Sunday 3 July 2016

The Martyr’s Memorial and Museum, Amman, Jordan.  

الصرح الشهيد

Sarh al-Shaheed, (الصرح الشهيد) © JB Winterburn

Sarh al-Shaheed, (الصرح الشهيد) The Martyrs Memorial, is Jordan’s national army museum and is located in the capital city of Amman. A large, gleaming and austere white stone clad monolithic building sits on a pedestal like an acropolis overlooking the modern city of Amman. Its otherwise featureless façades are dominated by a band of polished black basalt inscribed with gold lettering; words from the Quran and a style reference to the Ka’aba in Mecca, the holiest of places for Muslims. 
    Two Long-Tom, 155 mm M1, field-guns sit on the edge of the courtyard pointing over the city on silent sentry duty, reinforcing the power and authority of the place and protecting the memory of the martyrs. The possibility that these guns may have been the ones to shell Tel Aviv and Jerusalem in Jordan’s disastrous participation in the 1967 ‘six day war’ is forgotten here and never mentioned within the museum.

Long Tom, 155mm, M1 field-gun © JB Winterburn  

 This is more than a museum, it is a memorial to those, The Martyrs, who have given their life in the service of Jordan since the Great Arab Revolt of 1916-1918, a place where “the nation celebrates its victories and the state displays its history” and honours the Hashemite dynasty in Jordan.
    Built on the orders of the King Hussein bin Talal, the father of modern Jordan, it was designed by the Jordanian born architect Victor Bisharat and inaugurated on July 25th 1977, a date that coincided with the 25th anniversary of nation building under the king. (For information about Victor Bisharat click HERE)

    The museum space within the memorial comprises the four interior walls each with its exhibits depicting military events from Jordan’s past. This is history as that state wishes it to be portrayed with victories celebrated and defeats forgotten. The Ottomans are portrayed as enemies and five centuries of their heritage are erased from memory as Jordanian history is depicted to begin with the Great Arab Revolt, in 1916 followed by the subsequent accomplishments of the Hashemite dynasty.

© JB Winterburn

The visitor climbs up the white steps and enters a large doorway in the centre of the wall gaining access to a large hall decorated with the standards of Jordanian Army units. From here one is directed to the ramp that gently ascends along the walls of the building passing display cases housing military artefacts associated with Jordan’s history. The visitor is guided along an walk-way passing displays that begin with the Great Arab revolt against the Ottoman empire  initiated by Sharif Hussein of Mecca the great, great, Grandfather of the present King, Abdullah II.  Sheriff Hussein’s portrait is shown alongside some of his belongings including an ivory walking stick and the silk ‘ikal’, used to secure his head-covering together with photographs of the Ka’aba, reinforcing the Hashemite link with Mecca and images of four of his sons. There are displays of old weapons, including pistols and rifles, used at the time of the revolt and next to this is a cabinet of photographs of the Turkish held and fortified garrison railway station complex at Ma’an which was attacked by Arab forces in April 1918. It was briefly taken but never held by the Arab forces during the revolt, a fact glossed over in the display which includes short sections of damaged railway track and explosives.

One of the many displays. © JB Winterburn

Continuing upward leads one past other displays and carries you further away from the past toward the present. The displays exhibit curious agglomerations of Turkish uniform, British radio equipment, US made weapons, groundsheets, signalling lamps, Turkish cavalry swords and camel saddles together with photographs of Glubb Pasha and the Jordanian Army in the 1950s. Another interesting artefact is  complete copy of the Quran printed on a single sheet of paper; another reference to the importance of Islamic heritage of the Hashemites. As the ramp ascends further the cabinets display badges of rank and formation signs and the honours, medals and decorations awarded to the army. Several examples of uniforms are on display include one worn by the late King Hussein.

Exhibits.  © JB Winterburn

At the top of the building is the walled roof garden, but access is restricted by large glass doors. Through the gold tinted glass one gets a good view of the ceremonial space and the black panels inscribed with the names of the martyrs in gold lettering.  In the centre of this space stands a small olive tree, the tree of life and of peace, with a  golden pitcher from which the King and visiting dignitaries can sprinkle water on the tree.

The roof garden and ceremonial olive tree.  © JB Winterburn

If you have a couple of hours to spare in Amman on your way to or from the airport or Jordan’s many other historic sites then a visit to this memorial and museum will be of interest to military historians. Visiting this remarkable building is stimulating and  helps one to understand a little about the middle eastern concept ‘martyrdom’ as opposed to the remembrance of the ‘fallen’ in the west’s memorials. The museum’s collections are limited and narrate a sanitised view of history but the best exhibit is the building and its immediate environment. Look at its design, position and symbolism and you will come away with an understanding of the importance of the military and their Hashemite pedigree to the modern state of Jordan. 

Other information.

Sarh al-Shaheed, the Martyr’s Memorial, is located next to the Sports City Stadium in the Shmeisani district, 5 km northwest of Downtown Amman.
It is open every day, except Friday, from 8am-4 pm in winter, 8 am-6pm in summer.  Entry is free of charge.
Tel. + 962 6 566 4240 

Based on an article originally written by John B Winterburn for Military History Monthly magazine, 2013. 

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