The Amman Citadel in Jordan is one of the oldest continuously occupied sites in the world. Indeed, artifacts found there date back thousands of years. It’s also home to several impressive architectural feats, one of which is the Temple of Hercules. Construction of the temple began around 162 A.D., but it was never completed. And while the statue that stood there may have been the largest in the world, today, only a few pieces remain.
In 225 B.C., the author Philo of Byzantium wrote a work he called On the Seven Wonders. In it, he describes seven “themata,” or things to see. These days, we might call them must-sees. They were, in the writer’s opinion, the most remarkable feats of engineering and art in the ancient world, and therefore, places that every traveler should visit.
Today, we’re don’t actually know if all the wonders ever really existed. And even if they did, their descriptions may well be subject to exaggeration. It’s impossible to know for sure, because six of the wonders didn’t make it to modern times. Some fell to natural disasters, such as earthquakes. Others fell victim to human malice. Only one survives.
The most famous of the Seven Wonders is probably the one that’s still around today. Completed in around 2561 B.C., Egypt’s Great Pyramid in Giza remained the world’s highest man-made construction for over 4,000 years. And, although the tomb’s treasures went walkabout a long time ago, the pyramid itself remains almost intact.
At the other end of the Seven Wonders scale are the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. While the existence of the Great Pyramid can’t be denied, there’s no conclusive evidence that the Gardens ever existed. In addition, there are no first-hand accounts of them, despite their popularity in Roman and Greek literature. If they were real, though, an earthquake may have destroyed them sometime after the end of the common era’s first century.
Next on the list was the Statue of Zeus, located on the ancient Greek site of Olympia. The 40-foot sculpture depicted the god with ivory skin and golden robes. It sat on a throne in the Temple of Zeus before making its way to Constantinople. There, another earthquake, or possibly even a fire, was probably responsible for its destruction.
Ephesus was a Greek city in what is now Turkey. And in 550 B.C., the city saw the completion of the its famous marble temple to the goddess Artemis. It was around 425 feet in length and 225 feet in width, with over 100 60-foot columns supporting it. In 356 B.C., though, a man who wanted infamy burned it down. The Ephesians, though, ordered his name erased from history. A new temple was then constructed on the site, only to be destroyed in an invasion.
King Mausolus found his final resting place in the Mausoleum of Harlicarnassus, a marble tomb 135 feet high, in modern-day Turkey. Grief-stricken, his wife commissioned the enormous building to ensure her husband’s burial site was worthy of him. After earthquakes destroyed the tomb in the 13th century, the Knights of St. John of Malta took its remains to build their own castle.
Helios the Sun God was patron of the Greek island of Rhodes. In his honor, the citizens built the Colossus of Rhodes, a 100-foot tall bronze statue of the god. It was the tallest statue of its era, but collapsed in an earthquake. As a result, much of the bronze was sold for scrap. Its legacy lives on, though, with the Statue of Liberty drawing it’s inspiration from the Colossus.
On the small Egyptian island of Pharos, the Lighthouse of Alexandria was built. After the pyramids, it was the largest man-made structure of its time. Visible up to 35 miles across the sea, it would guide ships into the town’s port. There has been much debate over the lighthouse’s size, but modern experts think it was probably around 400 feet in height. Again, earthquakes were responsible for its destruction, though pieces were later used to build a fort at the same site.
So, once one writer had made a claim over which seven monuments were most wondrous, it’s perhaps unsurprising that other authors wanted in on the act. Herodotus, Antipater and Callimachus all wrote on the Seven Wonders. They became a topic of debate in the ancient world. Some even made that argument that other great structures should be on the list.
The Temple of Hercules, while not one of the Seven Wonders, is still a remarkable piece of engineering. Built during the Roman occupation of Jordan around 166 A.D, today, the temple is still visble in one of the oldest parts of Amman. It’s located on a hill, where it overshadows the the ancient city.
Amman itself has a long history. The plateau now known as Mount al-Qal’ah has been the center of several settlements. Indeed, there’s evidence that people were living there as far back as 6,000 years ago. And during Biblical times, it was home to a people called the Ammonites. King David is alleged to have battled them, whilst his son Solomon took several Ammonite wives.
When Egypt’s King Ptolemy II Philadelphus conquered Amman in the third century B.C., he changed its name to Philadelphia. It then became one of ten cities known as the “Decapolis.” This league of Middle Eastern cities was Greek in language and culture, and also included Damascus and Scythopolis, today known as Bet She’an in Israel.
In 63 B.C., the Roman general Pompey conquered Jordan, along with Palestine and Syria. As a result, the greatest city of the Decapolis, Gerasa, later received a visit from Hadrian, the Roman Emperor. The last part of Jordan to be free of Roman control was in the south. Called the Nabatean Kingdom, it resisted the empire until 106 A.D.
The Romans were, of course, famous builders. They constructed roads, forts and theaters throughout Jordan and Syria. Latin became the official language of the region, although most of the local inhabitants spoke Greek. Roman religion was also introduced, and this created some tension in an otherwise peaceful and prosperous time.
When the Romans took control of Jordan in 63 B.C., it was still known as Philadelphia. They ruled there for around 400 years, and some of the monuments they built have survived to this day. These include the Roman Odeon and Roman Theater. And, of course, the Temple of Hercules is also among them.
All three of these monuments were built during the reign of Emperor Marcus Aurelius. The Temple of Hercules, though, is the least well-preserved. In 1993, however, the temple’s columns were re-erected to recreate part of its original splendor. And with the help of measurements and data gathered during excavations, the American Center for Oriental Research has constructed a model of the temple to put on display in Amman.
Marcus Aurelius was Roman Emperor between 161 A.D. and 180 A.D. Known as a Philosopher King and considered among “the Five Good Emperors,” he was highly respected during his reign. Despite his efforts to work for the common good, though, Aurelius is also associated with the persecution of Christians, as well as a number of bloody conflicts.
Aurelius is also famous for his highly personal work, Meditations, which he wrote in Greek rather than Latin. It’s based in the philosophical ideas of stoicism and had an impact for generations after his death. He even makes appearances in modern popular culture, too, such as being Commodus’ father in the film Gladiator.
Philadelphia had seen a fall in its fortunes before the Romans arrived. In fact, in 106 A.D., they helped rebuild parts of the city. But by 1300 A.D., it was gone. Ottoman Turks later resettled the area, but for centuries it was only a village. It wasn’t until the First World War ended that Amman became the capital, first of the British Mandate of Transjordan, and then the independent state of Jordan.
During the rule of Aurelius, the Temple of Hercules would have been larger than any similar structure in Rome. It is part of a larger area called the Amman Citadel, which also includes a Byzantine church. And it’s possible that church’s construction may have included marble from the temple. With such a rich history, then, archaeologists have been continuously excavating the site since the 1920s and still have a lot of work to do.
Amman is also famous for its seven hills. Mount al-Qal’a is the one that hosts the citadel. As well as the Roman temple and Byzantine church, it is also the site of a palace built during the reign of the Arabian Umayyad Dynasty. It was they who gave the city its current name. As a result, the site is considered one of the largest continuously occupied locations in the world.
The oldest discovery found at the Amman Citadel is an ancient tomb. The pieces of pottery inside it date back to around 1650 B.C., long before the arrival of the Ammonites. Mount al-Qal’a would later be occupied by civilizations including the Babylonians, Assyrians and Persians before the Greeks and Romans arrived.
The Temple of Hercules appears unfinished and no one really knows why. Despite this, it’s still an impressive 85 feet in width and 100 feet in length. Around this central area is an outer sanctum that’s even bigger, at 236 feet by 400 feet. The six columns surrounding the eastward facing portico stand at 33 feet. It is the lack of columns in other parts of the temple, though, that make it seem incomplete.
Solving the mysteries of the Temple of Hercules has proven incredibly difficult. Excavations at the site have revealed little in the way of evidence for experts to analyze. What they have found, though, are parts of what appears to have been a marble statue. The tantalizing findings consist of one giant elbow and three enormous fingers.
Experts think those pieces may have belonged to a sculpture of Hercules, the demigod. As well as the monument, there were some coins nearby bearing his portrait. All of which suggests that he is indeed the figure the temple honors, as the hero was a popular character in the mythology of the time.
Like the temple itself, the statue would have been huge. From the pieces they have, experts estimate it could have been more than 40 feet tall. That would have made it one of the biggest marble statues ever produced. The rest of the statue is long gone, however, so the truth may never come to light.
Amman has often experienced severe earthquakes and it’s likely one of these caused the collapse of the statue. Other than the elbow and hand, the statue’s remains have completely disappeared. They may even have become building materials. In fact, according to one guide, “the rest of Hercules became Amman’s countertops.”
Some scholars have speculated that there may even have been an older structure on the site, with Hercules’ temple built on top of it. One theory is that it was once the Ammonite Temple of Milcom, which existed in the ninth century B.C. Indeed, the exposed rock within the inner sanctum may have once been that temple’s sacred heart.
Milcom, it seems, was the primary god of the Ammonites. In the Hebrew Bible, he has associations with human sacrifice. And as we’ve seen, the Ammonites were living in Amman around 1200 B.C., with their civilization centered on the citadel. This often brought them into conflict with the nearby Israelites.
Hercules, however, is one of Roman and Greek mythology’s most famous heroes. His mother was a mortal woman called Alcmene, but legend claims that Zeus, king of the gods, was his father. This divine origin, making him a half-god, explains why he was so much stronger than the average man.
Being a demigod, though, didn’t make life easy for Hercules. Zeus’ wife, Hera, saw him as a reminder of her husband’s philandering. She later prevented the hero from becoming a king and once tried to murder him. Even as a baby, Hercules constantly had to defend himself from his stepmother’s machinations. Indeed, he is said to have strangled two serpents she sent to kill him while still in the cradle.
According to legend, Hera would later inflict on Hercules a madness that caused him to murder his own wife and children. Full of guilt, he sought a way to make amends. He then embarked on the series of near impossible tasks. They would become known as the 12 Labors of Hercules, for which he would long be remembered.
The labors were set by Eurystheus, King of Mycenae. Some of the tasks involved killing monstrous animals that had been terrorizing the human population. Among them, the lion of Nemea with its impenetrable hide, the Hydra that would regrow its heads every time they were chopped off and a flock of carnivorous Stymphalian Birds.
Other creatures Hercules only needed to capture. These included the incredibly swift running Cerynitian hind, the ferocious Erymanthian boar, the rampaging Cretan bull, the man-eating mares of Diomedes, the cattle of the Geryon monster, who had six legs and three heads and Cerberus, the three-headed canine guardian of the underworld.
On top of this, Hercules also had to steal a girdle from the Amazon Queen Hippolyta, and take from the Hesperides their golden apples, located in a garden at the edge of the world, guarded by a dragon. He even had to clean an impossibly large amount of manure from the Augean Stables in only one day.
Once Hercules had completed his 12 labors, though, he continued to adventure. He was one of the Argonauts who joined Jason in the search for the Golden Fleece, and he would later rescue a Trojan princess from a sea monster. However, there were still difficulties to face. These included another bout of madness and a period of slavery.
There was, however, still some happiness ahead for Hercules. He would marry again and have more children. But even then, an enemy’s trickery led to his wife poisoning him without realizing it would be fatal. When the hero died, the chariot of Athena carried him to Olympus. There, he would live forever among the gods.
There is, of course, no guarantee that the hand in Amman was once part of a statue of Hercules. In fact, the only evidence to support the theory is the many coins discovered in the area bearing his portrait. It’s unlikely that we’ll ever know for sure who the hand really belonged to, but isn’t that one of the wonders of the world, too?