Under a hot October sun, from which I had nothing but a winter cap to conceal my face, the famous downtown of the Eternal City looked like a bunch of half-fallen columns emerging from a pile of rubble. “Disappointing” would be an understatement: I had patiently waited for this moment for nearly fifteen years, ever since my eyes were first dazzled by the BBC’s fascinating documentary Ancient Rome: The Rise and Fall of an Empire. I had since consumed a ton of books, novels, encyclopedias, and documentaries to satisfy my curiosity for the great city—only to find out that it was already gone. How, if so little of it remains, did Rome come to be so famed compared to any other ancient place?
While looking at the relics of the Phoenicians at the Carthago: The Immortal Myth exhibition under the shade of the nearby Colosseum, a new question crawled into my mind: “Can my native heritage ever be as familiar to my people as ancient Rome has been to so many?” As for many other important questions, the answer wouldn’t be simple. I was willing, though, to start looking for (or rather “working” toward) an answer, the search for which was to significantly shape at least the next year in my life, starting from that 2019 fall, and for possibly much longer.
Phoenicians and encyclopedias
Fifteen years ago, when I would spend my sweet, post-school afternoons watching dubbed documentaries, it wasn’t only Rome that I was introduced to, but also its fiercest rivals: the Carthagians. The way the story was told, though, Carthage was significant only in terms of its conflict with Rome. The narration may have sounded neutral, but I never got to see Carthage the way I saw Rome. The downtown of Carthage was not restored; the amazing city was not brought to life. Its streets, palaces, gardens, and, most importantly, people, barely showed up on screen at all. I could never internalize the image of the Punic capital the way I vividly did Rome’s, and, in short, I felt something was missing.
Although we may seem to be living in an age of abundant knowledge, it is fair to say that there is increasing awareness among academics that this knowledge is neither sourced nor distributed equitably. While Greco-Roman studies are taught in hundreds (if not thousands) of universities, Punic studies (often called “Phoenician-Punic” studies) are barely existent. Moreover, what little knowledge we have of this outstanding Mediterranean civilization is relegated to a few learned academics. There’s very little common media, colorful books, or intriguing documentaries about it to enjoy. And there is even less lying beyond the language boundaries of English.
I realized this when I tried to learn more about the Phoenicians, my “ancestors.” I quickly exhausted the contents of the 2006 Arabic-language internet on the subject, which amounted to a few pages of text from a new website called “Wikipedia.” Although I decided to take matters into my own hands (by producing a mostly plagiarized eighty-page book), my frustration from the lack of information had a lasting effect. This early experience is what led me to become self-sufficient in English and to become a Wikipedian who aspires to make knowledge available to others.
I had nearly forgotten about what led me to become a Wikipedian in the first place by the time my path crossed with the old Phoenicians again. It was late 2019, in the last few months when travel was still an aspect of normality, and I was able to take the opportunity to travel around as both an Erasmus+ student and a Frederick-Wenger Memorial Fellow of ACOR. By then, I had been volunteering as a Wikipedian for over a decade. But, as I gazed at a leontocephaline (lion-headed) figure in the Colosseum exhibit (originally excavated at Nabeul, Tunisia), it all came back. I was my young, frustrated self all over again.
An open heritage of the Levant
Heritage can be a complicated thing. I’m hardly certain of what my own heritage is, given my own supposedly mixed Arab-Kurdish ancestry and a family history distributed across the Middle East, which is itself a melting pot of many great ancient and medieval cultures. No matter what our genetics or origins are, though, we all strive for a past to cling on to. Our culture, lifestyle, music, literature, and art are shaped by a mixture of the past and present: a compromise of what is popular nowadays and of what has been passed down to us from those who preceded us. This harmony with the “old” is probably the source of meaning for the “new” in most cultures, but it’s something I have always felt lacking in my own. My heritage has typically felt restricted to rusty museums and dusty books, without considerable significance to many people beyond.
How do we make heritage relatable and present in people’s lives, following the example of Rome’s continued fame? I have considered this question many times, and varying answers have come to mind. One thing is essential, though: if there’s nowhere for people to find information, and nowhere for them to learn about their past, even if they are willing to go the figurative distance, then there’s hardly a way for it to be relatable. Luckily, I have already been involved in arguably the most accessible information and knowledge repository of our time: Wikipedia.
Elements of this endeavor were already in motion by mid-2019. A local photographer and amazing colleague, Bashar Tabba’a, had been in contact with Wikimedia Levant (a local volunteer group of Wikipedians, for which I have been the chief coordinator since 2017). Bashar, quite generously and passionately, offered to donate a significant part of his photo collection (more like a “photo database”) covering archaeological sites in Jordan. At the same time, some of my colleagues and I had been in touch with ACOR to discuss potential collaborations with Wikimedia Levant. Finally, in fall 2019, the same season during which I was finally able to experience Punic-Roman history in person for myself, all these threads came together.
The project came to be called Open Jordanian Heritage. It is an ambitious effort to make room for the heritage of Jordan on Wikipedia and its sister projects by donating pictures, building a database, and writing articles (in both Arabic and English). All the data, images, and other information contributed through the project are openly available under a CC-BY-SA (Creative Commons Share Alike) license, freely accessible to anyone curious about the history of Jordan.
Over the past year, Open Jordanian Heritage became a major project in the local Wikimedian community. We have organized four editing workshops to train new Wikipedia editors and prepared them to contribute to heritage articles. Two of these events were offline, in the pre-COVID age, and two took place virtually thereafter. The project has, in sum, contributed high-quality photos of over one hundred archeological sites across Jordan, many of which had no freely available picture before. About a hundred people have participated as volunteer editors, contributing more than 60,000 words and adding around 300 references to the free online encyclopedia.
On a personal level, however, even as this project was taking off, I still felt a need for even more connection. As a student of foreign languages, I was impressed to learn a few years ago (rather late in my education) that the Phoenicians invented the world’s first known alphabet. I was intrigued to learn more about it, and ironically—although perhaps predictably, at this point, given my experiences—I found that there were few resources about this remarkable language available online. Today, I feel I have somewhat satisfied my linguistic curiosity (and heritage needs) by acquiring, a few months ago, the ability to read and write in the ancient Phoenician script (even if only a handful of words and some grammar). Currently, I’m working on the entry for the Phoenician language on Wikipedia, hoping to make it a well-researched source of information. (This is still in an early stage of development, as it can take many months to write a good Wikipedia entry, especially alongside a full-time job.) I’m also hoping to contribute to a user-friendly language guide, later on.
While ancient heritage is a part of my identity that I feel has been especially neglected in our present, it is only one part of this story. Ever since I came back from my study-abroad program, I have spent a lot more time reading medieval Arabic literature. One example that has greatly influenced me is the travel narrative of Ibn Fadlan.
Ibn Fadlan was a Muslim (either Arab or Persian) traveler who ventured on a mission from Baghdad to Volga Bulgaria in 921–922. While that may seem like a distant part of heritage, with many of its events taking part in lands I have never seen, it had quite the opposite impression on me. His travel narrative, widely praised for its accuracy and objectivity, seemed to me to present a fascinating cross-section of the medieval world through the eyes of a Middle Easterner. The long travel experience even felt relatable to my own recent trip to foreign Europe.
Much the same as my frustration about Rome, I felt similarly about Ibn Fadlan. In my second year at university, I had to read about 3,000 lines of Beowulf, a story renowned not only as a good read but also as a significant piece of the national heritage of England. This epic poem has been deemed so important that it became known far and wide (including in my university in Jordan), getting republished and repackaged for children, adults, and scholars. It even inspired an amazing novel, The Hobbit, that has become perhaps more prominent than the original and influenced my own childhood.
Ibn Fadlan’s narrative, in my opinion, is no less. An engaging story with nerve-racking events, it’s a fascinating piece of literature. It features the only known eyewitness account of the Volga Vikings’ ship-burial ritual, firsthand experiences of various historical events, and thrilling adventures full of politics, power, and religion. Yet, his work remains little known by the descendants of the traveler himself, inheritors of his own culture, with few people reading him among either students or the wider public. (Notably, his narrative did inspire a well-known novel and major motion picture—a bad one, I’d say, with much more Beowulf than Ibn Fadlan going on.)
Just like I did fifteen years ago, I have decided to take matters into my own hands, with fingers crossed for a better result. Having read tons of literature and taken many classes in writing, and aspiring to contribute more than mere encyclopedic knowledge, I have decided to present Ibn Fadlan’s tale from my own point of view, as an original and Arabic-composed literary work. The manuscript is currently closing to 30,000 words and already covers the majority of his story. I’m hoping to complete the novel—still untitled— early next year.
I also believe that, if better publicized, Ibn Fadlan’s original narrative (in its “raw form”) has the potential to become very popular reading. As a next step, after my novel, I’m hoping to dedicate time to republish the narrative itself with an enjoyable and informative introduction, maps and photos of the places he visited (or the ruins of these places), and other visuals. As engaging as Ibn Fadlan’s writing is on its own, I realize far better now, after digging up information for my story, some of the really interesting context that the narrative took place in. Taking advantage of what I learned as a student, I have come to believe that there’s a real need to republish Ibn Fadlan’s narrative in a new Arabic version, with a decent introduction and footnotes that can relay this context and interesting history to present-day readers.
Working through these varied ideas and projects, today I feel slightly more connected to my own heritage. Over the next months and, quite possibly, years, I will be looking to continue these projects and perhaps start new ones that can help revive my heritage and culture and to make it more widely understood and accessible. I’m really thankful for all the support I have received from the Frederick Wenger Memorial Fellowship and from so many great colleagues at ACOR, Wikimedia Levant, and beyond. And I hope we can all work together toward a future more connected to the past—which is what has made us who we are.
Abbad Diraneyya is a Wikipedian, writer, and linguistics student. He currently works as the information and knowledge management coordinator with the 2030 Strategy Team at the Wikimedia Foundation. He has been a volunteer contributor to Wikipedia for a bit over a decade and chair of the board for Wikimedia Levant for three years. He previously led translation projects in the Arabic language with Khan Academy and Scientific Saud, wrote for publications and organizations including 7iber, MIT Technology Review Arabia, and the Arabic-language edition of Popular Science. He also published the freely available ebook حكاية ويكيبيديا. At present, Abbad is continuing to pursue his bachelor’s degree in English language and literature from the University of Jordan, and he was previously awarded ACOR’s Frederick-Wenger Memorial Fellowship.