Greek archaeologists working on site at Tell al-Kafrain in Jordan build good relations in a peaceful corner of the Middle East

MADABA – It’s Sunday, the week after Easter, in Madaba, a city of 80,000 people, half an hour’s drive from Amman. It’s a working day for Arabs, who fill the streets and stores of this typical town, which has one of the largest Christian minorities in Jordan, almost 10 percent of the population. Hence the crowds in the forecourt of the Orthodox Church of St George, in a scene reminiscent of provincial Greece, with families dressed in their Sunday best, children chasing each other around and old friends meeting for a chat. Archimandrite Inokentios, the soul of the Orthodox community in Madaba, calls out in Arabic. Greece has a strong presence in this peaceful corner of the Middle East, just a few kilometers from the troubled West Bank and the border with Israel. It’s unexpected for Greeks like this writer who automatically associate the idea of Greece with national territory and Athenian routine. Famous for its Byzantine mosaics, Madaba attracts thousands of tourists because the Church of St George contains the oldest map of the Holy Land, a mosaic made up of 2 million pieces. All the names are written in Greek. Next to the church is a model Greek school, a personal achievement of Inokentios and one of the best in the country. Pupils from Amman come here to study. That explains the big smiles you get whenever you reveal your nationality. Announce that you’re Greek and it smooths the way. Despite the philhellenic environment, it was not until the year 2000 that Greece joined the long list of foreign archaeological missions that conduct excavations in Jordan. On the initiative of Professor Thanassis Papadopoulos, a team from the University of Ioannina goes to Tell al-Kafrain, a cone-shaped hill between Madaba and the West Bank. A group of archaeologists and students from Ioannina spend a month in Jordan. Apart from the obvious archaeological interest of the project, other aspects of their venture are instructive. Papadopoulos went to Jordan in 1999 as a teacher of prehistoric archaeology on an exchange program. Impressed by the archaeological wealth of Jordan, the high academic standard and the Jordanians’ warmth toward Greeks, he suggested to the university authorities and the Greek Foreign Ministry that they conduct a Greek excavation there. The idea took shape, and now many locals recognize the Greeks who work on the dig at Tell al-Kafrain. In addition to a virtually permanent core of people, built up over the years (including the professor’s wife Litsa Kontorli-Papadapoulou), students from the archaeology department of Ioannina University make a valuable contribution. Students aged 20-22 get out in the field. They spend two weeks in an exciting location in a hostel that Inokentios produced out of nowhere. The two weeks that the teachers and students spend together in an unfamiliar place are a bit like a holiday camp. But they have to get used to rising at 6.30 a.m., working long hours on the dig, and the inventory of the day’s activities late in the afternoon back at the hostel. Scores of students plead for the chance to experience Jordan; participation depends on their grades at university. At the dig, teachers and students divide into groups. Alongside straightforward excavation, there are many more jobs to be done: cleaning, conservation, drawing, photographing and digitally recording all the portable finds, as well as temporarily conserving and protecting architectural finds in accordance with the rules and regulations of Jordan’s archaeological authority. In 2002, the first year the Greek team began excavating on the site, superficial research uncovered a great variety of finds showing that Tell al-Kafrain had been inhabited continuously from the Early Bronze Age through the Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantine and Islamic eras, with the most activity evident in the late Bronze Age and the local Iron Age. All the evidence indicates that there was a monumental building complex at the summit of the hill. Of great interest is a low, rectangular, graduated structure of hewn stones, possibly the altar of a temple, found near the center of the complex. Firmer conclusions cannot be drawn until the complex is completely uncovered. On the Wednesday before Easter, the Greeks left, some of them wearing typical Bedouin scarves. Their year’s project was finished, and the store owners bid them an emotional farewell. After eight years, isn’t it time to talk seriously about a permanent Greek archaeological mission in Jordan? In such a friendly environment, Greece’s absence stands out when most European Union countries maintain permanent missions there.