In 2020, ACOR hosted a two-week faculty seminar in Jordan called “Sustainability at the Margins,” co-sponsored with the Council of American Overseas Research Centers (CAORC). The seminar explored the opportunities and challenges Jordan is facing as one of the most water-poor countries in the world, with a growing population and a fragile economy. I was fortunate to be one of twelve U.S. college and university faculty selected to participate in the program. As a professor of religious studies, I was excited to be hosted by an institute known for its involvement in archaeology and its insights into ancient customs, beliefs, and practices. I was particularly interested in sustainability issues related to researching and preserving ancient cultural sites. I also had a strong interest in Jordan. Every semester I teach a college survey course about world religions, and we discuss how different countries handle religious diversity among its citizens and with other nations. Jordan is a predominantly Muslim country with a significant Christian minority and an influential indigenous tribal network. In 2010, King Abdullah of Jordan proposed the World Interfaith Harmony Week at the United Nations, which continues to be celebrated worldwide every year (United Nations n.d.).
Our seminar was led by Dr. Barbara Porter, then director of ACOR, and Dr. Jack Green, who at the time was ACOR’s associate director. Their knowledge of archaeology and Jordan, their contacts within the country, and their support of our research and teaching interests made this one of the best faculty seminars I have attended. The faculty cohort came from different academic disciplines, and other members of our team have posted excellent articles on topics related to their fields of expertise. Because my research specialty is sacred art, I thought it would be interesting to focus on a cross design we saw at the archeological site of Umm el-Jimal (Umm al-Jimal). This article is a case study about sustainable tourism in Jordan as well as a demonstration of how faculty seminars stimulate academic research and reflection.
The Umm el-Jimal Project
We began the seminar in the capital city of Amman, where ACOR is located. During these first few days, there were lectures and activities to orient us to Jordan’s culture and history. At ACOR I had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Bert de Vries, who championed the Umm el-Jimal Project. His interest in the site began on his first trip to Jordan in 1968. He was a novice architect working on another project when he visited Umm el-Jimal and became intrigued by multistory ancient ruins located in the middle of a modern village (de Vries n.d.). In 1972, he received a grant to map the site, and the Jordanian government designated the archaeological ruins as officially protected. Soon de Vries was excavating at Umm el-Jimal with teams that included his students from Calvin College in the United States and local workers.
From the beginning, de Vries’ vision always included sustainable tourism. Umm el-Jimal is located in one of the rural “poverty pockets” of Jordan with high illiteracy and poverty rates (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization 2014). Because of limited opportunities, young people leave the village for employment and higher education in the cities. This population shift from rural villages to urban centers is a trend across Jordan, but it is particularly acute in the governorate of Mafraq, where Umm el-Jimal is located. De Vries understood that sustainable tourism at Umm el-Jimal could provide ongoing economic opportunity for the local community, with the archaeological site as its anchor. It also meant approaching tourist development in a way that would neither overuse scarce resources such as water nor erase the local culture that made the area unique.
The Umm el-Jimal Project has continued to pursue these two goals of archaeological research and sustainable tourism for over five decades. Under the aegis of Jordan’s Department of Antiquities, it has received funding from various sources, including UNESCO and UN Women, as well as ACOR’s USAID-funded Sustainable Cultural Heritage Through Engagement of Local Communities Project (SCHEP) (United States Agency for International Development 2019). The decades of work have produced results, and in 2018 the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities prepared the file to submit Umm el-Jimal to UNESCO for consideration as a World Heritage site (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization 2018).
Our seminar’s first excursion outside Amman was to Umm el-Jimal (Fig. 1). The ninety-minute drive revealed how far the urban density of the capital has extended. Eventually the city gives way to open vistas with occasional Bedouin tents. Along the route there are a handful of rural towns supporting industrial plants, military installations, and refugee settlements. The village of Umm el-Jimal is just a few miles off the highway. The main roads are paved, and the ruins stand in the village center.
Our tour began at a visitor center designed by Ammar Khammash, a famous Jordanian architect known for his sustainable-tourism projects. On the outside, the deceptively simple buildings are built with local black basalt stone that blends in with the ruins. An open courtyard greets visitors with a panoramic view of the site. Inside the complex is a museum with signage in Arabic and English.
Our tour guide was a knowledgeable and confident young woman. Samar Erman (Figs. 2–3) grew up in the village of Umm el-Jimal and became certified as a tour guide, a relatively new profession for women in Jordan. At university she studied tour guiding and management information systems. She is fluent in English, French, and Arabic. Desiring to make a life in the village where multiple generations of her family of the Masa’eed tribe had lived for almost a century, Ms. Erman returned to Umm el-Jimal to help her hometown revitalize and thrive. The site steward for the archaeological project also accompanied us on the tour. Jehad Suliman (Fig. 2) also grew up in the village, and he shared stories of playing among the ruins before majoring in architecture at university. He has been working for the Umm el-Jimal Project since 2017.
During the site tour, we learned that ancient Umm el-Jimal developed over three distinct periods. In the first period, from the mid-1st century BCE to the 3rd century CE, it was as a Nabataean-early-Roman community situated along a caravan trading route. In the 4th–5th centuries CE, it became a Roman military station with additional buildings that fortified the empire’s frontier. From the 5th to 8th centuries, Umm el-Jimal slowly developed into a prosperous Byzantine-Umayyad farming and trading town. The site was abruptly abandoned when an earthquake destroyed the infrastructure in 749 CE. For the next thousand years, only occasional nomadic communities inhabited the ruins.
The ruins were largely undisturbed, which was ideal for archaeological exploration. Despite the 8th-century earthquake and the subsequent centuries of erosion, there were many multistoried structures still extant. Umm el-Jimal architecture relied almost entirely on stone for its construction. We saw a stone external staircase built into a stone wall (Fig. 3). There were also full-size solid stone doors built to rest on stone hinges. One such door was still in place in its doorframe. I was astonished that even I could open a multi-ton stone door by myself! In addition, there was evidence of cisterns and developed water irrigation systems that allowed the community to farm and live in tight-knit neighborhood enclaves.
The importance of religion for Umm el-Jimal inhabitants was evident. In the museum, we saw recovered religious statues, jewelry, and stone inscriptions honoring the earliest inhabitants’ Nabatean and Roman gods. During the site tour, most of the religious evidence was from the Byzantine era. Sixteen churches have been uncovered for a city with only 150 houses. In addition, seven or eight smaller churches were built into dense neighborhoods, suggesting private worship, with larger churches at the periphery for more public worship. All the churches face east and feature an elevated space for the priest and a larger central gathering space, sometimes with side aisles and arches. Floors and walls were covered in white plaster, and some churches included colorful mosaics on the floor. There is also evidence of changing liturgical practices in the late 6th century, when some churches remodeled to add a 1-meter marble altar screen to partition the sacred space of the priest from the public space.
The Umm el-Jimal Cross
Our tour ended at a large church on the western boundary of the ruins labeled “Western Church” on the site map (Figs. 1, 4). The building is two stories high with arched columns, a separate baptistry, three aisles, and an elevated church altar. It also has a mosaic floor. Ms. Erman made sure that we saw a particular cross design that was carved into a stone pillar (Figs. 4, 5). She said it was unique at the site because none of the other fifteen churches at Umm el-Jimal have this cross, and as far as she knew the design had yet to be found in other Byzantine churches. I was intrigued! Was it possible we were seeing a Byzantine cross design that was only now being rediscovered? Even if the cross was replicated elsewhere, it was interesting to ruminate on the unusual design of this religious art.
In terms of the academic study of sacred art, cross designs are one way to map Christian theological understandings, as well as to document debates in Christian belief and practice. I found it fascinating to see a cross design that might expand our knowledge about religion and art during the Byzantine era. In the museum, a picture of the cross identified it generically as a Byzantine cross roundel. In casual conversation, however, it was already being referred to as the “Umm el-Jimal cross.” Perhaps the design would become famous one day! When Ms. Erman ended the formal tour, the rest of the group departed, but I stayed behind to explore the church further. Ms. Erman and Mr. Suliman stayed with me and provided more information about the church. Their enthusiasm, appreciation, and knowledge of the site fed my own interest as they shared more details and answered my questions.
In terms of design, the cross has arms of equal length, which is typical for Byzantine crosses, but it does not include the common Byzantine embellishment of flared ends. The straight lines of the cross are contained within a circle but do not touch the edges. This feature creates the effect that the cross is raised, but in fact the illusion was created by carving out the negative space around it. The designer made the design even more intricate by carving smaller versions of the same cross-within-a-circle design in each of the four quadrants created by the main cross. The smaller crosses were made by reverse method, keeping the negative space raised and carving out the cross within them. The smaller crosses are not an exact match of the larger one, as the ends of the smaller crosses touch the edges of their circles.
I liked the design as soon as I saw it. The cross caught my attention because of its intricacy and because it included design elements familiar to me but combined in new ways. It reminded me of the so-called Jerusalem cross, which includes four small crosses in each quadrant of a larger cross, but the Jerusalem cross does not include circles (Seymour 1898, 364). The circles also reminded me of a Celtic cross, although the circle in a Celtic cross is within the cross itself and originally served a structural purpose to support cross arms when large freestanding versions were built out of stone (Werner 1990). The design of a cross within a circle is also reminiscent of Native American medicine wheels (Liebmann 2002).
I was not surprised that I connected what I saw with other designs as circles and crossed straight lines are found in religious and cultural symbols around the world, including independent of Christianity. The examples I recalled were just my initial points of reference. As I continued to reflect on why I was drawn to this cross at Umm el-Jimal, I had to admit I just liked it. I found the design aesthetically pleasing, as it appeared to have an equal balance of crosses and circles. Only later was it pointed out that there was an additional cross carved into the middle of the main cross with the same carving technique used to create the smaller crosses. Whether intentional or not, theological meaning can be inferred from these connections between the large and small crosses.
It is also interesting that this cross design was repeated multiple times around the church. Ms. Erman and Mr. Suliman pointed out where this design had been carved into pillars and archways. Many of these crosses are weathered and worn, but the unique features of multiple crosses and circles can still be identified. Many of these crosses are small and could easily be overlooked if you do not look up to see them. Because of their locations, the crosses appeared to be more decorative than a focus for worship.
It made me wonder who designed it, carved it, and sponsored it? The design is intricate and required specialized carving skills and time to make. I was intrigued. Why did they spend the extra time and effort? Did someone want to leave their personal mark on the grandest church at Umm el-Jimal? Who was behind this work? Was it a patron who paid for the work? Or was it a cross designer with more latitude (because it appeared more decorative than liturgical)? Or perhaps it was a carver who wanted to showcase their talent? All of this was whimsical speculation, but one thing was certain — someone really liked the design! Whether it was a patron, an architect, a designer, or a carver — someone found the cross design pleasing enough to repeat, repeat, repeat.
When it was time to rejoin the seminar group at the bus, I found that many of my colleagues had purchased handmade souvenirs carved from the local black basalt stone at a women’s co-op across the street. (By the time I arrived, all that was left were larger stone bowls that seemed too heavy for the remainder of my travels.) This is a good example of sustainable tourism, as the souvenirs are made from an abundant local material. The co-op provides income for villagers while preserving a local cultural heritage of stone carving and enhancing the tourist experience at Umm el-Jimal.
I was delighted to learn that Mr. Suliman and Ms. Erman have a sustainable tourism project of their own. They are two of four partners in a company called Hand by Hand Heritage, which was established with the aid of ACOR’s SCHEP. All four founders are younger, college-educated residents of Umm el-Jimal. They had chosen the name Hand by Hand to express their desire to help their village, and their website (handbyhandheritage.com) is professional and comprehensive. Their tourist services include homestays, archaeological site tours, food, and drink. They also offer interactive tourist experiences such as carving basalt, cooking local cuisine, experiencing a Bedouin evening, and camping in the Azraq Desert. You can also rent bicycles, with or without a guide. A statement on the Hand by Hand website echoes conversations I had with Ms. Erman and Mr. Suliman:
When we were younger, there were only two types of jobs available in our village: women became teachers, men went to the army. And if we didn’t choose one of these, we would have to move out of our home. [….] Our dream is to preserve the site while economically lifting our local community. [….] We support one another, together (Hand By Hand Heritage n.d.).
Our seminar group was treated to a Hand by Hand experience with a meal prepared and served in the traditional style by a local family in their home (Fig. 6). In keeping with the Hand by Hand orientation, the experience was not just enjoying food but also engaging with members of the family about their way of life. As we drove back to Amman, I had a better understanding of what sustainable tourism looks like in practice. I was also inspired to see a younger generation from Umm el-Jimal developing sustainable tourism with respect and caring for their community and cultural heritage.
Byzantine Mosaics and the Role of the Artist
After our day excursion to Umm el-Jimal, our team prepared for a more extended trip to other Jordanian archaeological and cultural sites. In Madaba, I was fascinated by the oldest map of the holy land built with mosaics into the floor of a Greek Orthodox church (Fig. 7). Dated to the 6th century, the map was rediscovered in the 19th century during a church renovation. We were fortunate to have esteemed archaeologists interact with us during the seminar to expand our understanding of what we were seeing. Dr. Konstantinos Politis told me the Madaba mosaic map is surprisingly accurate and actually helped him to locate Lot’s Cave (or, to be more exact, the cave identified by early Christians as the cave where Lot and his daughters hid, as described in the biblical book of Genesis) when he discovered a 7th-century church built in front of the cave site. Not only was it interesting to learn firsthand how ancient maps have helped modern archaeologists do their work, but it was also exciting to meet the people who have used these maps and have made such major discoveries in our lifetime.
Many of the most beautiful and elaborate mosaics we saw were of animals, plants, and human forms representing the seasons. Such mosaics are often found inside Byzantine-era churches, and they seem more aligned with nature-based religions than early Christian understandings. I had the opportunity to discuss the topic with archaeologist, historian, and Byzantine mosaic expert Dr. Robert Schick, who explained to me that the Byzantine era was a time of transition. Religious beliefs often changed quickly, either through conversion, military conquests, or emperors’ edicts. What patrons and artists found aesthetically pleasing, however, as well as what artisans knew how to make, often changed more slowly. Mosaic makers would already have had the patterns for nature symbols. If patrons enjoyed the designs, and they were paying for the most expensive floor material (mosaics) for a new church, it is understandable how these designs would be approved. As for Christian clergy, it was conceivable that they may have been less concerned about what appeared on the floor than on the altar.
Discussions with these archaeologists expanded my own understandings and highlighted the importance of studying sacred art. The field of religious studies is often text based, and texts privilege educated religious authorities. When certain written texts become “the” tradition, it is hard to know what ordinary people really believed and practiced. Luckily, the perspectives of non-religious specialists, including artists and financial patrons, can still be inferred from the art they created and endowed. These archaeological discoveries help us to see what was important to others besides official scribes and leaders, and they introduce alternative perspectives about belief and practice. The expression of status based on materials used, practical concerns of artistic craftsmen, and the social norms of beauty are important considerations. I am very grateful for the Umm el-Jimal site visit. There is something profound about experiencing a recent discovery of religious art in its physical context, as well as developing scholarly inquiry based on what I am seeing. Having these first-hand experiences augmented by conversations with experts from related fields has had a lasting influence on my scholarship.
Petra, Wadi Rum, and Challenges to Sustainable Tourism
The archaeological site of Petra is the most visited tourist attraction in Jordan, and it is truly magnificent (Fig. 8). We were privileged to be guided by ACOR archaeologists who were actively involved in its ongoing research and documentation. Petra spans historical periods similar to those of Umm el-Jimal (Nabatean, Roman, and Byzantine), but on a significantly grander scale. Petra was the capital of the Nabatean kingdom and a major trading location, and the ruins stretch over 102 square miles. When sea transport became preferable to land in the early Islamic period, the importance of Petra diminished and much of the population left. Similar to Umm el-Jimal, the Petra ruins remained largely undisturbed for more than a millennium.
Because of its enormous popularity, Petra has competing interests that challenge its sustainability. In 1994, UNESCO issued a 300-page report describing the harm caused by unrestricted mass tourism (Powell 1994). In 2007, tourism dramatically increased when Petra was named one of the Seven New Wonders of the World. The government’s official tourist statistics show a staggering 2,500% increase in tourists from 1984 to 2019 (Petra Development and Tourism Region Authority n.d.). While many maintain that Petra cannot support this accelerated growth, tourism is critically important for the economy of the nation. Jordan is a Middle Eastern country with little oil or other natural resources, and efforts to manage Petra’s tourist growth have been met with resistance. Unsustainable development, however, threatens what makes Petra worth visiting.
Tourism is not the only challenge to sustainable tourism. Once ancient ruins have been discovered by archaeologists, or even before, the sites become targets for looters. When looters remove artifacts for profit, the objects disappear and the knowledge gained from analyzing them in their physical context is lost forever. The environment is also a challenge. After excavation, a site is exposed to natural elements that contribute to its disintegration. Graffiti can also be a problem. We saw this when we visited the spectacular Wadi Rum Desert. Two hundred and eighty square miles of Wadi Rum have been designated as protected wilderness, and they contain significant petroglyphic art. These ancient images tell the stories of those who lived in this barren desert, and they remain largely unprotected. [In 2021, ACOR received a grant from National Geographic to employ drones to monitor vandalism and illegal excavation in Wadi Rum. —Ed.]
Visiting the petroglyphs at Wadi Rum made me feel at home. I teach in the desert metropolis of Phoenix, Arizona, in the southwestern United States, and we have significant ancient rock art left by the Hohokam people who once lived here. I am well aware of damage caused by people carving their initials into these rocks as well as by other forms of vandalism. Unfortunately, the many petroglyphs and other archaeological sites of Wadi Rum have also suffered from graffiti.
Scholars from my hometown of Phoenix have contributed to developing techniques to remove graffiti from petroglyphs in Jordan. The ACOR team knew my colleague, Niccole Cerveny, a professor of geography and sustainability, who wrote her graduate thesis on petroglyph restoration and has been to Jordan as an advisor on graffiti removal at Wadi Rum. [To learn more about this work, see Groom and Bevan 2020. —Ed.] To be standing in the Wadi Rum Desert with Mohammed Domayan, the WRPA (Wadi Rum Protected Area) antiquities supervisor, as he sent personal greetings back to my colleague in Arizona was both surreal and heartwarming. And it wasn’t the only connection. When our seminar team visited Dr. Ahmad Majdoubeh at the University of Jordan, I presented him with a letter from another colleague, English professor Lufti Hussein, who wanted to express his gratitude for his Jordanian college mentor. Even I was able to connect with a scholar who had presented at our college the previous year and who hosted me for dinner at her home when our seminar team was in Aqaba. Everyone in our group had their own special moments interacting with those we met in Jordan. Friendships were forged, academic collaborations were initiated, and cross-cultural student projects were designed. As we prepared to return to the United States, all of us expressed a desire to return to Jordan.
The CAORC-ACOR “Sustainability at the Margins” seminar took place on January 2–17, 2020. Our seminar group never expected that we would be the last group hosted by ACOR for the remainder of the year and beyond. The COVID-19 virus soon became a global pandemic. On March 17, the country of Jordan shut down its borders and airports, and ACOR sent staff home. Bustling Jordanian tourist sites became dormant, and the economic downturn for the country was acute. The same was true in the United States, although the USA has more resources and is not as dependent on tourism for its economy. My college closed its campuses mid-March 2020 and reverted to all-online teaching for our 18,000 students. It is now 2021 and my college has reopened its campus for all teaching subjects. Tourism in Jordan has also opened again, although the pandemic continues. It is a privilege to finally be writing my reflections about this incredible experience.
I wrote this article to show my appreciation for the CAORC-ACOR seminar. Faculty seminars such as these can inspire scholars and teachers in ways that are impossible to predict. I am grateful for this faculty development experience hosted by an institute as esteemed as ACOR. I now have a deeper appreciation for the many complexities and challenges archaeologists face while doing their work, as well as how related fields contribute to my own field of study.
My deep thanks to Dr. Barbara Porter, whose leadership directed ACOR for fourteen years. She told us in Jordan that ours would be the last group she hosted before retiring and returning to the United States. Our faculty seminar benefited from the culmination of her experience, knowledge, and wisdom. I also want to thank Dr. Jack Green, who was associate director of ACOR while we were there. I am grateful to Dr. Konstantinos Politis and Dr. Robert Schick, who both helped me understand the importance of artisans and artisan workshops for creating the religious symbols we see today, and to Samar Erman and Jehad Suliman for showing me what sustainable tourism looks like in action.
I hope this article raises interest among scholars who have knowledge of other Byzantine crosses similar in design to the Umm el-Jimal cross. In addition, perhaps Hand by Hand Heritage or the Umm el-Jimal Women’s Co-op might consider producing replicas to sell either locally or online. If others respond to the cross design as I have, it might have strong appeal and offer something unique that could help in publicizing the Umm el-Jimal Project. I would welcome the opportunity to stay involved in any ongoing efforts as they develop.
I am delighted that Dr. Pearce Paul Creasman, the current ACOR director, has successfully spearheaded renovation of the center and that it is again hosting scholars. [At the time of writing, ACOR’s library and archives remain closed to the public. —Ed.]
Finally, it was an honor to meet Bert de Vries, the champion of the Umm el-Jimal Project. Once I was home, he kindly responded to follow-up questions I had about the site. My last email with him was in December 2020. I was saddened to learn that he passed away in March 2021 after dedicating over fifty years of his life and scholarship to Umm el-Jimal. He demonstrated what a difference one person can make to expand knowledge of ancient communities while helping contemporary ones. May this article about sustainable tourism be one of the many tributes to his memory and legacy.
Elizabeth Ursic is a professor in the Philosophy and Religious Studies Department at Mesa Community College in Phoenix, Arizona. She is author of Women, Ritual, and Power: Placing Female Imagery of God in Christian Worship. Her essay “Christian Feminist Theology and the Arts” appears in the Oxford Encyclopedia of Religion and Art, and her chapter on musical metaphors is forthcoming in an Oxford University Press book series on music and Christian theology. She holds an MDiv from the Yale Institute of Sacred Music and a PhD in religious studies from Arizona State University. She co-chairs the American Academy of Religion Women’s Caucus. Her research interests include religion, imagination, the arts, and gender. For more information, visit her website.
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