Could arts and crafts help save the ancient marvel of Umm Qais?

An international team of researchers are connecting Jordan’s creative industries to a new generation of artists, with the aim of preserving a remarkable heritage.

A bird’s eye view of Umm Qais, showing Roman buildings and ruins.
Umm Qais, the ancient city of Gadara, Jordan.

Mention heritage sites in Jordan and most people think of Petra, the famous city carved into the rock. Few know of Jordan’s other archaeological marvels, among them Umm Qais, the site of the ancient city of Gadara.

But the relative obscurity of Umm Qais has left it at risk of deterioration, a situation University of Leeds Professor of Architecture, Gehan Selim, is determined to reverse.

Now Professor Selim is leading a team that’s working with people in modern-day Umm Qais, to help a younger generation deepen their connections to the history and heritage of the site — and ultimately build their future livelihoods around it.

Discovering a fascinating history

The new research project — in collaboration with Dr Deemi Refai from Leeds University Business School and Jordan University for Science and Technology — will support local young people to develop arts and crafts businesses linked to Umm Qais and its remarkable history. The hope is that, supported with a stronger infrastructure of heritage and tourism, Umm Qais can have a positive future, to match its fascinating past.

Umm Qais is divided into three areas: the archaeological site of Gadara, the Ottoman village of Umm Qais, and the modern town now called Umm Qais. The ancient site has multiple histories of occupation, with buildings dating from the Greek, Roman, Byzantine and early Islamic period.

Ruins of ancient Roman shops in Umm Qais, with Ottoman facades.

Nestled within these ruins is the ancient Ottoman village of Umm Qais, which was deserted in the 1980s when the government forced the remaining inhabitants to move to a modern village around 40 kilometres away. The rationale at the time was to open up the site for further excavation, which has never taken place. It is an untapped, ancient marvel, awaiting rediscovery.

Accessing a living museum

Umm Qais has never had the level of tourism it deserves. Visitor numbers dropped even further following the 2008 economic recession, the conflict in Syria and more recently the COVID-19 pandemic.

Professor Selim’s previous research at Umm Qais began during COVID-19. She led a team working with young people to create digital resources, that allow people to explore Umm Qais remotely and make any visit to the site a richer experience. These include virtual tours and interviews with former residents of the Ottoman village, many now elderly.

A woman talking to camera as part of an interview for the virtual tour of Umm Qais, exploring its history and hertiage.
Capturing the oral history of Umm Qais is a key feature of the project. Image courtesy: Umm Qais Heritage.

“The young people of Umm Qais never lived on the site itself, so don’t feel the same emotional connection to it as their parents and grandparents,” explains Professor Selim.

“By working with them to digitally map the site, and capturing the stories of life in the original village, they began to see themselves as part of the history of the place, with more investment in its future.”

Professor Selim’s new research now plans to build on this “living museum” project to strengthen the site’s cultural and heritage infrastructure.

Curating a creative heritage

Working alongside local artists, the researchers will explore the arts and crafts produced in Jordan today and document archaeological and architectural visual elements of Umm Qais, from which new arts and crafts designs could be created.

Young people (between 18–30) will work with artists to develop new ideas and designs, including jewellery, wood and newer technologies such as 3D printing. The team will also provide training on how to build heritage arts and crafts businesses, including branding and marketing.

A group of students and staff in Umm Qais, who have been involved in capturing the history of the site, and co-creating arts and crafts with local industries.
Working with students from local universities, the project is developing resources to promote the heritage of Umm Qais. Image courtesy: Umm Qais Heritage.

The project will come together in a final exhibition, which the team hopes to hold both on the site and virtually through an online “market”, to enable the products to be seen and sold internationally.

Creating new opportunities

The research is supported by the Jordanian Ministry of Tourism, who will receive a policy document from the team that highlights the lessons learned, supporting development of the heritage, arts and crafts sector across the country.

The wide-ranging research at Umm Qais isn’t what many would consider “architecture”, but Professor Selim would argue otherwise:

“Our initial interest in mapping and recording the site was to help Umm Qais gain World Heritage Site status and so help to preserve it,” she explains.

“But the deterioration of the site is not just about the physical condition of buildings, it also has social, economic and political factors. You can’t protect a site without addressing those as well.

“Architecture is never just about buildings, whether modern or ancient. It’s also about the people who live in and around them.”

Gehan Selim is Professor of Architecture at the School of Civil Engineering.

Find out more about Creative Economies Through Youth-led Arts and Craft in Jordan (CEARC).

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The University of Leeds was founded in 1904, and its origins go back to the nineteenth century with the founding of the Leeds School of Medicine in 1831.

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