The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan boasts an array of over 100,000 archaeological sites that span a time period of 200,000 years, showcasing the historical significance of this land and its people over the course of millennia. Despite the country’s wealth of historical sites and artefacts, which range from the Neolithic statues of Ayn Ghazal to the imposing Nabataean Treasury of Petra, Jordanians exhibit attitudes ranging from apathy to animosity towards these symbols of their archaeological and cultural heritage today.
The disconnect between citizens of the Hashemite Kingdom and their cultural heritage manifests in the disparity between Jordanian and foreign visitor flows to the country’s heritage tourism destinations. In 2019, for instance, Jordanians represented only 11.5% of the total number of visitors to Jerash, Petra, and Umm Qais, three of the country’s most popular archaeological sites.
It is important to say that the disconnect between the Jordanians and their cultural heritage produced by the manipulated ideological reading of the past results in many grave consequences economically and socio-culturally. The most flagrant impact of this disconnect is manifested in the poor and modest economic benefits that Jordan gains from his huge cultural heritage arsenal. The physical, cognitive and emotional disconnect between Jordanians and their cultural heritage is manifested also in some aggressive and hostile acts and practices vis-a-vis cultural heritage sites like sabotage, the illegal traffic of archaeological objects and vandalism. Moreover, any economic benefits from heritage sites would not be possible if the population and local communities are not in connection with these heritages sites.
In addition to the high levels of poverty and underemployment among the population living around and close to the heritage sites, the ideological and manipulating reading of the past through the discourse on heritage sites can be regarded as a crucial negative factor that enhances the reproduction of primordial ties instead of being a unifying factor which encourages the building of a unified national identity based on the concepts and practices of citizenship.
To explore the factors influencing this trend, we conducted a survey in 2016 in which we asked 300 residents of Jerash, Petra, and Umm Qais questions about their relationship with the archaeological sites located in these villages. To complement the data contained in the survey responses, we also conducted interviews with focus groups consisting of residents of each of these towns.
The results of the survey demonstrate the extent of Jordanians’ emotional detachment from the kingdom’s cultural heritage sites. Sixty percent of study participants revealed that they visit the cultural heritage site located in their village very rarely, with a further 8% claiming that they never visit the site. On the other hand, only 31% maintained that they visit the site regularly.
Survey respondents’ attitudes towards the plundering of historical artefacts also reflect a general disinterest in the preservation of the archaeological sites of Jerash, Petra, and Umm Qais. Forty percent of surveyed residents of these towns considered theft and smuggling to be ordinary behaviours that should be judged as small legal infractions, not heinous crimes.
Beyond conveying local residents’ physical and emotional separation from the cultural heritage sites at Jerash, Petra, and Umm Qais, survey results also reveal study participants’ hostility towards the Roman and Nabataean architects of these ancient cities. When asked to describe who built their towns’ cultural heritage sites, nearly half (46.6%) of survey respondents stated that a “colonizing” people constructed them, while 37.2% said that they were built by their ancestors. Furthermore, only 39% claimed that the artefacts located at these archaeological sites represent their own history, with 36.9% asserting that they represent the history of invading civilizations that colonized the area.
The study’s findings raise several questions: what explains Jordanians’ detachment from the archaeological sites of Jerash, Petra, and Umm Qais, which, though they were built at the behest of foreign rulers, were nonetheless constructed by the hands of their ancestors? What prevents Jordanians today from viewing archaeological remnants of their land’s past as elements of their own cultural heritage?
In part, the answer to these questions lies in the parallels between this ambivalence and historical discourses propagated on the national level by Islamist, pan Arab nationalist, and Jordanian nationalist factions, each of which appropriates Jerash, Petra, Umm Qais, and Jordan’s other cultural heritage sites to advance its own ideological agenda. By instrumentalizing the archaeological manifestations of Jordan’s past, these actors render an objective reading of the country’s history impossible.
While Islamists seek to portray Jordan’s past through an Islam-focused lens, emphasizing the sites and artefacts left by Ottoman, Mamluk, Ayyubid, and Umayyad civilizations, pan Arab nationalist discourses frame the country’s heritage as exclusively Arab, marginalizing the traces of Byzantine and Ottoman rule that exist within its borders. Meanwhile, state-propagated narratives aim to juxtapose the Hashemite kings’ enlightened leadership with the oppression and stagnation that regime characterized the rule of their immediate predecessors, the Ottomans. Despite their differences, the exclusivist nature of each of these discourses precludes an inclusive reading of the history of the land that comprises the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.
Beyond engendering Jordanians’ feelings of separation and animosity towards their country’s cultural heritage sites, these narratives also carry tangible economic and political implications. The sustainable growth of Jordan’s tourism sector, which constitutes nearly 20% of the kingdom’s gross domestic product, requires development policy initiatives that encourage citizen involvement in local tourism economies, a task complicated by widespread apathy towards heritage tourism destinations. In addition, the disconnect between Jordanians and archaeological symbols of their heritage exposes the complexities involved in linking Hashemite Jordan to the civilizations that ruled the land in the past. The political imperative of these efforts to establish a golden-age historical narrative to confer legitimacy on the Jordanian nation state is highlighted today by renewed Israeli claims that Jordan is Palestine.
To effectively address the foreign and domestic issues that hinder Jordan’s continued political security and economic prosperity, the country’s leaders must challenge the divisive discourses that prevent its citizens from engaging with the rich history conveyed by the kingdom’s wealth of cultural heritage sites.
About the Authors
Abdel Hakim Al Husban is a professor of cultural anthropology at Yarmouk University in Irbid- Jordan. Since his graduation from the University of Bordeaux II in France, Dr Al Husban conducts field research and participates in research projects focusing on the Anthropology of Jordan. His main fields of interest are the dynamics of State construction in Jordan, Politics and policies of Cultural heritage in Jordan, Anthropology of the contemporary Jordanian City and the socio-cultural dynamics of Scientific research in Jordan. In addition to his academic career, Dr Al Husban is writing on Jordan’s politics and culture in many news sites in Jordan and abroad. He is currently occupying the position of the Dean of Jordan Media Institute (JMI) in Amman – Jordan.
Nicolas Reeves holds a Bachelor of Arts in international affairs and economics from George Washington University. After graduating from the George Washington University, Nicolas studied Arabic at the American University in Cairo as a 2019-2020 Center for Arabic Study Abroad (CASA) Fellow. Nicolas’s research focuses on the politics of tourism development in Jordan. His work has appeared in English and Arabic in the Oxford Middle East Review, Abhath al-Yarmouk: Humanities and Social Sciences, and Al-Monitor.
The opinions expressed in the guest blogs are those of the authors. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the Middle East and North Africa Social Policy (MENASP) Network or the University of Bath.