Climate, Land Use, and Landscape Change in Southern Bilad al-Sham (Northern Jordan) during the Islamic Periods


  • Bernhard Lucke FAU Erlangen-Nürnberg, Institute of Geography



Landscape change, soil erosion, environmental degradation, Muslim conquest, Abila of the Decapolis, climate change



Common narratives of 'decline' in Jordan and Syria during the Islamic periods are based on diminishing evidence of construction and maintenance of monumental architecture, and often consider man-made degradation of the environment, such as soil erosion due to mismanage­ment, as a key factor of reduced productivity. This contribution tackles the question of historic landscape change with a case study of the site of Abila in northern Jordan, and reviews the literature on the matter. Sediments in the Wadi Queilbeh near Abila suggest that two periods of rapid and significant deposition took place during the 6th and 14th-15th century AD, which were connected with extreme rainfalls induced by global climate variations. After the 6th century, a trend to general drier conditions is discernible. Other periods are characterized by absence of sedimentation, and soil distribution in the vicinity suggests stable and fertile conditions where water availability determines the agricultural potential. Changes of settlement and environment can be explained with reduced rainfalls during the Islamic periods that led to a shift of land use from market-orient agriculture towards subsistence farming. This reduced surpluses and thus less monumental buildings were built. The practice of a mixed economy with an increasing share of pastoralism was connected with natural reforestation of some areas, and seasonal use of many areas may have led to incorrect perceptions of 'empty' lands by European travelers. Tribes settled when they could realize the benefits of agriculture. Climate fluctuations most likely represent the underlying drivers of environmental and economic changes in northern Jordan during the Islamic periods.

Author Biography

Bernhard Lucke, FAU Erlangen-Nürnberg, Institute of Geography

Originally trained as environmental engineer working on soil erosion issues in northern Jordan, Bernhard Lucke accomplished his PhD in soil geography focusing on Abila and the environmental history of the Decapolis region. He continued to work on questions of historic environmental changes in the Near East, which he compared with areas in Germany and Mexico in his habilitation thesis.


Al-Omari, Y. 2006. “Fossil and recent landslides in central and north Jordan.” Unpublished MA thesis, University of Jordan, Amman.

Baillie, M.G.L. 1994. “Dendrochronology raises questions about the nature of the AD 536 dust-veil event.” The Holocene 4: 212–217.

Banning, E. 1986. “Peasants, pastoralists and Pax Romana: Mutualism in the southern highlands of Jordan.” Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 261: 25–50.

Bar-Matthews, M., A. Ayalon and A. Kaufmann. 1998. “Middle to Late Holocene (6500 yr Period) paleoclimate in the Eastern Mediterranean region from stable isotopic composition of speleothems from Soreq Cave, Israel.” In Water, Environment and Society in Times of Climatic Change, edited by A. Issar and N. Brown, 203–215. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers.

Bookman (Ken-Tor), R., Y. Enzel, A. Agnon and M. Stein. 2004. “Late Holocene lake levels of the Dead Sea.” Geological Society of America Bulletin (0016-7606) 116: 555–571.

Burckhardt, J. L. 1823. Travels in Syria and the Holy Land. Weimar: Verlag des Landes-Industrie-Comptoirs.

Butzer, K. 1961. “Climatic change in arid regions since the Pliocene”. In History of Land Use in Arid Regions, edited by D. Stamp: 31-56. Paris: UNESCO.

2005. “Environmental history in the Mediterranean world: cross-disciplinary investigation of cause-and-effect for degradation and soil erosion.” Journal of Archaeological Science 32: 1773–1800.

Casana, J. 2003. “From Alalakh to Antioch: Settlement, land use and environmental change in the Amuq Valley of Southern Turkey.” Unpublished PhD thesis, University of Chicago.

2008. “Mediterranean valleys revisited: Linking soil erosion, land use and climate variability in the Northern Levant.” Geomorphology 101: 429–442.

Cordova, C., C. Foley, A. Nowell and M. Bisson 2005. “Landforms, sediments, soil development and prehistoric site settings in the Madaba-Dhiban Plateau, Jordan.” Geoarchaeology 20(1): 29–56.

Cordova, C. 2007. Millenial landscape change in Jordan. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.

Dalman, G. 1935. Arbeit und Sitte in Palästina. Band IV: Brot, Öl und Wein. Gütersloh: Bertelsmann.

Dar, S. 1986. Landscape and Pattern. British Archaeological Reports International Series 308. Oxford: Archaeopress.

Darbyshire, I., H. Lamb and M. Umer. 2003. “Forest clearance and regrowth in northern Ethiopia during the last 3000 years.” The Holocene 13 (4): 537–546.

Döring, M. 2005. “Römische Wasserversorgungstunnel im Norden Jordaniens. Eine Vorerkundung.” Zeitschrift des deutschen Palästina-Vereins 121: 130–139.

Enzel, Y., R. Bookman (Ken-Tor), D. Sharon, H. Gvirtzman, U. Dayan, B. Ziv and M. Stein. 2003. “Late Holocene climates of the Near East deduced from Dead Sea level variations and modern regional winter rainfall.” Quaternary Research 60: 263–273.

Enzel, Y., R. Amit, U. Dayan, O. Crouvi, R. Kahana, B. Ziv, and D. Sharon. 2008. “The climatic and physiographic controls of the eastern Mediterranean over the late Pleistocene climates in the southern Levant and its neighboring deserts.” Global and Planetary Change 60: 165–192.

Field, J. and E. Banning. 1998. “Hillslope processes and archaeology in Wadi Ziqlab, Jordan.” Geoarchaeology 13(6): 595–616.;2-U

Frumkin, A., D. Ford and H. Schwarz. 2000. “Paleoclimate and vegetation of the last glacial cycles in Jerusalem from a speleothem record.” Global Biochemical Cycles 14(3): 863–870.

Fuller, M. 1987. “Abila of the Decapolis: A Greco-Roman city in Transjordan.” Unpublished PhD thesis, Washington University, St. Louis.

Geraty, L. T., L. G. Herr, Ø. S. LaBianca, J. R. Battenfield, G. L. Christopherson, D. R. Clark, J. A. Cole, P. M. Daviau, L. E. Hubbard, J. I. Lawlor, R. Low and R. W. Younker. 1990. “Madaba Plains Project: A preliminary report of the 1987 season at Tell El-?Umeiri and vicinity.” Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research. Supplementary Studies 26: 59-88.

Glueck, N. 1940. The Other Side of the Jordan. New Haven, CT: American School of Oriental Research.

1951. “Exploration in Eastern Palestine, IV.” Annual of the American School of Oriental Research, vol. XXV-XXVIII for 1945–1949, 120–130.

1968. The River Jordan. 2nd edition. Philadelphia, PA: The Jewish Publication Society of America.

Grove, A.T. and Rackham, O. 2003. The Nature of Mediterranean Europe: An Ecological History. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Hamarneh, M. 1987. “Der Weg vom Nomadismus zum seßhaften Bauerntum in El-Belka?, Transjordanien.” In Pracht und Geheimnis, Kleidung und Schmuck aus Palästina und Jordanien, edited by G. V. Völger, K. Welck and K. Hackstein, 52–57. Cologne: Ethnologica 13, Verein zur Förderung des Rautenstrauch-Joest-Museums der Stadt Köln.

Haude, W. 1966. “Witterung und weizenanbau in Jordanien.” Meteorologische Rundschau 19(4): 97–111.

Hazan, N., M. Stein, A. Agnon, S. Marco, D. Nadel, J. Negendank, M. Schwab and D. Neev. 2005. “The late Quaternary limnological history of Lake Kinneret (Sea of Galilee), Israel.” Quaternary Research 63: 60–77.

Hill, J., P. Hostert, and A. Röder. 2004. “Long-term observations of Mediterranean ecosystems with satellite remote sensing.” In Recent Dynamics of the Mediterranean Vegetation and Landscape, edited by S. Mazzoleni, G. Pasquale, M. Mulligan, P. di Martino, and F. Rego, 33–43. Chichester: Wiley.

Hirschfeld, Y. 1997. “Farms and villages in Byzantine Palestine.” Dumberton Oaks Papers 51: 33–71.

2004. “A climatic change in the early Byzantine period? Some archaeological evidence.” Palestine Exploration Quarterly 136(2): 133–149.

Huntington, E. 1911. Palestine and its Transformation. Boston,MA: Houghton Mifflin Company.

Hütteroth, W.-D. 1969. “Das Wüstungsproblem im Orient.” Geographische Rundschau 21: 60–63.

1987. “Der arabische Siedlungsraum in Palästina und Transjordanien in osmanischer Zeit.” In Pracht und Geheimnis, Kleidung und Schmuck aus Palästina und Jordanien, edited by G. V. Völger, K. Welck and K. Hackstein, 36–44. Cologne: Ethnologica 13, Verein zur Förderung des Rautenstrauch-Joest-Museums der Stadt Köln.

Issar, A. 1990. Water Shall Flow From The Rock. Hydrogeology and Climate in the Lands of the Bible. Heidelberg: Springer.

Issar, A., and M. Zohar. 2004. Climate Change – Environment and Civilisation in the Middle East. Heidelberg: Springer.

Keys, D. 1999. Catastrophe. An Investigation into the Origins of the Modern World. London: Century books.

Kharasneh, W., K. al-Rousan, and J. Telfah, 2002. “New Discovery in Jordan at Beit Ras Region (Ancient Capitolias).” Occident & Orient 7:1: 9-11.

Kuhnen, H.-P. 1990. Palestina in griechisch-römischer Zeit. Munich: HbArch II.

LaBianca, Ø. , G. Christopherson, R. Watson, R. Low and D. Schnurrenberger. 2000. “A forest that refuses to disappear: Cycles of environmental degeneration and regeneration in Jordan. Report to the National Geographic Society, Research Grant Number 5758–5796.” Internet Edition:

Lancaster, W. and F. Lancaster. 1995. “Land Use and Population in the Area North of Karak.” Levant 27: 103–124.

Larsen, L.B., B. Vinther, K. Briffa, T. Melvin, H. Clausen, P. Jones, M. Sigaard-Andersen, C. Hammer, M. Eronen and H. Grudd. 2008. “New ice core evidence for a volcanic cause of the AD 536 dust veil.” Geophysical Research Letters 35(4).

Leopold, L. 1994. A View of the River. Cambridge, MA: Havard University Press.

Lowdermilk, W. C. 1944. Palestine—Land of Promise. London: Victor Gollancz.

1953. Conquest of the Land Through 7000 Years. Washington, .C: U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Lucke, B. 2008. Demise of the Decapolis: Past and Present Desertification in the Context of Soil Development, Land Use, and Climate. Saarbrücken: OmniScriptum.

2017. Landscape Transformations in the Context of Soil Development, Land Use, and Climate: A Comparison of Marginal Areas in Jordan, Mexico, and Germany. Relief Boden Paläoklima 26. Stuttgart: Bornträger Science Publishers.

Lucke, B., M. Schmidt, Z. al-Saad, O. Bens and R. Hüttl. 2005. “The abandonment of the Decapolis region in Northern Jordan—forced by environmental change?” Quaternary International 135: 65–81.

Lucke, B., Z. al-Saad, M. Schmidt, R. Bäumler, S.-O. Lorenz, P. Udluft, K.-U. Heußner and B. Walker. 2008. “Soils and land use in the Decapolis region (Northern Jordan): Implications for landscape development and the impact of climate change.” Zeitschrift des Deutschen Palästina-Vereins 124(2): 171–188.

Lucke, B., M. Shunnaq, B. Walker, A. Shiyab, Z. Al-Muheisen, H. Sabahba, R. Bäumler and M. Schmidt.
2012a. “Questioning Transjordan’s historic desertification: A critical review of the paradigm of ‘empty lands’.” Levant 44(1): 101–126.

Lucke, B., H. Kemnitz and R. Bäumler. 2012b. “Evidence for isovolumetric replacement in Terrae Rossae of Jordan.” Boletín de la Sociedad Geológica Mexicana 64(1): 21–35.

Lucke, B., H. Kemnitz, R. Bäumler and M. Schmidt. 2014. Red Mediterranean soils in Jordan: New insights in their origin, genesis, and role as environmental archives. Catena 112: 4–24.

Lucke, B. and A. Müller. 2015. “Air photos as tool to trace mass movements in Wadi Queilbeh from 1978–2009 as compared to Wadi Ziqlab in the context of record levels of daily rainfall in Jordan.” In Soils and Sediments as Archives of Environmental Change: Geoarchaeology and Landscape Change in the Subtropics and Tropics, edited by B. Lucke, R. Bäumler and M. Schmidt, 23–32. Erlangen: Fränkische Geographische Gesellschaft.

Lucke, B. and C. Schmidt. 2017. “Debris flows, soil creep, and heavy rains in the Wadi Queilbeh, northern Jordan.” Zeitschrift für Geomorphologie 61(1): 159–201.

Lucke, B., S. al-Karaimeh and G. Schörner. subm. “Channels, terraces, pottery, and sediments—a comparison of past irrigation systems along a climatic transect in northern Jordan.” Journal of Arid Environments.

Maher, L. 2005. “The Epipaleolithic in context: Paleolandscapes and prehistoric occupation in Wadi Ziqlab, Northern Jordan.” Unpublished PhD thesis, Department of Anthropology, University of Toronto.

Medlands. 2009. Online: [03-04-2009]

Migowski, C. 2004. Untersuchungen laminierter holozäner Sedimente aus dem toten Meer: Rekonstruktion von Paläoklima und –seismizität. Potsdam: Scientific Technical Report STR02/06, GeoForschungszentrum Potsdam.

Migowski, C., M. Stein, S. Prasad, J. Negendank and A. Agnon. 2006. “Holocene climate variability and cultural evolution in the Near East from the Dead Sea sedimentary record.” Quaternary Research 66(3): 421–431.

Mirkesell, M. 1969. “The deforestation of Mount Lebanon.” The Geographical Review 59(1): 2–28.

Moh’d, B. 2000. The Geology of Irbid and Ash Shuna Ash Shamalia (Waqqas). Map Sheets No. 3154-II and 3154-II, Geological Bulletin 46. Amman: The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, Natural Resources Authority, Geology Directorate, Geological Mapping Division.

National Atlas of Jordan. 1984. National Atlas of Jordan. Part one: Agriculture and Climatology. Amman: Royal Geographic Centre of Jordan.

Neumann, F. 2005. Palynologische Untersuchungen zur Vegetations- und Siedlungsgeschichte der nördlichen Golan-Höhen (Naher Osten). Stuttgart: J. Cramer, Dissertationes Botanicae 396.

Neumann, F., C. Schölzel, T. Litt, A. Hense and M. Stein. 2007a. “Holocene vegetation and climate history of the northern Golan heights (Near East).” Vegetation History and Archaebotany 16: 329–346.

Neumann, F., E. Kagan, M. Schwab and M. Stein. 2007b. Palynology, sedimentology and paleoecology of the late Holocene Dead Sea. Quarternary Science Reviews 26: 1476–1498.

Nowell, A., M. Bisson, and C. Cordova 2003. “Wadi al-Koum survey.” American Journal of Archaeology 107: 453-455.

Orland, I. J., M. Bar-Matthews, N. T. Kita, A. Ayalon, A. Matthews and J. W. Valley. 2009. “Climate deterioration in the Eastern Mediterranean as revealed by ion microprobe analysis of a speleothem that grew from 2.2 to 0.9 ka in Soreq Cave, Israel.” Quaternary Research 71(1): 27–35.

Phillip, G., M. Abdulkarim, P. Newson, A. Beck, D. Bridgland, M. Bshesh, A. Shaw, R. Westaway and K. Wilkinson. 2005. “Settlement and landscape development in the Homs region, Syria: Report on work undertaken during 2001–2003.” Levant 37: 21–42.

Purschke, D. 1990. “Das nordostjordanische Hochland. Analyse und Bewertung des Naturraumes als agrares Nutzpotential.” Unpublished PhD thesis at the Mathematical-Geographical Faculty of the Catholic University of Eichstätt.

Rambeau, C. and S. Black. 2011. “Palaeoenvironments of the southern Levant 5,000 BP to present: Linking the geological and archaeological results.” In Water, Life and Civilisation: Climate, Environment and Society in the Jordan Valley, edited by S. Mithen, and E. Black, 94–104. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Rosen, A. 2007. Civilizing Climate: Social Responses to Climate Change in the Ancient Near East. New York: Altamira Press.

Schmidt, M., B. Lucke, R. Bäumler, Z. al-Saad, B. al-Qudah and A. Hutcheon. 2006. “The Decapolis region (Northern Jordan) as historical example of desertification? Evidence from soil development and distribution.” Quaternary International 151: 74–86.

Schnurrenberger, D. and J. Cole. 1997. “Landuse management in Tall al-Umeiri region.” In Madaba Plains Project 3: The 1989 season at Tell el-Umeiri and vicinity, edited by L. Herr, L. Geraty, O. LaBianca and R. W. Younker, 330–361. Berrien Springs, MI: Andrews University Press.

Schuhmacher, G. 1889. “Abila of the Decapolis.” Palestine Exploration Fund, Quaterly Statement 21: 9–51.

1890. Northern Ajlun: Within the Decapolis. London: Palestine Exploration Fund.

1913. “Eine Wetterkatastrophe im Ostjordanland.” Zeitschrift des Deutschen Palästina-Vereins 36: 314–315.

Schuldenrein, J. 2007. “A Reassessment of the Holocene Stratigraphy of the Wadi Hasa Terrace and Hasa Formation, Jordan.” Geoarchaeology 22(6): 559–588.

Seetzen, U. J. 1854. Reisen durch Syrien, Palestina, Phönicien, die Transjordan-Länder und Unter-Ägypten. Edited by Prof. Dr. Fr. Kruse, 1854–1859. Berlin: G. Reimer.

Seuffert, O. 2005. Formungsstile im Relief der Erde. Geo-öko-Text Band 1. Bensheim: Geoökoverlag.

Shami, S. 1987. “Umm Queis – a northern Jordanian village in context.” In Studies in the History and Archaeology of Jordan III, edited by A. Hadidi, 211–213. Amman: Department of Antiquities.

Shoup, J. A. 1986. “Hima: Traditional bedouin land-use systems.” Unpublished PhD thesis, Washington University, St. Louis.

Stein, M. 2001. “The sedimentary and geochemical record of neogene-quaternary water bodies in the Dead Sea basin: Inferences for the regional paleoclimatic history.” Journal of Paleolimnology 26(3): 271–282.

Stroosnijder, L. 2005. “Measurement of erosion: Is it possible?” Catena 64: 162–173.

Vita-Finzi, C. 1969. The Mediterranean Valleys: Geological Changes in Historical Times. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

1971. “Heredity and Environment in Clastic Sediments: Silt/Clay Depletion.” Geological Society of America Bulletin 82(1): 187–190.[187:HAEICS]2.0.CO;2

1976. “Diachronism in Old World alluvial sequences.” Nature 263: 218–219.

1995. “Solar history and paleohydrology during the last two millenia.” Geophysical Research Letters 22(6): 699–702.

2008. “Fluvial Solar Signals.” In Landscape Evolution: Denudation, Climate and Tectonics over Different Time and Space Scales, edited by K. Gallagher, S. J. Jones and J. Wainwright, 105–115. London: Geological Society, Special Publications 296.

Walker, B. 2004. “Mamluk investment in Jordan: A “boom and bust” economy.” Mamluk Studies Review 8(2): 119–147.

2011. Jordan in the Late Middle Ages: Transformation of the Mamluk Frontier. Chicago, IL: Middle East Documentation Center.

Walmsley, A. 1987. “The administrative structure and urban structure of the Jund of Filastin and the Jund al-Urdunn: The cities and districts of Palestine and East Jordan during the Early Islamic, Abbasid and early Fatimid periods.” unpublished PhD thesis, University of Sydney.

2001. “Restoration or revolution? Jordan between the Islamic Conquest and the Crusades: Impressions of twenty-five years of archaeological research.” In Studies in the History and Archaeology of Jordan 7, 633–640. Amman: Department of Antiquities.

Ward-Perkins, B. 2001. “Land, labour, and settlement.” In The Cambridge Ancient History 14: Late Antiquity: Empire and Successors, AD 425–600, edited by A. Cameron, B. Ward-Perkins, M. Whitby, 315–345. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Watson, A. 1981. “A medieval green revolution: New crops and farming techniques in the early Islamic world.” In The Islamic Middle East, 700–1900: Studies in Economic and Social History, edited by A. Udovitch, 29–58. Princeton, NJ: Darwin Press.

Weninger, B., E. Alram-Stern, E. Bauer, L. Clare, U. Danzeglocke, P. Jöris, C. Kubatzki, G. Rollefson and H. Todorova. 2005. “Die Neolithisierung von Südosteuropa als Folge des abrupten Klimawandels um 8200 calBP.” In Klimaveränderung und Kulturwandel in neolithischen Gesellschaften Mitteleuropas 6700-22 v.Chr., edited by Detlef Gronenborn, 75–117. Mainz: RGZM-Tagungen Band 1.

Wetzstein, J. G. 1864 Ausgewählte griechische und lateinische Inschriften, gesammelt auf Reisen in den Trachonen und um das Haurângebirge. Abhandlungen der Königlichen Akademie der Wissenschaften zu Berlin 1863. Berlin: Druckerei der Königlichen Akademie der Wissenschaften.

Whittaker, C. and P. Garnsey. 2008 “Rural life in the later Roman Empire.” In Cambridge Ancient History 13: The Late Roman Empire, AD 337–425, edited by A. Cameron, 277–304. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Wilkinson, T. 2003 Archaeological Landscapes of the Near East. Tuscon: The University of Arizona Press.

Williams, M. A. J. and R. Balling 1996 Interactions of Desertification and Climate. London: WMO, UNEP.

Wineland, J. 2001 Ancient Abila: An Archaeological History. British Archaeological Reports International Series 989. Oxford: Archaeopress.

Zohary, M. 1962 Plant Life of Palestine. New York: The Ronald Press Company.

Zon, R. 1927 “Do forests prevent floods?” American Forests and Forest Life 33, 388.



How to Cite

Lucke, B. (2019). Climate, Land Use, and Landscape Change in Southern Bilad al-Sham (Northern Jordan) during the Islamic Periods. Journal of Islamic Archaeology, 5(2), 203–223.