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US Ambassador Stuart Jones visits Umm el-Jimal Again, 21 January 2013.

Ambassador Stuart Jones’ visits to Umm el-Jimal have served as bookends for the Umm el-Jimal House XVII-XVIII preservation field work. On April 29 2012 the ambassador and his entourage came to inaugurate the preservation work. As I reported on an earlier blog-post then, the event was attended by a diverse group of about 40 who represented a cross section of all those with an interest in the project: The US embassy staff, the local community, Department of Antiquities, ACOR, the Jordan academic community and various Jordanian high officials, all with a mutual interest in the site for its heritage and community building values.

In this sense, the 21 January 2013 visit was almost a carbon copy. The crowd this time was over 50 and more of our (Bert and Sally de Vries’) personal friends from Amman came. However, in the first visit the joy came from anticipation – expectation of the work to be done and challenges faced. This time the joy came from celebration of fait accompli, of delivering more than promised and of meeting the toughest challenges – but celebration also of relationships formed, trust built, and friendships cemented from a year of cooperation and partnership. Bookends indeed, these two visits.

In making the exact same tour twice, we stood in a once rubble filled but now open courtyard; we saw a once tottering double window standing buttressed and stable; we passed through the beautiful House XVIII exit hall – the one with the double stone door – which in April was blocked to the ceiling; a stable too dangerous to enter was now toured under a repaired roof. Everywhere fine construction details, once hidden from view, were now exposed to display the cleverness of their builders.

The celebration ended again with sweets (the best of Mafraq) and juices at the project house. This reception included the typical speeches, thank-yous from de Vries, praise from the ambassador and greetings conveyed by Abdul Qader al-Housan, the Mafraq director of Antiquities, on behave of his Excellency Naif al-Fayez, the Minister of Tourism. But the mood remained euphoric and the end was dramatic.

The climax was a brief slide show put on by Open Hand Studios. Jeff DeKock showed an amazing set of before and after pictures in which he framed the shots so identically that you could see rubble fade and stones pop into place as photos faded from frame one into frame two. And Paul Christians gave a brief photo journal of the work in progress, starring our intrepid Umm-el-Jimali masons. You can view this presentation on the Umm el-Jimal Project Website at
It was all over in less than two hours – a magic moment!

A brief photo album of the 21 Jan 2013 visit follows.

Archaeologists Hana Bani Ata and Diaa Mazari on the march to House XVII-XVIII

Archaeologists Hana Bani Ata and Diaa Mazari on the march to House XVII-XVIII

Ali Aqil, Abdul Qader al-Housan, Bert de Vries, Ambassador Stuart Jones and HE Governor Yusuf al-Hawamda leading the way

Ali Aqil, Abdul Qader al-Housan, Bert de Vries, Ambassador Stuart Jones and HE Governor Yusuf al-Hawamda leading the way

In the courtyard of House XVIII

In the courtyard of House XVIII

De Vries and Ambassador Jones entering the passage the back door

De Vries and Ambassador Jones entering the passage to the back door

House XVII-XVIII Project Staff posing with the Governor and Ambassador: From left: Gov. Yusuf al-Hawamda, Muaffaq Hazza, Amb. Stuart Jones, Abdul Qader al-Housan (behind), Ali Aqil, Na'il Tuhamer, Hana Bani Ata, Hussein Askar, Bert de Vries, Sally de Vries (behind), Diaa Mazari, Paul Christians, Jeff DeKock. Photo by Barbara Porter.

House XVII-XVIII Project Staff posing with the Governor and Ambassador: From left: Gov. Yusuf al-Hawamda, Muaffaq Hazza, Amb. Stuart Jones, Abdul Qader al-Housan (behind), Ali Aqil, Na’il Tuhamer, Hana Bani Ata, Hussein Askar, Bert de Vries, Sally de Vries (behind), Diaa Mazari, Paul Christians, Jeff DeKock. Photo by Barbara Porter.

Core staff hosting the event with Bert de Vries and the US Embassy, from left: Jeff DeKock, Muaffaq Hazza, Paul Christians and Sally de Vries, here seen at nearby Zaatari Refugee Camp. Photo by Bert de Vries.

Core staff hosting the event with Bert de Vries and the US Embassy, from left: Jeff DeKock, Muaffaq Hazza, Paul Christians and Sally de Vries, here seen at nearby Zaatari Refugee Camp. Photo by Bert de Vries.

Text: Bert de Vries, Umm el-Jimal Project director

Photographs: Jeff DeKock and Paul Christians, Open Hand Studios, unless noted otherwise


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Winter at Umm el-Jimal

For many decades, winters in the Badia meant lower temperatures and an occasional night near freezing. Lack of rainfall in winter often meant adding a second season of drought on top of summer’s usual dry conditions. However, in recent years the winters have been a time of colder temperatures and intense rainfall. In many ways, it’s wonderful news: Jordan’s northeast is drought-ridden and always in desperate need of extra water for local peoples’ homes, animals, and farms.

These rains encourage the Umm el-Jimal Project’s efforts to restore Umm el-Jimal’s ancient water channels and reservoirs to collect this precious resource. In 2010, local authorities and project members completed a preliminary clearing of the site’s main Roman-era water channel. Since then, each winter a number of Umm el-Jimal’s eighteen reservoirs once again have filled with water.

Last week brought the same intense rainfall to northern Jordan, but included a twist that has only happened a few times in living memory: Snow fell and accumulated on the ruins. Project archaeologist Muaffaq Hazza captured this rare event with a series of beautiful photos that give us a unique view of Umm el-Jimal to kick off 2013.






Text by Jeff DeKock, photos by Muaffaq Hazza



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Preservation of the Double Window – The Solution

The problem of the preservation of the Double Window was described in the previous post. This post, the “Solution,” will briefly describe the strategy we developed and tell the story of the work done in pictures. To begin, we solved the problem of access by abandoning the traditional use of scaffolding and instead working on the east side of the wall from a truck-mounted safety bucket. The west side was fairly accessible because it was possible to step from the walls of the rooms behind onto a row of corbels below the two windows.

Access of the east facade from the safety bucket

The west facade. Siyah, standing on the corbels, and Mousa, in the safety bucket, begin work on the window sill.

The preservation strategy began with the goal of doing minimal intervention in order to preserve the ruin “as a ruin” (see “Planning Principles” in Progress Report, the 26-March post on this blog.) To achieve this, we decided not to dismantle and rebuild the windows, but preserve them as they are and take only measures deemed necessary to prevent their further collapse under adverse conditions (high winds; high velocity overflights and sonic booms, and moderate earthquakes). The actual work plan we adopted was the product of advice from a number of conservation specialists who visited us during the planning stages as well as the collective wisdom of my entire staff. (*See the end of this post for a special thank-you note to the key contributors.)   In the end, credit for judging how the work was to be done, and what was possible within the realms of budget and safety, goes to Awda Masa’eid, whose work on the repair of the hole in the roof has already been described (see “Hole in the Roof,” the 9-June post).

The following photo journal gives a visual account of the implementation of this preservation strategy. It comes in four segments: The Setup, Restoration of the Window Sill, The South Window Post Buttress, and The Relieving of the South Window Arch.

The Setup

Before any work was begun the stones loading the arches were numbered in preparation for the removal of some and as precaution for the accidental dislodging of others. The second photo  shows the setup of the two cranes as the work is about to begin and Awda and his assistant Na’if ready to work. The greatest concern in this operation was the safety of the people on the wall. It is testimony to their patient caution and the precision skills of the crane operators that no injury greater than a cut finger occurred during the entire three weeks of this Double Window operation.

To begin, the blocks resting on the two arches were numbered.

Poised to begin. Awda Masa’eid in the safety bucket, and his constant working partner, Na’if, on the wall.

Restoration of the Window Sill

In the photo with the numbered stones you can see that most of the window sill of the left window is missing, and the masonry below has been weakened. A key to the stabilization of the whole window unit is the repair of the wall and the sill, which ties the two faces of the wall together. As this window operation began, we had been clearing the soil and collapse masonry from the water reservoir below. Here we found the stones to restore the sill as shown in the following sequence of pictures. The blond color of the restored blocks is surface pigmentation coated onto the black basalt from the centuries of being buried in a mixture of russet soil (used as roofing material) and lime from eroded plaster and mortar (used on the walls).

The first restored sill stone is in place.

The crane lifts a sill stone out of the birkeh (water reservoir).

Muaffaq Hazza has this sill stone ready to fly.

… airborn …

… approaching… Think about the delicacy of the crane operator’s control manipulation, which is preventing the pendulous block from swinging into the arch like a giant sledge hammer.

… landing …

Siyah and Abdu al-Rahman wrestle the block into its slot.


Buttressing the South Window Post

Meanwhile, Awda Masa’eid and his crew began the buttressing of the south window post.

The south window post and, to its left, the wall to be reinforced. Notice that the installation of the last sill block described above has not yet taken place when this photo was taken.

Na’if and Awda place the first blocks with the rest of his team poised to help.

The buttressing has begun, but the numbered stones are still high above.

The careful selection and laying of stones continues.

On the left, a rectangular window is reconstructed to expand the support base for the higher courses of the buttress.

As the courses grow higher the work becomes more and more delicate and deliberate and balancing on the wall itself, as Abdu en-Nur is doing, more difficult and scary.

Until finally …

… stones 15 and 21 to the left of the arch …

… are locked in by the buttress!

As Awda Masa’eid and Muaffaq Hazza show here, every move along the way was carefully discussed until all involved agreed. This cooperation through patient discussion was key to the success of the operation.

The Relieving of the South Window Arch

The final step was the removal of the top three courses overloading the slumping south window arch in order to protect it and also remove some of the sideways pressure on the central column and the unloaded arch of the north window. While the buttressing operation took over two weeks, this procedure was completed in two days.

First, the slumping arch was supported with steel posts.

Then the stones were …

… carefully lifted off.

… and the remaining course sealed with lime mortar, darkened with ashes – so that things will look natural to overflying pilots and the resident Hudhud (Hoopoe bird).

The new look will take some getting used to; like that of a person who has changed from long unruly tresses to a short-cropped flat-top hairdo.

Na’if and Awda descend triumphant!!!

The result was celebrated with a light show, put on and photographed by Jeff DeKock and Muaffaq Hazza.


Advice on preservation: *I’m especially grateful to the following for their kind and clever ideas on the preservation of the Double Window: Elana Ronza, Christina Danielli and Chris Tuttle, who are working on the Temple of the Winged Lion in Petra; Barbara Perlich and Tobias Horn, preservation architects on the Qasr Mshatta Project, and Amer Qimash, architect/engineer of the Department of Antiquities, Amman.  On my own project staff, key input was given by Abdul Qader al-Housan (Director of the Mafraq office of the Dept of Antiquities and partner in this field work), Abdulla Shorman (Structural specialist in the Dept of Archaeology, Yarmouk University), Na’il Tuhamer (DoA-Mafraq engineer assigned to the project) and Muaffaq Hazza (UJ Project senior staff).

In addition to those in the bucket and on the wall, immense credit goes to the rest of the 30+ work force doing their essential tasks away from the camera with energy and enthusiasm.

The light show was created and photographed by Jeff DeKock and Paul Christians of Open Hand Studios ( and Muaffaq Hazza.

Text by Bert de Vries; photographs by Bert de Vries and Muaffaq Hazza.

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Preservation of the Double Window – The Problem

The Double Window of House XVIII has served as the logo for the Umm el-Jimal Project because it is the most fancy visible remain in a site full of functional domestic architecture.

House XVIII Double Window at sunrise

 Taken in 1905 by Howard Butler’s Princeton University team, the following photo shows the windows perched three stories high, pretty much as it does today. However, the walls of the room behind this facade collapsed between then and now, most likely in the earthquake of 1926. The masonry of the windows themselves is very fragile, and their stabilization has been the major technical challenge of the House XVII-XVIII preservation project.

The east facade of House XVIII as it looked in 1905

The next view shows the windows looking east from inside the courtyard before our preservation work of 2012 began.

Double Windows viewed from the west showing the collapsed interior walls

Closeups of the windows seen from the west and the east  show some of the weaknesses: the sill of the south window is missing; the south window post is precariously weak, while the north window post is fairly well buttressed; the south arch is slumping, and the north arch is popping up. Taken together, one could estimate the manner of a future collapse as follows: The south window post would collapse in a southerly direction, allowing the south are to fall down; under the force of this movement the center column could be tipped to the north, with the result that the north arch would explode upward.

Closeup of Double Window seen from the interior

Graphic rendering of Double Window exterior seen from the east

The next photo shows the missing sill from the outside and also makes the lack of buttressing support of the south (left) window post very clear.

Exterior of wall with Double Window seen from the southeast

As the view is rotated to the south (see next picture) it becomes clear that the top of the window wall is slumping quite far to the west. This brings up another possible collapse scenario: Were the movement of an earth tremor to be in a westerly direction, the stones above the south arch could easily topple westward and bring the west arch and then the entire window set with it.

View of window wall section from the south

A closeup of this wall section taken from the southwest (next photograph) highlights what’s already been obvious in previous pictures. The four courses of stones surviving above the south window arch for a critical mass that is delicately balanced, but slumping towards the west.

The Double Window from the southwest

Given that, this view of the south arch and the stones above it (see next photograph), merely affirms what has already become clear. Some of the weight needs to be taken of the south arch to relieve pressure from it and from the south window post.

Closeup of west arch and its stone overload

A further complication is the height of the the exterior wall, which makes it difficult to create a scaffold with a working platform from which to handle the stones (see next photograph).

Exterior wall with Double Window; Yarmouk University photographer Hussein Dabajah stands on the sill of another small window.

A further complication is that the semi-circular reservoir which supplied water to the household (see next photograph), is located directly below the Double Window. It is therefore difficult to create a firm base on which to erect the high scaffolding required to reach the windows.

Semi-circular reservoir at base of House XVIII exteriro east wall. The two rib walls are the tops of arches for supporting a flat reservoir roof cover.

SUMMARY: We concluded that the minimum repair for stabilization of the Double Window should include: (1) the repair of the wall and sill supporting the windows; (2) reinforcing of the south window post, and (3) the relieving of the excess weight on the south window arch.  How we did this will be the subject of the next blog post, PRESERVATION OF THE DOUBLE WINDOW – THE SOLUTION.

Text: Bert de Vries; color photographs: Bert de Vries and Muaffaq Hazza


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The Hole in the Roof

Several rooms in the House XVII were restored and reused by the Druze and Masa’eid Arabs early in the 20th century. A goal of AFCP Preservation and Presentation Project is to preserve two of these to enable visitors to to see the continuity between late antique and current cultures. The problem with one of these was that there was a hole in the roof due to a slumping *corbel right inside the entry.  The danger was this roof could collapse and cause serious injury to visitors. Our initial plan was to support this slumping corbel with a permanently installed I-beam post. When we proposed this solution to our local mason Awda Masa’eid, he immediately shook his head, and said, “No, no, I can fix that easily so that it will be much safer and look just as it was.” What follows is the story of his common sense, effective solution, completed during the last two weeks of April.

* A “corbel” is a beam support created by jutting a stone out of a wall. A row of corbels form a ledge onto which ceiling and roof beams can be placed. Corbelling works well for basalt, which is strong, but not for limestone, which will more easily break from the weight of the roof beams. It is an alternative to vaulting (more expensive) and trussing (requires wood).

The hole in the roof.

Awda and his crew with Hussein Askar, the Department of Antiquities Archaeologist on the far left. Awda is on the left end of the second row, wearing the red kafiya.

First all the stones which needed to be moved were numbered. The key to the operation is 14d, which is to be cut in two (Yes, you could think of the word “operation” in the sense of “surgical procedure.” We could think of this procedure as a “corbel replacement,” not unlike a hip replacement in humans).


First the the ceiling corbels prone to collapse were shored with temporary steel posts. That’s Awda looking satisfied.

Next the roof soil and then the ceiling beams that had been supported by the slumping corbel were removed. The small hole in the roof has become a gaping maw. (The criss-cross and diagonal positioning of the ceiling beams was done that way because the Druze builders could not find beams long enough to reach from one wall to the other; these longer Roman/Byzantine-era beams had long ago been reused for other purposes.)

Next you see the facade with part of the ‘surgery’ completed. The left half of stone 14d has been replaced. What you see instead is the back end of a new, longer corbel which has been wedged into the space with chink stones and is being held in place by the weight of restored stones 1-11 above it. We’ve skipped showing the removal and the replacement process to keep the story short. Suffice it to say here that all the stones involved in this procedure were moved down and up by hand; no heavy machinery was involved.

On the inside you can see the new corbel protruding from the wall on the right, ready to carry the weight that the slumping corbel could no longer support.

Here’s another view. Part of the solution was to replace the interior facade above the corbel with more substantial stones to hold it in place. The inserted masonry is also basalt, but is discolored from the red grey soil of the collapse debris in the House XVII courtyard, from which Awda’s team took them. For now, this distinguishes the ‘new’ from the ‘old,’ though a couple of seasons of winter rains may change that.

Next, the Druze ceiling beams are replaced, with the new corbel positioned like a spider at the center of its web. Note the large amount of soil; this is used to seal and waterproof the roof, exactly as was done in the Roman to Umayyad periods.

Finally the ‘wound’ has been closed by re-leveling the soil on the roof, under which – and on which – visitors can now walk safely.

Inside, the repaired ceiling looks like it always did before the extracted corbel failed.

This was the first of a number of simple but effective solutions provided by Awda and his team, which have made the preservation process of this project efficient and successful beyond my best hopes. The most spectacular of these was the consolidation of House XVIII’s famous double windows, a story we plan to tell shortly. What we’ve learned here is this:

INCORPORATION OF LOCAL TALENT INTO THE ARCHAEOLOGICAL PROCESS MAKES POSSIBLE THE PERPETUATION OF A LIVING HERITAGE. We’ve been looking at building techniques that were first documented for the Stone and  Bronze Ages (think of Jawa, for example); these survived because local masons inserted them into the regional Nabataean, Greek, Roman and Byzantine building programs; and they were kept alive through their use by masons in the Islamic periods, as Umayyad, Mamluk, Ottoman and early modern passed on these ancient traditions to new generations. The fine work being done by Awda and his young assistants are still part of this cycle.

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US Ambassador Visits Umm el-Jimal

On Thursday morning, April 19, US Ambassador Stuart Jones and his entourage visited Umm el-Jimal to celebrate the official opening of the House XVII-XVIII Preservation Project for which the main funding comes from the AFCP, the Ambassador’s Fund for Cultural Preservation. Because we’ve already done eight weeks of field work we could use the occasion to show off the tremendous progress we’ve already made.

Over thirty invited guests and about twenty security – American and Jordanian – attended the site tour and reception. The whole thing was a joint effort, initiated by Anneliese Reinemeyer, US Embassy Cultural Affairs Officer and Reem Abdul Hadi, her assistant, who worked with me to prepare the guest list.  My project staff member Muaffaq Hazza’a helped me with setting up the reception and getting the juices and pastries we served at the project house.

The amazing aspect of this visit was that the guests represented all the significant groups associated with Umm el-Jimal Project: The US Embassy, six persons; the local Jordanian community, five community leaders, incl. the regional governor and acting mayor; Yarmouk University Archaeology Dept, five persons, all project specialists; Department of Antiquites Amman, four, including the acting director General; DoA Mafraq, three, including project engineer Na’il Tuhamer; ACOR, four, including Director Barbara Porter; the Umm el-Jimal Project, three. Calvin College and Open Hand Studios were represented by me.

The tour was successful in staying on schedule and conveying of the right mix of general UJ and the specific House XVII-XVIII Project; a successful afterthought was a stop at the great reservoir with a description of the USAID water storage repair project of the late fifties. The ACOR group also visited my landlord’s, Sultan es-Serour, nearby farm for camel petting.

Ambassador Stuart Jones in House XVIII

Everyone is having a good time in House XVIII

Ambassador Jones enjoyed meeting the workmen – here Atallah (blue shirt) and his crew; they were thrilled to meet him.

Reem Abdel Hadi and Anneliese Reinemeyer, the Embassy’s organizers of the visit

Barbara Porter, ACOR Director, at rain-filled Roman Reservoir

Bert de Vries posing with the Department of Antiquities Amman central office staff (left to right): Jihad Haroun, Director of Projects; Ghassan ed-Deir, Accountant; Amer Qamash, Architect and Assistant to the Director, and Faris Hmoud, Acting Director General

Muaffaq Hazza’a, Umm el-Jimal Project Archaeologist, Sa’ad es-Serour, Umm el-Jimal’s former Speaker of Jordan’s Parliament and yours truly socializing with the Ambassador

ACOR Fellows Ted Van Loan (left) and Karen Britt, center, petting baby camel as owner Sultan es-Serour, (beige jacket), Muaffaq Hazza’a (right) and ACOR employee Sa’id Adawi (behind) look on.


Photographers: Barbara Porter and Muaffaq Hazza’a

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The Western Easter Was a Field Day at Umm el-Jimal

To wish all of you in the West a Happy Easter Sunday, I’ve posted this Magnolia blossom which I photographed in my garden in Grand Rapids during the March heatwave.


The first phase of the field work is the creation of access routes in and around House XVII and XVIII. For the first week, while waiting for the government to implement its budget, Department of Antiquties engineer  Na’il Tuhamer and I (Bert de Vries) worked with only three stone masons to do initial cleaning and set work strategies. Yesterday, however, a crew of thirty workers from Umm el-Jimal began moving stone from the passages to designated areas. As you can see from the following pictures, they do this mostly by hand, and with amazing speed. They actually do very little lifting, but use gravity and leverage to move the stones and get them onto the wheelbarrows.  Their clever stone ‘management’ enables these rearrangements with a minimum of disturbance to the site and avoids the serious damage heavy equipment would inflict.

Seven am Easter morning: The main gate of House  XVIII needs a little more clearance after the first day, but will be ready for excavation on Monday!

Here are the “Thirty” posing before their 10 am breakfast. Several of them had heard it was “my” Easter, and wished me “Eid Mubarak,” which means, literally “Blessed Feast.” And I felt blessed.

The Umm el-Jimal House XVII-XVIII Preservation Team

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