Greek digs in Jordan

Jordan, a land that has seen a long succession of peoples and civilizations, is a paradise for archaeologists. Yet it has not achieved the popular renown it deserves for its many and varied archaeological and natural sights, largely because of the troubles in the Middle East. Nevertheless, the international archaeological community has shown great interest in its holdings, in the form of a number of missions from Europe (Britain, France, Germany, Spain, Poland, and Italy, among others) and the US that are busy excavating and restoring ancient monuments in Jordan. Greek archaeologists, who do not often engage in this work abroad, are there with them. As is usual in such cases, the initiative is the result of the efforts of an individual. Professor Thanassis Papadopoulos, of Ioannina University’s faculty of prehistoric archaeology, has been leading a group excavating two sites near the Dead Sea: the prehistoric cemetery of Safi, at the sea’s southern end, and at Tel Kafrein, a hill to its north, where interesting excavations are expected to continue for some years to come. It all began when Papadopoulos visited Jordan in 1999 on a scientific exchange program. His colleagues there took him on a tour of the entire country. «They all asked me why Greece does not send out teams to excavate, as other countries have done,» said the professor. Impressed not only by the warmth of the people but by the «unexpected» (his term) high standard of Jordanian universities, Papadopoulos decided to seek approval and funding for a dig in the country. His proposal was accepted by the Foreign and Culture ministries, and in 2000, the first Greek excavation in Jordan began at Safi, in an ancient cemetery «the likes of which I had never seen,» said Papadopoulos. «It belongs to the Bronze Age (about 3000 BC) and consists of thousands of graves. Imagine a mountainside such as Mt Hymettus riddled with graves. What was also unexpected was that the local residents were not prevented from digging and looting the graves and selling their finds to tourists. During the short time we were there, we excavated 15-20 untouched and architecturally beautiful graves and found several objects: stone and clay pots, clubheads and other objects. But there was no point in staying on there, because we would never be able to finish and present a finished result,» he said. The professor then asked the Jordanian authorities to give him another site, and he was presented with a choice. A colleague at the University of Amman accompanied him to the country’s central valley, north of the Dead Sea. «It was on the caravan route from Syria and Lebanon or the Mediterranean coast, Cyprus and the Aegean, to Arabia,» said Papadopoulos. What immediately attracted his interest was Tel Kafrein, which overlooks all the approaches to the valley, with a view all the way to Jerusalem and Jericho across the River Jordan. It is near the Hussein Bridge on the border with Israel and is next to the town of Suna. «On the hill, the foundations of buildings and walls were visible; it was a fortified position that had been inhabited from prehistoric to Islamic times,» said the professor. The first excavation was in 2002, a surface and topographical survey of the hill. During the second excavation period last November, the excavation proper began. «We uncovered walls of houses and movable objects such as pots. At first glance, it appears that most of the findings date from the late Bronze to the Iron Age (1300-800 BC). This is particularly interesting for myself, as a specialist in Cretan and Minoan culture, as I hope we will find objects from that culture. Already, to the north, a temple with Egyptian, Cypriot and other, perhaps Minoan, objects have been found. In any case, Tel Kafrein is a very important site and I believe that we will harvest a large number of finds there,» he said. About 18 archaeologists and students from the University of Ioannina, as well as Associate Professor Litsa Kontorli-Papadopoulou, the professor’s wife, are working at the digs, which are funded by the Foreign and Culture ministries as well as the university. The budget is not large, but it is sufficient for the five-year program that was drawn up and included in the bilateral cooperation agreement between the two countries. Not only the Jordanian State but the local authorities in Suna and Madaba have welcomed the venture. “The Orthodox Archimandrite Innocentios has provided accommodation for us at an excellent guesthouse at the Monastery of Aghios Giorgios, which he had found in ruins and has restored beautifully. He has also founded a school for 800 local poor children, Orthodox Jordanians, from primary to high school, one of the four best schools in the country. I saw equipment there including computers, such as I have seen only at the Athens College. Now that Eirinaios has become patriarch, he has assigned Innocentios responsibility for all schools. Innocentios’s successor at Madaba, Diodoros, is taking equally good care of us. We are not only pleased but thrilled about our work in Jordan. The next season has been scheduled for April and we can’t wait to get back there – that is, of course, war permitting.”