Archaeology and Community Renewal in Jordan
Located in northern Jordan, Umm el-Jimal is home to almost two thousand years of fascinating history and culture—as well as a vibrant modern community. Open Hand is part of an ongoing international effort to understand Umm el-Jimal and its regional context from a holistic approach that integrates traditional academic research with cutting-edge technology and a deeply-rooted community perspective. Working with the Umm el-Jimal Project, local community members, Al Hima Foundation and other partners, Umm el-Jimal is quickly emerging as a best-practices model for archaeological research, cultural preservation, sustainable tourism, and community development.
Umm el-Jimal is both a modern town and archaeological site of unknown name, located approximately 70km northeast of Amman and just south of the Syrian border. In ancient times the site was occupied from roughly the 1st to 8th centuries AD. After its decline, Umm el-Jimal’s dark basalt architecture lay silent until Syrian Druze and bedouin Msa’eid reoccupied it at the start of the 20th century. Umm el-Jimal was a frontier town in the desert, likely first inhabited by Nabataean traders caravanning between Petra and Damascus. With the arrival of Rome in the second century AD the village eventually became part of the Limes Arabicus—the line of garrisoned forts that protected the Roman province of Arabia. Even so, Umm el-Jimal’s inhabitants existed in relative autonomy, and by the 5th and 6th centuries it peaked as a prosperous Byzantine town of perhaps five thousand souls. Over the following centuries Umm el-Jimal’s residents remodeled and reused its stone structures, until its probable decline and gradual abandonment in the late 8th century.
Today researchers continue piecing together Umm el-Jimal’s story of routine ancient life. Although located on the semi-arid plain of the Hauran, its residents devised an ingenious water storage system. Canals and reservoirs collected runoff from kilometers away, enough to sustain thousands of people, their animals, and agriculture. Umm el-Jimal is also home to a unique architecture. Ancient denizens used abundant black basalt from the region’s volcanic plain to construct sturdy, insulated structures reaching up to six stories skyward. For centuries Umm el-Jimal’s citizens successfully created a thriving home on the edge of empires.
Abandoned for almost a millennium after its decline, in the early 20th century Bedouin clans and Druze from Syria reoccupied the site, and have stayed ever since. About 4,000 people call Umm el-Jimal home today, and live around the ancient site. However, the fate of both is uncertain: Mafraq governorate is traditionally the second-most economically disadvantaged region in Jordan, and local unemployment remains high. A corresponding increase in looting suggests ancient and modern Umm el-Jimal’s futures are intertwined.
The Umm el-Jimal Project began as an archaeological research program in 1972, founded by Dr. Bert de Vries of Calvin College. Today it is an ongoing collaborative enterprise between the project and a large group of international partners. In 2007 this collaborative group began a new phase of research and work to continue integrating the academic and archaeological context of Umm el-Jimal with the site’s physical conservation, the modern community’s everyday life and cultural heritage, sustainable development, and public dissemination of results.
Programs at Umm el-Jimal are designed to help the modern town meet its needs while promoting conservation and the longterm preservation of the ancient site. In 2013 the project partners completed a major, multilingual effort to construct an educational curriculum and online museum for Umm el-Jimal. A multi-year project now underway at the House XVII-XVIII complex is preserving this key historical structure, but also developing best practices for the entire site’s conservation. An independent, locally-owned cultural heritage center is also in the works, which will provide a variety of employment opportunities dozens of women and men in the community. Finally, the project partners are developing a plan to restore ancient Umm el-Jimal’s still-functional water system for use by its modern residents.
Highlight: A Virtual Museum and Educational Center
We recently completed an online hub for Umm el-Jimal, including an educational curriculum for Jordanian schools as well as a virtual museum featuring videos, oral histories, cultural vignettes, an interactive map and timeline, slideshows, and other multimedia. Check it out at the Umm el-Jimal Project.
“Restoring the ancient water system will bring life to Umm el-Jimal again. It’s amazing.”Muaffaq Hazza