A builders’ heritage at Umm el-Jimal

Posted in: Cultural Heritage and Property
Tags: cultural heritage and patrimony, jordan, outreach, preservation
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Photo 1: Double Window at Umm el-Jimal

By: Bert de Vries (Calvin College) and Muaffaq Hazza (Umm el-Jimal)

In 2012 the Umm el-Jimal (UJ) Project received a grant from the U.S. Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation (AFCP) to engage in preservation and presentation of House XVII/XVIII, the very large Byzantine/Umayyad House famous for its fourth-floor level double windows (Photo 1). The objective was to preserve the ruin as it was and make it presentable, safe and understandable for visitors. This conservation project is a component of a larger effort to make Umm el-Jimal meaningful in a participatory way in the lives of various communities ranging from international tourists and scholars to the local residents of the UJ Municipality*.  See for example, the various components of the new website, www.ummeljimal.org, which is designed to serve these communities with multi-layered content like Site Histories, a Museum, a Guided Tour, the Education Curriculum Guide, a Research Library, Ethnological Films and much more.

A major goal of this decade-long process has been the planning and creation of a program of long-term reconciliation between the local residents, who had become more or less alienated, ironically, by previous sincere efforts to protect and preserve the site.  For the past protective measures had given some the impression that the site was not for them, but for others, and that it was, in fact, being protected from them (Photo 2, the fence). Now this sense of rupture is being mitigated by a variety of inclusive efforts ranging from heritage education, participation in site management and financial benefits from tourism services.

Photo 2: Fenced out

While much of this is as practical as making sure that money from tourist services flows into local coffers, at its deepest level a local feeling of ‘ownership’ has to include the establishment of a conviction that the ruins are a significant component of the people’s own history and play a significant role in their own traditions. This is, of course, to be done through things like education on archaeology and heritage, and integration of the ruins in to the various celebrations of communal life and culture.

However, in the long months of difficult stone moving and tricky resetting of basalt blocks in the House XVII/XVIII preservation process we discovered a different vital connection between the dead and the living: The skills that had been locally available to erect buildings like House XVIII a thousand years ago have survived the vast historic changes between then and now and are still there in the living community of today!

There is an ironic twist in our mutual discovery of this truth. We began the project in January with a preservation-planning field school involving Calvin students and various professionals, both foreigners and Jordanians, but almost no local people. In the process we received a stream of wonderful advice, with great input into issues of preservation standards and practical implementation techniques, for example – and especially – how to achieve an effective stabilization of the Double Window. By the end of the month we had a plan for the stabilization of a half dozen key elements of the building, which included a partly collapsed corbelled roof, an entirely collapsed room, and the Double Window.

In March we began to implement these plans with a crew of 35 workers hired by the Department of Antiquities from the Umm el-Jimal community. We were prepared to implement our carefully laid plans by instructing these workers on what was to be done, and how to do it. That is not how it went.  In each of the three instances just mentioned, our implementation strategy was trumped by the workers. For example, when we explained that we would like to secure the collapsing roof with an I-beam post, the leader of the work crew, Awda al-Masa’eid, looked things over and said: “That’s not necessary; it will be simpler and cheaper to fix the roof with a minimum of intervention. You do not need to have a support post in this room.” And that’s what was done. The story of this particular piece of work is told with pictures at “The Hole in the Roof” (June 9, 2012). After that, every planned intervention began with a long staff consultation with Awda and his crew. In every instance their plan for execution was simpler, faster, cheaper, more in keeping with preservation standards, and achieved exactly what we intended.**

Photo 3: Awda and crew stabilizing the Double Window

The result of this process is a new recognition of the core building skills (Photo 3) preserved at Umm el-Jimal, talents that reverberate with the ancient skills of the original builders. Thus our four months of working together have produced a mutuality and respect that includes a much greater sense of the ‘ownership’ of the conservation process by these local masons. Our intent is to honor this new mutuality and preserve this skills-tradition by finding ways to give this pool of local masons a permanent role in the long-term maintenance of the ancient buildings of Umm el-Jimal.

 Bert de Vries is a Professor of History and Archaeology at Calvin College and Director of the Archaeology Minor.

*Done by the project staff in partnership with Open Hand Studios, the Department of Antiquities and the local community and funded by various agencies, including so far, the Norwegian Research Council, the AIA, the AFCP, Calvin College, and the Department of Antiquities.

**For the story of the stabilization of the Double window see “Preservation of the Double Window,” the Problem (July 31, 2012) and the Solution (August 9, 2012).


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