A Letter from Bert de Vries
Thank you for visiting the Umm el-Jimal website. I hope it can convey to you the magic of my own first visit long ago in 1968, when I was a novice architect for the Hesban Project, Phase I. Coming from a tell with no ruins exposed, I was enthralled by the verticality of this place, with nearly intact structures up to three stories high and soaring towers, and all buildings so black they seemed to be shaded though actually sun-struck under the clear desert sky.
“Anyone working here?” I asked. “No, not really, not since Butler’s survey in 1909,” was the answer. Thus began my long affair with Umm el-Jimal. First the mapping. Butler and the Princeton Expedition team had come through for a quick study of all the “public buildings,” still bearing names he gave them—Praetorium, Barracks, the fifteen churches, the twenty most prestigious villas. Undaunted, I tackled all the remaining “minor” structures: over a hundred houses, wall by wall, room by room...and never lost that original enthrallment.
Then came the seasons of excavations, beginning with the first soundings of 1974, done with Jim Sauer. Those were followed by seasons in the 70s and 80s teamed with fellow young Hesban “graduates,” and the nineties with my own Calvin students and local Grand Valley University colleague Janet Brashler, who helped us branch from buildings of the living to the abodes of the dead.
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And my family was always there. I remember our son, Guy, aged nine, running excitedly from playing in his ruin of the day, “Papa, look at what I found!” Horrors! It was an undetonated, corroded hand-grenade! We all survived. My daughters, Tara and Tanya came back as college field school enrollees. And Sally, my wife, created bedrooms and kitchens and hired the workers from the village. Only she could choose twenty men from a throng of 120 applicants and have everyone leave smiling.
Gradually the history of the place unraveled into strata and periods with distinct personalities—a Paleolithic band, Nabataean-Roman and Byzantine-Islamic settlements; yes, Islamic! After a long gap people resettled, the Druze before World War I (who supposedly left “because of the gnats”), then British and French soldiers, who left their tent bases along with a hand grenade, and finally by the Mseid, who’ve stayed and grown to a thriving village 6000 strong, and whose friendship we treasure.
There were also discoveries. After careful survey and excavation, the shapeless ruins inside the East Gate turned into a cohort-sized Tetrarchic castellum; al-Herri, an apparently natural deposit of lichen-coated basalt area of field stones, became the 2nd and 3rd century AD workers' village. One day in 1993 a horse in Sheik Serour’s olive garden fell through the surface into a cist grave. That accident triggered the excavation of hundreds of individuals from the late Roman-era population.
This website is part of a major push by the Umm el-Jimal Project and Open Hand Studios to create a virtual museum that will present Umm el-Jimal in dramatically new ways, and bring together electronic Umm el-Jimal, ancient Umm el-Jimal, and the present village for you to visit. I hope you stop by often, and share our excitement over the eerie beauty and fascinating history of Umm el-Jimal!
Bert de Vries
Director, Umm el-Jimal Project