“Heritage is Jordan’s oil.” This statement, which I heard from heritage experts, development workers, and Jordanian government officials, has come to be the most captivating way for me to summarize my PhD project. With the support of a Harrell Family Fellowship granted by the American Center of Research, I conducted field research in the early summer of 2021 to further investigate what it means when the past becomes a central resource for building futures.
Heritage has indeed opened up markets in Jordan, and the many wonderful sites scattered over the country continue to mesmerize tourists from all over the world. As a political scientist and historian, I explore the political economy of heritage in Jordan, specifically by looking at its links with development projects. The core idea underlying most contemporary heritage development projects is that when heritage sites provide income revenue to the people living near the sites, these people will value the site more and work to protect and preserve it. This, in turn, assures the sustainability of these “resources from the past” for future generations. The American Center’s USAID-funded Sustainable Cultural Heritage Through Engagement of Local Communities Project (SCHEP) has been at the forefront of this type of development initiative in Jordan, building on a legacy of community archaeology projects such as the Madaba Plains Project and Umm El-Jimal.
This idea of value creation and preservation is very interesting, but heritage scholars have been reluctant to highlight the economic value of heritage in their research. Many scholars worry that the commodification of heritage, and its increased use in the tourism market, will be harmful to the cultural value in the long run. Researchers such as Paul Burtenshaw have argued that this reluctance has led to a dearth in heritage scholarship. Regardless of personal opinions on this matter, the economic importance of heritage is clearly growing and thus calls for further research.
In my research I employ ethnographic methods, in combination with historical research, to look closely at this economic-value creation. My research has led me to visit heritage sites big and small in Jordan, and I conducted over ten months of ethnographic research in Madaba, looking at the impact heritage development has had in the city (Fig. 1).
Contrary to many heritage scholars, I think it is problematic to think of heritage as a timeless aspect of human’s engagement with the past. Since “heritage” as a term is relatively young—it only started to be used to refer to culturally significant remnants of the past in the 20th century—it is important to look at the conditions of possibility for the concept to play such an important role in contemporary society. Heritage is now used to build economic and political futures in Jordan, but these practices are shaped by the histories of archaeologists working in the region, of development projects intervening in places, and of colonial understandings of civilization and history.
One aspect that struck me in many of the heritage development projects, is the recurring complaint that Jordanians do not care enough for their heritage. This lament was uttered by Jordanians and foreigners alike in my conversations with them, and it points at the problematic definition of the concept of heritage. While it might be true that some archaeological sites have been beleaguered by vandalism or a lack of investments, it is equally true that most Jordanians have demonstrated a wonderful sense of care and pride in their traditions and histories. There is no denying the importance of tradition in the consumption of coffee, the hosting of guests, the richness of the language, and the abundant diversity of religious practices that suffuse daily life in Jordan (Fig. 2).
The complaint that there is not sufficient care for heritage points to a contestation surrounding the definition of heritage and the ownership of traditions and histories. Expert knowledge tends to alienate people from places suffused with histories, as Allison Mickel (2021) has shown in her salient study of labor practices in archaeology. Sites in Madaba that used to be part of everyday lives, intertwined in relations between past and present, lost their connection to the inhabitants when they were gated off. Sites were then described only in relation to “big events” in a shared history understood by tourists, but their relations to local histories often never made it to the signage (Fig. 3).
The lament that Jordanians do not care about their heritage also has a worrying colonial ring to it. During the destructive times of colonial conquest, Europeans often denoted their colonial subjects as living without a sense of history. During the British occupation of Egypt, Balfour defended the occupation by claiming that it was the English who knew the history of past civilizations in Egypt the best. Their superior knowledge of pharaonic times legitimized, according to Balfour, the presence of English troops on Egyptian soil (Said 1978). Similar arguments were used by France and Belgium to haul important artifacts to imperial museums. Precisely what is considered valuable and to whom clearly has far-reaching effects.
When heritage becomes the resource powering futures, it is crucial to look closely at what aspects of heritage are emancipatory and what aspects alienating. Many archaeologists have been actively rethinking their projects to address these alienating discourses, and heritage development workers have followed suit. A critical study of heritage, and its use in political economy, is a possible way out of lingering colonial ways of thinking. Together with the important work of Abu-Khafajah and Miqdadi (2019) as well as Meskell and Luke (2021), my research places Jordan firmly at the forefront of the growing research on heritage development. It is my hope that my research will contribute to the compassionate work of archaeologists and stress the emancipatory role history can play for the future.
Abu-Khafajah, S., and R. Miqdadi. 2019. “Prejudice, Military Intelligence, and Neoliberalism: Examining the Local within Archaeology and Heritage Oractices in Jordan.” Contemporary Levant 4 (2): 92–106.
Burtenshaw, P. 2014. “Mind the Gap: Cultural and Economic Values in Archaeology.” Public Archaeology 13 (1–3): 48–58.
Jarrar, N. 2021. “A Struggle against Privatization and Neoliberalism.” The International Committee for the Conservation of the Industrial Heritage Bulletin 91: 12–13.
Meskell, L., and C. Luke. 2021. “Developing Petra: UNESCO, the World Bank, and America in the Desert.” Contemporary Levant 6 (2): 126–140.
Mickel, A. 2021. Why Those Who Shovel Are Silent: A History of Local Archaeological Knowledge and Labor. Louisville, CO: University Press of Colorado.
Said, E. W. 1978. Orientalism. New York: Pantheon Books.
Charlotte Vekemans obtained her BA and MA in history at KU Leuven and her MS in conflict and development studies at Ghent University, Belgium. She published several articles on Belgian colonial rural policy while working at the History Department of KU Leuven and then moved on to earn a PhD in political science, specializing in heritage development, at Ghent University. Her research interests lie in heritage studies, politics of history, development politics, governmentality and new materialism, focusing on the integration of heritage in development projects in the Middle East, specifically in Jordan. She is also active as a teaching assistant for the joint BA in social sciences at Vrije Universiteit Brussel and Ghent University.