Jordan’s Umm el-Jimal: A village frozen in time

The site carries 2,000 years of amazing history and culture.
Sunday 06/01/2019
A view of ancient ruins in the town of Umm el Jimal in northern Jordan. (Roufan Nahhas)
A view of ancient ruins in the town of Umm el Jimal in northern Jordan. (Roufan Nahhas)

AMMAN - Called in ancient times “the Black Gem of the Desert” for its impressive black basalt constructions and dark encrusted layers of stones, Umm el-Jimal, a village frozen in time in northern Jordan, is hoping to figure on UNESCO’s list of protected World Heritage Sites.

The site carries 2,000 years of amazing history and culture. It was established in the first century BC by Nabataeans as a post on the trade route between Damascus and the south. It was later a military base and today is considered the best-preserved Byzantine town in the Southern Hauran region that spans parts of southern Syria and northern Jordan.

Umm el-Jimal enlisted in UNESCO’s World Heritage programme in 2001. Arrangements are under way for the final application to the listing after the completion of the Sustainable Cultural Heritage through Engagement of Local Communities Project (USAID SCHEP), a 4-year US Agency for International Development (USAID) initiative that uses a unique methodology for preserving, managing and promoting cultural heritage resources through a community-based approach.

Yazeed Elayan, acting director of Jordan’s General Department of Antiquities, said the first draft to nominate Umm el-Jimal for inclusion on the World Heritage Site list has been prepared.

“The nomination of Umm el-Jimal will also contribute to highlighting the historical and archaeological status of Jordan and its many important sites and history globally,” Elayan said.

“This requires increasing responsibility for maintaining the site and working continuously to complete all the conditions that must be met for inclusion in the World Heritage List and the preparation of a comprehensive site management plan,” he said.

With the aim of creating a local tourism economy, USAID SCHEP is designed to strengthen the role of the community by improving, developing and training residents, guides and visitors.

Camels graze near the ruins of the Barracks in Umm el-Jimal. (Umm el-Jimal Project)

Only countries that have signed the World Heritage Convention, pledging to protect their natural and cultural heritage, can submit nomination proposals for properties on their territory to be considered for inclusion on the World Heritage List.

The nomination goes through a strict process in which a selected property is independently evaluated by two advisory bodies mandated by the World Heritage Convention, the International Council on Monuments and Sites and the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

Once a site has been nominated, it is up to the World Heritage Committee, which meets once a year, to decide on its inclusion.

Majdi Tell, a tourism and cultural activities journalist, said: “This is a great moment for Jordan.”

“To be included on the World Heritage List, sites must be of outstanding universal value and meet at least one out of ten selection criteria such as to represent a masterpiece of human creativity; to be outstanding examples representing major stages of global history and to contain superlative natural phenomena or areas of exceptional natural beauty and Umm el-Jimal has all of this,” Tell said.

“We, as Jordanians, are proud of our ancient sites and appreciate the role played by the tourism sector in the economy. Jordan has more than one site to attract the attention of tourists and Umm el-Jimal is a great place to start touring,” he added.

The West Church in Umm el-Jimal.(Wikipedia)

In 2016, 919 tourists visited Umm el-Jimal and the number rose to 1,108 in 2017. Through September 2018, the number of tourists reached 1,891, compared to Petra, which was visited by 417,650 tourists in 2017 and 560,414 during January to September of this year, the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities said.

“That is why we always say that there is a need to market other sites in Jordan and attract more visitors, foreigners and locals,” Tell stressed.

In 1985, UNESCO included Petra on the World Heritage List describing it as “one of the most precious cultural properties of man’s cultural heritage.” In 2007, Al-Khazneh (the Treasury), the most elaborate temple in the ancient Nabataean kingdom city, was voted one of the New Seven Wonders of the World.

In addition to Petra, Jordan boasts four other World Heritage sites, including Jesus’s Baptism Site, Quseir Amra, Um er-Rasas and Wadi Rum. A total of 14 tentative sites are also considered for nomination.

“We feel proud that Umm el-Jimal, which means in Arabic ‘The Mother of Camels’ or ‘Beauties’ is doing so much to the local community and Jordan as a whole and we hope that the site will add so much to the tourism sector,” Elayan said.

Statistics by the Jordanian Central Bank showed tourism revenues reaching $4.9 billion in the first 11 months of 2018 compared to $4.6 billion in 2017 and $4.1 billion in 2016.