Building Community among the Ruins

by Frans van Liere.
Three men break for tea next to an ancient stone wall ruin.

Tea break at Umm el-Jimal, with Bert (left), Muaffaq, and a local laborer.

In my last entry for Historical Horizons, I wrote about how archaeology can be a tool for colonialism. For the Palestinian inhabitants of the village of Silwan, the Israeli archaeological park of the “City of David,” situated right in their West Bank village, bears a clear message: you don’t belong here; “we” were here first (“we” meaning the Jewish settlers). Archaeology involves the present as much as the past. In Silwan, it disempowers the local residents in the interest of more powerful rivals. But archaeology can also be used to empower the residents of an excavation site. An inspiring example can be found in Calvin College’s archaeology program’s excavations at Umm el-Jimal, in northwestern Jordan. My colleague Bert de Vries has directed excavations at this site since 1972, and has led numerous Calvin students on summer field work here. Last summer I had the opportunity to visit it for the first time.

I visited in July 2017, while I was teaching a Latin course in at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. On my first weekend in Israel, I rented a car and headed first in the direction of the Dead Sea, and from there north through the Jordan River valley. The border crossing near Beit She’an was said to be the easiest way to cross into Jordan, with no visa required in advance, and with relatively short waiting times. Of course, I had to leave my rental car parked at the Israeli side of the border. Several long lines and passport stamps later, I was met on the Jordanian side of the border by Bert.

Umm el-Jimal, whose original name is unknown, was built by Nabatean people in the first century CE. In Roman times it was a frontier town, with a small castellum.  By the sixth century, it had become a thriving Byzantine city, owing its economic importance to the proximity of the Sassanid Empire. Interestingly, the conquest by the Muslims, after the Battle of the Yarmouk River in 636, not too far from Umm el-Jimal, does not seem to have changed life for its inhabitants dramatically. The town continued to flourish, until roughly the ninth century, when it was abandoned. Despite a brief period of resettlement under the Mamluks in the thirteenth century, it became a field of ruins, until it was reoccupied in the nineteenth century by a Druze community. After the Druze left, the ruins became a dwelling for a Bedouin tribe, until the Jordanian Law of Antiquities forbade such use in 1972. The ruins were fenced off, and the Bedouins resettled in the nearby village that is the present-day town of Umm el-Jimal.

Although the site was surveyed in 1905 and 1909, systematic excavations of the site did not begin until the 1970s, under the direction of Bert de Vries. Bert did not see the Bedouin as a tribe to be displaced from their surroundings. On the contrary, he worked closely with the local community, often employing men from the village to do some of the excavations. During my visit, I met with Muaffaq Hazza, who grew up in Umm el-Jimal and is now a member of the core staff of the archaeological team, working on an MA in archaeology.

Water is of vital importance in this arid region; ancient Umm el-Jimal flourished thanks to an ingenious water collection system, which stored the run-off from rain storms in the hills in underground cisterns. Bert and his field team not only excavated these cisterns, but oversaw a plan to restore them to their original use, hoping that these underground water storage facilities would benefit the local population in agricultural endeavors. Calvin’s archaeology students are currently alongside Calvin engineering students and the Clean Water Institute of Calvin College to realize what is known as the “Umm el-Jimal water project.”

Umm el-Jimal is not contested terrain like East Jerusalem. But it plays its own part in the upheavals of the modern Middle East. What was once a border town between the Byzantine and Sassanid Empires is still an important border crossing. Across the road from Umm el-Jimal, the refugee camp of Al Zaatari reminds the visitor that the political situation in this part of the word is volatile. It houses thousands of refugees that are displaced by the Syrian civil war. The camp has no wells, and water needs to be carted in by the truckload. What if the Umm el-Jimal water project can serve to provide water for the camp? Can the desert be made to bloom? The Umm el-Jimal water project shows how an archaeology program at a Christian college can help to serve the God who “defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, to give them food and clothing” (Deut. 10:18), by not engaging in divisive identity politics, but instead by building community and being a force for good. As I said goodbye to Bert a few days later, about to cross the border on my way to Jerusalem, I was reminded of how proud I was to work in the same department as Bert and the many students who he not only taught how to do archaeology, but also to be better citizens in God’s Kingdom.

Frans van Liere is Professor of History and director of the Medieval Studies program at Calvin. He teaches world history, medieval history, and history of the book. He grew up in the Netherlands and studied theology and medieval studies at the University of Groningen. His research interests are medieval biblical exegesis, twelfth-century intellectual history, and the late medieval papacy. He lives in Grand Rapids, MI with his wife, two teenage sons, and a cat named Lancelot.

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