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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Moments in History

by Bob Schoone-Jongen.

During September 1974 President Ford pardoned President Nixon of all the crimes he committed while in office. This ended two things: Nixon’s legal problems and Ford’s reelection hopes. Today we know two other things: Nixon died reviled; Ford died a profile in courage. History changes things. The Wall no longer divides Berlin, Mao Zedong lies under glass, cigarette smoke no longer belches from school faculty rooms, newspapers no longer need paper, computers fit in the palm of a hand, and transistor radios are museum exhibits. Cars are more efficient, microwave ovens ubiquitous; television screens are HD, and the BBC News arrives via internet instead of shortwave. Through it all, yours truly has been teaching, as the history book sprouted more chapters.

A lot has happened in 43 years. And much has changed, including me. Over those years there have been personal Pearl Harbors, events that marked sharp turns in the stream of time. There was Harold, who came from a troubled home and learned almost nothing historical during that first year—except one thing: the British forced the Chinese to import opium in the 1840s. Harold found that absolutely wrong, and he was right. But that day Harold taught me this: given enough time, I could help someone see the difference between justice and injustice. I could teach.

Another Pearl Harbor moment came decades later upon starting graduate school after years of being a high school teacher. Being twice as old as my fellow students, I knew far less than half of what they did about ideas and themes from French philosophers. Without those ideas I could only flail, while they discussed. Having been the sage of my old classroom for decades had come with a heavy price—ignorance. The world of ideas had moved; I hadn’t. I needed to learn.

But there have been Appomattox moments as well—watersheds when clearly one era ended and another began. Leaving Minnesota for Michigan fit the bill. Walking through that empty house where we’d lived for years, and two sons had grown and left—words failed, but not emotions. I would never pass that way again. A few days later a platoon of historians unloaded the furniture into another house—not quite a Pearl Harbor moment, but a change, nonetheless.

Another Appomattox approaches. After thousands of attempts to teach history the right way, I can stop trying to make the next class better than the last one, because the last one has arrived.  I end knowing I could have, should have been better. So, I am left with “pretty good” as the final evaluation, the best a Minnesota exile can hope for, I guess.  Divine intervention postponed this last class for two years. Two years ago, during a prolonged Pearl Harbor experience, I prayed for just one thing amid two heart operations separated by a month of pneumonia—to teach one more time. Then, I got greedy and seized a second one—this year.

The thing I have enjoyed the most as a teacher, and will likely miss the most, has been the chance to show this world’s Harolds that despite all the bad that engulfs us, good will win in the end. We are surrounded by glimpses of that good, when we look and listen for these glimmers of God. The night I prayed for another chance to teach, I heard one of those glints emanating from what is now a technological relic—my iPod Nano: Haydn’s Creation’s high point, “The Heavens Are Telling the Glory of God.” That’s what I wanted to teach. There is harmony. Things will end in a major key. All the voices and instruments will form a grand, final chord. It will be an Appomattox moment like no other.

I have been blessed to bob along in the swirling eddies of history’s current, with my head just far enough above the surface to get a glimpse of what is happening in the wake of what happened before. I have been honored to be heard by students as they eddied along with me for a few moments, before we parted ways—into the deep current, or toward the shore, or into the rapids.

There’s a river called Appomattox, more of a brook, actually. But its current and eddies contribute to something much larger, the Chesapeake Bay. I hold no illusions about my influence in the cosmic scheme of things. Some encounters left dents; others had no discernable effect. Sometimes they created lasting bonds and sometimes they split atoms, with the inevitable result. My hope is I have left more light than heat trailing behind.

Living with the past has been my joy, and my life. Appomattox moments surpass the Pearl Harbors. And the stream flows on. Lincoln and FDR have been my companions, alongside real estate agents, rogues, railroaders, baseball players, immigrants, Sir Thomas More, and a few doomed ships’ captains. We all jointly bobbed toward the Chesapeake for a few moments. I hope that there were times when the students saw in those moments the glimmer ahead glinting just a bit brighter. Thank God, I know I did.

Robert Schoone-Jongen is in his fourteenth year at Calvin College, working with student teachers who hope to become high school and middle school social studies teachers. His historical interests are immigration, American social history, and the presidency. 

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Sins or Nature? Seventeenth and Twenty-First Century Responses to Climate Change

by Nicholas Cunigan.
Winter Landscape with Ice Skaters, Hendrick Avercamp, c. 1608, Rijksmuseum

Winter Landscape with Ice Skaters, Hendrick Avercamp, c. 1608, Rijksmuseum

The past year has borne witness to deadly hurricanes, unseasonable temperatures, record flooding, and uncontrollable wildfires. The natural disasters that have wreaked havoc on Houston, Puerto Rico, and millions of acres in the West have left thousands of those directly affected homeless, destitute, and heartbroken. Many more are left looking for explanations.

As a climate historian whose work focuses on the seventeenth century, I can’t resist comparing today’s unfolding climate crisis with the Little Ice Age, a period of unusual climate that lasted roughly from 1350 to 1800. The seventeenth century was a particularly turbulent time during the Little Ice Age. In Europe, average temperatures dropped .5º to 1.5º Celsius. As a result, crops never ripened, people starved, disease raged, and wars erupted. According to historian Geoffrey Parker, the mid-seventeenth century saw more wars than in any era until the 1940s.

Those affected by the seventeenth century’s extreme weather and climate variability, just like those affected today, sought out explanations. Europe’s Christians looked to the heavens and judged extreme weather to be God’s punishment for sin. “The principal cause of the calamities that afflict this kingdom are the public sins and injustices committed,” explained one of Philip IV of Spain’s leading advisors. A Jesuit in the Philippines exclaimed, “Divine Providence wishes to show us something, perhaps to warn us of some approaching catastrophe, which our sins so deserve…because God is angry.” (Parker 2013, 8)

These explanations bear striking resemblance to comments made in the wake of this past year’s natural disasters. InsideClimate News reported that Kathy Glover, a resident of White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, also pointed to the heavens to explain the heavy rains and flooding that killed 23 people in West Virginia. “I’m a firm believer that God tells us in the Bible that he will warn us through signs in the sky.” Jake Dowdy, one of Kathy’s neighbors, echoed her sentiments: “I don’t know if these are signs of the ending coming or if this is climate change. I’m as puzzled as everybody is.”

Today, climate scientists using tree rings, ice core samples, and pollen records argue that the leading cause of the seventeenth century’s extreme weather was natural. The century experienced unusually high numbers of volcanic eruptions whose ash clouds entered the atmosphere and created a veil that diminished the sun’s heat-providing rays. Contemporaries described the clouded skies and painters including Hendrick Avercamp depicted the frozen European landscape in some of the period’s most well-known works of art.

In contrast, today’s climate crisis is anthropogenic in origin. Carbon dioxide levels have steadily risen since the Industrial Revolution from 270ppm to over 400ppm. This rise has resulted in a warming trend that has only accelerated in recent years. Sixteen of the seventeen warmest years on record have occurred since 2000. This warming has been linked to an increased likelihood and severity of extreme weather.

Climate historians like myself are interested in a variety of questions including what caused periods of extreme weather and how people understood climate, but we are most interested in whether and how humans responded to these events. Historically, peoples and institutions have responded in ways both destructive and constructive. Spain instituted an oppressive tax during the early seventeenth century that led to more starvation and more death. Those in the Dutch Republic, however, went to work building and repairing dykes and canals to guard themselves against the deadly effects of extreme weather.

The Little Ice Age, as a natural phenomenon that cannot be ascribed to the actions of human beings, falls into what theologians refer to as “natural evil.” Today’s climate crisis, in contrast, is directly linked to human activities and might better be understood as a “moral evil.” The 2014 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Synthesis Report puts it bluntly: “Human influence on the climate system is clear, and recent anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases are the highest in history.” We are living in a crisis of our own making and in the consequences of our sin against the creation.

Anthropogenic climate change that leads to destitution, displacement, and death is surely a manifestation of the fall. But as such, it also beckons a Reformed response – one rooted in the firm belief that Christians are not only capable but tasked with pulling back the effects of the fall. Doing so requires a firm biblical as well as scientific grounding.


Geoffrey Parker, Global Crisis: War, Climate, and Catastrophe in the Seventeenth Century (Yale University Press, 2013)

Nicholas Cunigan is an adjunct professor of history at Calvin College, and a Calvin history alum (’07). He recently completed his Ph.D. at the University of Kansas. His research interests lie at the intersection of environmental, indigenous peoples, and Atlantic World history. His dissertation investigates the impact of 17th-century climate change on the relationship between indigenous peoples and the Dutch West India Company.

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