Tall Hisban is a farming town in the Madaba Plains in central Jordan, a highland plateau bordering on steppe lands. Located in the wheat basket of the Middle East, the Tell, one of many in the area, is across the Dead Sea from Jerusalem. Tell Hisban is the oldest continually excavated site in Jordan and has been the subject of excavation since the 1960s. It is one of the largest archaeological projects in Jordan.
The Tell is filled with underground tunnels, which once served several purposes. Many could be used as living quarters for people providing them with protection and a way to evade tax collectors. They could also be used to hold animals, others could be blocked off and used for storage, and still more led to underground cisterns were water could be contained.
Tell Hisban has a rich history. Stone tools and flint have been found dating back to the Paleolithic Period; an early Bronze Age cemetery has been found as well. During the Iron Age (1400-500 B.C.), a dry moat was built. Based on the few pottery sherds found it dates to about 1000 B.C. There are references in the Books of Numbers, Deuteronomy, and the Song of Solomon to a city on a high hill, to a well-fortified city, and to the pools of Heshbon. These references may suggest Hisban. The pools of Heshbon could easily be the cisterns within Hisban, the “well-fortified city” may have been destroyed completely, or it may have meant an established site and not a citadel, or Heshbon may not be Hisban at all. Heshbon was the capital of the Amorites until 1400 B.C. when it was conquered by the Israelites [Numbers 21:21-31]. From 1400-931 B.C. the city was occupied by the tribe of Reuben.
During the Hellenistic Period (332-164 B.C.) the site was called Esbus. It was during this time that the citadel walls were built along with four corner towers. It became a temple and administrative site and the caves beneath it were used for occupation. During the Macabean Period (164-63 B.C.) Hisban was a Jewish settlement and part of a separate political area. From 63 B.C. to 330 A.D. Hisban was controlled by the Romans and a Roman coin with a mold of the city and the name reveals that it was still referred to as Esbus. Evidence points to the possibility of a Temple during this period, certainly there was a Plaza with a ceremonial center at the top of the Tell, but whether this center was a temple or a water shrine remains uncertain. One important piece of pottery from this period is a sherd from the base of a Roman pot. While just a sherd, this piece is important because of a place stamp written in Aramaic, which it contains. During the 4th century A.D. it was a large town and reached its maximum population. Herod “the Great” fortified Esbus. The Esbus-Jerusalem road and Bilanova, another road, passed by the city adding to its appeal.
During the Byzantine Period (330-640 A.D.) Hisban was at its most prosperous. The remains of a church date to this period, and it appears to have been a large basilica used in pilgrimages. The water cisterns were still being used to quench the thirst of its large population, which was now approximately 3,000 households not counting pilgrims, and the people were growing food intensively. The city was now an Episcopal seat and the capital of the provincial district. During the 630s and through the 640s Hisban underwent peaceful conquest by the Muslims, and Christians remained in the site for quite some time afterwards. During the Umayyad period (636-713 A.D.) the capital of the area was Damascus. A military dynasty was present at Hisban and a split in religion occurred. There still remained a large Christian population, evidence of which is largely found in the northern part of the site. Evidence of an earthquake in the seventh century can be seen in the fire damage sustained and the abundance of broken pottery. In the Abbasid Period (750-1258 A.D.) the site was abandoned after the 9th or 10th century A.D. but was reoccupied in the 14th century. The 14th century brought forth the creation of the barracks.
In the Mamluk Period large amounts of sugar went through Hisban and some may have been produced there. This sugar could be used like cash and was exported from Hisban as far as Europe. The site became an administrative center for fifty years (1308-1356) until a prominent amir moved the capital to Amman. The Bedouin people living in Hisban enjoyed playing politics, and when Sultan al-Nasir Mohammad was removed his throne, the Bedouin gave him refuge and helped him to regain power. This is probably how Hisban became the capital of the Balqa’ district. In return for their political support, the Sultan awarded the people of Hisban by financially investing in the town. The bathhouse in the Citadel bears witness to the special services enjoyed by the soldiers stationed there: located inside the Governor’s residential complex, the hammam provided bathing services to officials that in other Mamluk garrisons were available only in the towns outside the garrison walls. Buildings at Hisban were barrel vaulted in this period, but no mortar was used. Between 1517 and 1918 Bedouins camped at the site and used the storeroom as a cemetery. Most of the pottery excavated comes from this period, including the glazed relief wares and much of the Handmade Geometric Painted wares.