Bert de Vries is a professor of history and archaeology at Calvin College in Michigan and the director of the Umm el-Jimal Project in northern Jordan. This collaborative project unites a number of key partners – including Open Hand Studios, the Jordanian Department of Antiquities, faculty from Yarmouk University, and, most importantly, local residents near the site – around the shared goals of cultural preservation and sustainable development.
Bert oversees site preservation projects in the ancient city, including one supported by the U.S. Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation to preserve the ruins of a large residential complex built between the 5th and 6th centuries A.D. Phase I of the project was completed in January 2013, and AFCP recently awarded Bert’s group a grant to continue with Phase II.
“I was thrilled about the way the entire work force came together as a team,” Bert said of the work on Phase I. “Carrying out the project was a truly democratic process which included daily planning and strategy meetings and a constant flow of suggestions from all team members.”
A project of this scale, involving heavy blocks of basalt, fragile ruins, and dangerous site conditions, presented some major preservation challenges.
“The problem of how to stabilize a historic double-arched window four stories above the ground kept me awake nights until our team devised a clever plan to reach up to the window without using scaffolding. We solved the problem thanks to two cranes and some courageous workers who perched like birds on the narrow wall ledges to fix the window.”
Telling the story of this ancient city is equally challenging, especially since its history spans several centuries and cultures and its ancient buildings and roads lie in ruins or buried under layers of debris.
“We did our best to find and present the truth about the site and represented all cultural periods from the prehistoric to the modern. We also shared our discoveries with a range of audiences from young people to scholars and actively engaged people of the surrounding community, who are not only actors in the long cultural history of Umm el-Jimal but also partners and beneficiaries in the long-term site management program we are developing together.”
The work Bert and his team completed in January 2013 was one of several milestones in the modern history of the Umm el-Jimal site, where archaeologists have been working since the early 20th century. Although not as well known as the Jordanian sites of Petra and Jerash, Umm al-Jimal spans several important periods in the history of the Middle East from the 1st to the 20th century, including the ancient Nabataean, Roman, Byzantine, and Islamic periods, all of which predate the establishment of the modern Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan in 1949.
“Even though modern Jordan is a young country, that deep cultural heritage is indigenous and continuous from past to present. If people look closely at well-preserved sites like Umm el-Jimal, they can see themselves and their own architectural traditions.”