Tuesday, August 23 , 2016, 2:25 pm | Fair 75º

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Anabel Ford: Near the Dead Sea, the Middle East Meets Middle America

[Click here for a Noozhawk photo gallery from Jordan.]

DEAD SEA, JORDAN — Reporting on the Maya forest involves travel beyond my research at UC Santa Barbara and my field work in Belize and Guatemala. My experiences apply wherever I am.

At the Seventh World Archaeological Congress (WAC7) in Amman, I’m co-mingling with archaeologists form 70 other nations. We are within the context of some of the oldest archaeological research areas, and a place I visited while I lived in Lebanon from 1965 to 1966. I am visitng places I had as a teenager! Philadelphia at the heart of Amman; Jerash, a Roman city with a deep history; and, of course, Petra.

I might add that I have done my prep. Besides reading scholarly reviews, sitting in on Arabic language classes and familiarizing myself with the maps, I reviewed films like Raiders of the Lost Ark for their portrayal of Petra!

But on the serious side, being here has had many rewards. History is at every turn here ... and steeped in our origin myths!

Thursday was my presentation in a symposium on community participation. From the New World (Hopi and Maya) to the Old (Stonehenge and Levant), there were comparisons and inspirations that are always part of the exchange. My overview of the Maya forest garden and the school project in Belize was appreciated. After the symposium, I had a chance to talk with people from all over: Norway, Sri Lanka, Argentina, Brazil, Russia, Australia, India, the United Kingdom ...

Apart from the Congress, I have taken in some of the sites:

To Amman, we left the Dead Sea around 4 a.m. and arrived at the citadel of the original Philadelphia at 9 a.m. It’s a magnifent site, with views of the Roman amphitheater that is used today for performances. While the half-meter snow of the previous week had melted, snow was evident in places that were on the north side of hills.

Views at the Dead Sea are obscured by dust in the air and, in Amman, it is smog. Driving in the traffic, we saw license plates from all over the Arab world: Dubai, Saudi Arabia and lots of Syria. Our driver said Syrians can live and work in Jordan. There are nearly 3 million people in the city that likely would have been only several hundred thousand in the ‘60s.

We took in the mosaics of Madaba, called the earliest map of the Holy Land, with boats in the Dead Sea, the walls of Jerusalem and the Nile Delta. At Mount Nebo, we walked where Moses took his people and was later buried. It is at the edge of the mountains that overlook the Dead Sea. The view when clear is supposed to be spectacular — all the way across the Dead Sea past Jerusalem at the height of 2,600 feet to the Dead Sea at 1,300 feet below sea level! Not so on our visit; virtually no view even of the sea, vertically 3,900 feet below and probably only 3,200 feet across. Very steep.

Bedouin live in tents, herding sheep and goats that leave the hills completely bare. What do they eat? On the sides of the mountains that face the Dead Sea, there are sheep and goats. Tents are no longer the black camel cloth woven with traditional industry. Now, tents are festooned with plastic. And many of the Bedouin have trucks. There are efforts, as well, to settle them and so there are block houses, passable in the mild winter but too hot in the summers that get over 120 degrees. LIfe is in transition.

Jerash is a city in a lovely high mountain area at nearly 4,000 feet, with many olive trees on terraced hillsides, as well pines — a contrast to the lower elevations. Jerash was a shrine back in the Bronze Age in 1200 B.C. and it grew to be an important Roman city where Hadrian stayed for six months around 65 A.D. The Romans built up the amphitheater and the temple to Zeus, along with a colonnade of pillars on the main road. These are famous and I recall them from my visit on a rainy December in 1965. Today the sky was blue and it was windy. Sheep herders moved with animals across the area, holiday families were about, and children were anxious to speak to us in English. “Welcome to Jordan!” they exclaimed.

Sadly the work at Jerash suffers for over-interpretation. Since the 1980s, tremendous reconstructions have, in some cases, defiled the honesty of the ancient structures. Not unlike sites in the Maya area (Chichen Itza comes to mind), for tourism, sacrifices have been made. The hippodrome, adjacent to Hadrian’s triumphal arch designed to mark the south boundary of the city, was never finished and much evidence was uncovered to show it was in process. Yet the whole area has been filled and re-enactments of chariot and horse races are performed in the summer.

We will take in Petra and Wadi Rum tomorrow ... That will be an experience!

Anabel Ford Ph.D. is the director of UC Santa Barbara’s MesoAmerican Research Center. Ford, UCSB’s resident expert on Maya archaeology, discovered the ancient Maya city-center El Pilar, which bridges Belize and Guatemala. By decoding the ancient landscape around El Pilar, she is creating a sustainable model in conservation and agriculture that can regenerate the threatened Maya forest. With investment and support, her model can assist environmental efforts worldwide. Click here for more information on El Pilar. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.

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