Arab farmer could produce tapoo papers – his title deeds, then his claim to customary ownership was over-ruled by the Ottoman government, who considered all such ground to be miri land – property of the state (vide. Lewis, 1987, 100; Abujaber, 1989, 204).

The founding of the first settlement at Ain es-Sukhna, is, however, obscure, if not somewhat contentious.  Most of the inhabitants interviewed during the study equate the start with the formal establishment of their township above the east bank of the Nahr az-Zarqa, but the date for this event tends to hover between 1908 and 1912.  Others have placed the foundation as early as 1904 (Rogan, 2002) or as late as 1914 (Al Bashayreh, 1999, 110; Abu Nawas, n.d, 195). Abujaber cites an Ottoman document (Abujaber, 1989, 215) dated 10th April 1905 (3 Safar 1323 H), which endorsed the distribution of 1,132 dunums of irrigated land at Ain es-Sukhna between Chechen khanas (households). The author’s estimate of the number of families (i.e. between 75 and 113) based on the distribution of 10 to 15 dunums per family seems far too high for that year.  The people to whom this land was given, is also debatable.

In a much-corroborated account, a man of the Arslan (properly, Arsank) family narrated how his great-grandfather and fellow clansmen rode daily from Zarqa to cultivate the land they held beside the river at Ain as-Sukhna - a round journey of some 20 kilometres. The informant’s forebear is understood to have arrived in 1907. Eleven families, formerly from the villages of Partchkhoy, Karkohoy and Ghadrohoy in Chechenya (near today’s Lenin-Aul) resided in and around Qalat Shabeeb at Zarqa. Despite inconvenience, effort, and risk posed to stock and produce, oral tradition suggests that the daily commute continued for some three years. It begs the question why they did not establish homes beside their farmland.  One answer is inferred from the lesser-known oral account of a village elder, which depicts a group of Chechen immigrants residing already at Ain es-Sukhna when Arsank and his compatriots were donated land there. Presumably having arrived in Transjordan sometime between 1903 and 1905, it is supposed that this group built their farmsteads beside the Nahr az-Zarqa and that they exercised a certain degree of control over the territory. Their numbers are unknown and it is equally uncertain where they actually lived. Two ruined stone-built Ottoman-period farmsteads were indeed recorded during the survey (sites 47 and 51) in the vicinity of Sukhna, alongside the river, although there has been no evidence to link them to the first settlers.

Another group of immigrants reached Zarqa in 1908 (pers. comm. Arslan, D. Z.), this time from the village of Sheryat (today’s city of Kalinin-Aul). They too set up camp around Qalat Shabeeb. By 1909, the arrival of six families from the village of Ghaselq had swelled the encampment to thirty-two families, in all, perhaps about 200 persons. Once again, the state assigned to them land at Ain as-Sukhna. It was these families from Qalat Shabeeb who were responsible for planning and building the township of Sukhna.One oral tradition is that a dispute over water rights had broken out between the commuters and earlier settlers at Ain es-Sukhna. This seems to have provided the catalyst for the planned township, for the disagreement was serious enough for the earlier residents to quit their fields and seek their livelihood elsewhere; subsequently moving to the springs of Sweilheh, near Amman.

A convincing line of reasoning (Arslan, D.Z, pers comm.) has revealed that the decision to move came either in the latter part of 1910 or the first half of 1911 - the date for the foundation of the planned township of Sukhna. A written agreement (Plate 2) of the communal law was drawn up and signed by thirty-two heads of families on 3rd August 1911 (8 Shaban 1329). It begins: “Praising Allah – in the name of God, the creator of the land and the sky, this paper is to define and remind for any day of disagreement, the migrants who are the settlers in the spring of Sukhna who agree to uphold justice between them as the first principle…”  clearly indicating that the settlement was already in existence. Some signatories of this document, who are renowned to be founders of the township, were burying deceased relatives at Zarqa in 1910; by 1912 the deceased of the same families were buried at Sukhna. Since it was practice to bury the dead at their last place of abode, the founding of Sukhna was probably in 1911.

Significantly, the list of names on the document enables us to determine the composition of the group in terms of their origins, more than half of whom were from three clans, Partchkhoy, Karkohoy and Ghadrohoy. One is inclined to suspect that these three groups represented the driving force behind the conception of Sukhna.






























The Shaping of Sukhna

The choice of settlement was a wide river terrace promontory on the east bank of the Nahr az-Zarqa, south of the confluence of the Wadi edh-Dhuleil. The name Sukhna derives from the Arabic sukin and refers to a warm spring.  The aridity of much of the valley between Zarqa and Suhkna is a relatively recent phenomenon, its widespread fertility surviving only in the living memory of Sukhna’s oldest residents. Deep dust forms the riverbed for a large part of the year. It takes a long stretch of the imagination to see a great torrent ‘rushing with considerable violence over [a] rocky bed’ (Goodrich-Freer, 1905, 124).It is assumed that the site of the township was a much-coveted settlement location, was but other than two Bronze Age sites -Tell es-Sukhna (Site 3), which the village overlooks to the immediate northwest, and a deflated tell (Site 7) cut by the main road to the west, archaeological visibility was poor within the urban area, as one might expect.

The success of creating a new town lay not only in the ability of its inhabitants to adapt to the new environment, but their capacity to reach group agreement in all matters. Only undisputed leadership, law, and communal effort would ensure their survival in a potentially hostile territory in the Syrian climate. There was to be no class distinction and it was agreed that a muchtar (chief) would be elected annually (which continued until 1961 when the first Village Council came into being). In 1911, a series of rules which dealt with key issues fundamental to the survival of the community - marriage dowries, night-watch and livestock duties, settlement dispute, and irrigation responsiblities, were set down in Arabic (Chechen not being a written language, but Arabic in normal usage for Ottoman legal documents) on a single sheet of paper or vellum and received the signature of the head of each family. It was most likely an amplification of existing verbal agreements. Islamic law was declared the final course of justice in settling disputes. Sadly the original document has been lost by its owner although photocopies are in existence.

The new Chechen town was designed to be both orderly and secure. Roughly trapezoidal in plan (Fig. 2), its streets were laid out on an orthogonal grid, with a gate at each of its four central approaches, the west gate providing access to the arable fields and a watermill.  The mosque was built at the centre and in 1915 the first school was opened. Each family was allocated a sufficient plot of land within the township for its farmstead, and plots were left vacant for new arrivals. Construction was through concerted community effort. Walls were built from mud-brick, the outer faces of houses often sealed in lime-wash. Roofs were timber-framed and reed-thatched, the nature of their construction pointing to the availability of mature trees in this region of Jordan in the early decades of the 20th century, which is also borne out in contemporary accounts (Goodrich-Freer, 1905, 105). Houses at the periphery were linked together by lengths of high mud-brick wall, a method which saved having to build a continuous protective curtain wall. Each house is known to have been fitted with a trap-door in the roof from which, in the event of attack, the farmer could give fire from a vantage point.

At the time of the survey, many of the original dwellings and farm buildings were still in existence – some of these were in use, partly concealed beneath an updated outer fabric, the rest of them having fallen into ruin (Plate 3). A number of abandoned buildings visited, retained characteristic fixtures and features (Plate 4) of the former mixed farming economy that once sustained the community. Redundant agricultural equipment lay strewn around the houses and stables.Most of the street grid and many of the original land allotments survive to the present day, in most cases the plots are occupied by the direct descendants of the first owners. Of the perimeter wall there is no trace - as the region became more settled after the demise of the Ottoman state, the wall either collapsed, or was dismantled. The west gate, the last standing, survived down to the 1970s.

Beyond the township lay the fields which occupy the flood plain and terraces on both sides of the Nahr az-Zarqa. Without local knowledge and photographs the archaeological surveyor would never have known that a stone watermill (Plate 5 ) had ever existed beside the river for there were absolutely no visible traces of either wall foundations or the mill leet. The fields were originally apportioned into strips, which enabled each family to receive a fair share of good ground. Obviously, there would be a preference for some strips, such as proximity to water, so save arguments, lots were drawn for each strip.  Aerial photographs were examined during the survey and mapped to determine, as far as possible, the extent of the original settlement and field layout (Figs. 1 and 2). The earliest available detailed vertical photograph used in this study is from a private collection and thought to date to about 1950, at which time the shape of Sukhna may have differed little from its original form. The area of the village in the photograph is 4.7 hectares. The area of cultivated land is estimated to be 16 hectares on the east side of the river and about 10.5 hectares on the west side. Based on the late Ottoman dunum being 919 square metres, this gives a total of 288 dunums, which, when based upon c.10 dunums per family and allowing for access routes and fields set aside for grazing or rejuvenation, seems fairly close to what may have been the original distribution of irrigated land at Sukhna.

The Chechens had more or less free rein in the district and were even exempt from tax for ten years. Steadily, the immigrants transformed the landscape along the Zarqa valley, creating many enduring features – walls, roads, and water channels, whilst gradually denuding the hillsides of woodland. Wheeled transport was ‘re-introduced’ to the district, having been last seen perhaps as long ago as the late Roman period.

Maintenance of the water supply was vital to the survival of the community. The male head of each family signed up to the community law which required all men to turn out on a designated day each year to repair the covered water channel constructed between Zarqa and Sukhna. Those who failed to appear were each fined half a mashdeer (a silver coin worth between 20 – 24 piastres). According to some accounts, this water system appears to have employed a method of raising the level of water by tunnelling, similar to the Roman fogga system. The archaeological surveyors were shown an indistinct section of this conduit, the rest of which appears to have suffered during later road widening.  The ox-drawn water cart (Plate 6) remained an essential requisite of every family group until 1932 when the Iraqi Petroleum Company transformed the routine chore by installing  the town water pump.

Sukhna in crisis: 1918

Seven years after the building of Sukhna it looked as though things were about to come to an abrupt end when the war with Britain was brought to the region. Of this period there is little in the physical archaeological record and we rely on received tradition to illuminate our understanding of the past environment.  The oral accounts of many anxious months in 1918 are recalled only from the Chechen perspective, little having been passed down of their wider historical context.

Although a number of Sukhna’s young men volunteered for service at the start of the conflict, the Chechens were not conscripted for military service. Maintenance of stability on the frontier zone was the Chechens’ duty and they were expected to rally a body of mounted militia if called upon to do so. Their guerrilla warfare tactics were well-rehearsed (pers. comm. T. Sultan Murad) though seemingly rarely put to the test. The challenge came in March 1918 as British Imperial forces besieged the Turkish military base at Amman. Under cover of darkness on the night of the 27th March, two squadrons of the Australian 2nd Light Horse Brigade succeeded in destroying a two-span railway bridge culvert some 10 metres in length, southwest of Zarqa, effectively cutting off the Turkish supply route.  A party of ‘fierce-looking Arabs’ deployed to thwart attempts to repair the bridge (Gullet, 1941, 567), pinned down the Turkish and German engineers with their fire. The call for assistance was sent by the Turkish commander to the villages of Zarqa and Sukhna, whereupon about three hundred mounted farmers were quickly mustered. The Arab force was flushed out from their cover and dispersed by the militia in what proved to be a decisive engagement.  The bridge was repaired and Turkish reinforcement trains arrived in Amman on the morning of the 29th March; the British withdrawal soon followed. Albeit oft-recounted at Sukhna, the Chechen action at the second bridge outside Zarqa has, so far, managed to escape the notice of chronographers of the Great War.

Crisis came in September 1918 when the Turkish 4th Army fell back under a renewed British assault. Following the capture of Sweileh, the evacuation of Sukhna took place, after which, the town was ransacked by Bedouin tribesmen. Its inhabitants rallied at Zarqa under the leadership of their muchtar, Gherim Sultanmurad, where, deserted by the Turks, they prepared themselves for a stand against the British army. Many of Zarqa’s inhabitants had joined the flight of the Turks north. The Chechens were undoubtedly apprehensive, since for many it was their second experience of Christian Imperialism; they assumed the British would be no different than the Russians. Further bloodshed was avoided when Sultanmurad rode out of Zarqa under a white flag to negotiate terms with an advanced party the Australian 3rd Light Horse. A short time later he was warmly greeted by General Cox. The cessation of hostilities was welcomed by both sides. Cox was both convinced of the Chechens’ peaceful intentions and heartened by their unity and discipline. The friendship was sealed in the handshake of the two leaders across the Hijaz railway line, captured on photograph (private collection), Sultanmurad in long astrakhan overcoat and koy headdress, Cox in the khaki of the Anzac Imperial Army. Fearing their fate at the hands of the Bedouin, Cox invited the Chechens to join the Army’s march north. After many years on the move, the Sukhna Chechens had, however, made the Zarqa valley their home; they chose to stay and restore their township.

Preservation and change

Sukhna is quite exceptional regarding the survival of the remains of a late Ottoman diaspora settlement in Jordan. The former Circassian settlements of Amman and Jerash preserve few of their original elements, the Chechen township of Zarqa has been transformed by redevelopment, and Sweileh has been too close to the capital to escape the late 20th century demand for real estate.

The expansion of Sukhna’s old township has changed little since its foundation and population figures for the early years can only be guessed (above).  In 2002 the Chechen community was stated as 450 (Kailani, 2002), although a more realistic figure would be in the region of 700 (pers. comm. Arslan, D.Z; Arslan, A), which is roughly the same today.

The face of Sukhna has changed, noticeably even during the course of the project (1993-02). The expansion of housing (mainly Beni Hassan) continues to take place largely between the old Chechen township and the Palestinian camp which is situated to the northeast (Fig. 1), and has resulted in a shift of Shukna’s central place, which is now found immediately east of the old settlement. At a local level this shift has slowed down redevelopment in the old town.


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Agreement of the Chechen Settlers 1329H /AD1911, The Sukhna Document: special series of collection No.13/1, Department of the National Library, Amman

Grateful thanks are given to the inhabitants of Sukhna and especially to Bashir Deeb Zaid Arslan Mohammed, Dr T. Sultan-Murad, Mr.Tahir Arslan and Mohammed Arslan. Plates 1, 5 and 6 are included by kind permission of Bashir Deeb Mohammed Zaid Arsank (Arslan).