King of the Hill: The Citadel's New Visitors' Center

الأربعاء 09 أيلول 2009

Plans for the Visitors' Center

The construction of a new visitors’ center on an archaeological area of the Amman Citadel has outraged some experts — yet others think it’s a good idea. So what’s going on?

Written by Nick Seeley. Read parts 1 and 2. Content by JO Magazine.

THE CONTROVERSIAL JD1.1 million revitalization of the Amman Citadel has left Jordan’s community of architects, archaeologists and conservators divided over how best to strike a balance between protecting the site and improving the experience for tourists. Some fear the new construction has done damage — perhaps irreversible — to Jordan’s archaeological heritage. Others say the renovations are harmless, and indeed a necessary step toward making the Citadel reflect Jordan’s status as a modern nation.

“I’ve seen these plans and all these projects from the beginning, and I think they’re doing a great job,” said Mohammad Najjar, a former secretary general of the Department of Antiquities. “There were never services for people at the Citadel [before].”

“There’s absolutely no way that they won’t harm [the site],” said archaeologist Kharieh Amr. “You need infrastructure, you need sewage and all that stuff. Where’s it going to go? I don’t know. I’ve asked, and nobody has answered me.”

Since construction began in early 2009, arguments and rumors have swirled about the fate of the Citadel. In July and August, JO conducted more than a dozen in-depth interviews with officials, archaeologists and conservators, to try to piece together the real story.

Virtually everyone interviewed agreed that the Citadel site was in sore need of an upgrade, both to improve the experience for tourists and to protect the monuments that are already exposed. The question has been how to accomplish that. The project that was eventually built has been unfavorably critiqued by citizens and architects for its aesthetics — particularly the large barrier wall that’s been built on the north edge of the lower terrace.

But considerations of aesthetic appropriateness aside for the moment, there have been other serious issues raised by critics of the new construction: principally that it is being built on land that is part of the archaeological site itself. Experts appear divided about whether that will actually do damage to the site.

The Greater Amman Municipality, the Department of Antiquities, and the USAID Jordan tourism development project, Siyaha, have all said that the current construction is the result of a long and inclusive process of consultation, and one that arrived at the best solution given the time available.

THE LOWER TERRACE OF the Citadel is the flat, previously empty area extending eastward from the main portion of the site, or upper terrace, where the reconstructed Roman temple and Umayyad palace are. Today, the lower terrace is alive with construction: a visitors’ center is being built in the northwest corner; to the east of that will be a parking lot for tour buses; and at the far end, the ground is being prepared for an events plaza where, officials said, weddings and parties could be held without endangering the large monuments on the upper terrace.

But the lower terrace is also an area with great potential, explained Joseph Greene, assistant director of the Semitic Museum at Harvard University and an archaeologist who worked in Jordan in the 1980s, when he did excavations on the lower terrace and was instrumental in developing the country’s first conservation resource management project.

In Greene’s assessment, what’s interesting about the lower terrace is actually its lack of impressive monuments. Romans, in particular, tended to destroy whatever was already existing on a site in order to build their fortresses and temples on bedrock — but at the Citadel, Roman monuments are concentrated on the upper terrace. The lower terrace is mostly undisturbed, and Greene, as well as several other archaeologists interviewed, said excavations there would provide a window into earlier periods of the city’s occupation, like Hellenistic or Biblical times.

In 1987, Greene and archaeologists from Jordan’s Antiquities Department discovered what appeared to be a Byzantine church with unusual mosaic floors in the northwest corner of the lower terrace, very near where the new visitors’ center is being built.
That project was an emergency excavation, performed because the Ministry of Education was planning to build a school for the local community on the site. Construction of the structure was stopped after an Antiquities Department employee saw the ends of mosaic tesserae in the first trench dug by the contractor.

Critics have claimed that the visitors’ center was being built “on top of” known archaeological relics — in particular, that Byzantine church. Department of Antiquities Director General HE Fawwaz Khraysheh denied this strongly, calling the allegations “misleading.”

The church has been reburied, and is not visible, but Shan Tsay, the engineer in charge of overseeing the site, and a 15-year veteran of the department, showed JO its location both on drafted plans of the area and at the site itself. The church, she said, rests underneath a small untouched area between the new visitors’ center and the bus parking lot, and the new constructions were planned around it. The visitors’ center itself is being built on roughly the same spot where the Department of Antiquities had previously had its temporary offices, and thus an area that was already disturbed.

It’s clear, however, that construction and archeology are in constant, close proximity — and the area has not been completely explored, by anyone’s account. Some limited test excavations were performed at the planned location of the visitors’ center, Tsay said, but the entire site was not surveyed.

Still, she added, Antiquities Department officials are on-site every day, and are supervising every aspect of construction to ensure that, if any new structures are found, they are not harmed.

If the building process uncovers any kind of historical remains, Tsay said, the Antiquities Department team will stop the work in order to document and record the find, and will call in senior department officials and archaeologists for advice on how to proceed.

This has already happened once, when a set of Byzantine foundations was discovered in the path of the wall that surrounds the site. In April, pictures of those foundations were widely circulated in e-mails, prompting outrage at the idea that the exterior wall of the site had been constructed on top of them.

In fact, sections of the new wall were actually removed to leave the old foundations uncovered. Tsay showed JO the foundations, which had been documented by the team, and then covered — somewhat haphazardly — with polyvinyl film and a layer of sand to protect them from damage.

Descriptions of those foundations will be published in the future, Tsay said. When the center is completed, Khraysheh added, the ancient foundations will be exposed again, for visitors to the site to appreciate and learn from.

OFFICIALS FROM GAM, SIYAHA and the Antiquities Department all said that the new visitors’ center is built on “floating” foundations that do not penetrate more than 50cm into the ground. In the long term, they added, the entire structure is meant to be removable.

But that hasn’t stopped it from being controversial. Archaeologists JO spoke to were divided on the efficacy of these measures, and some simply didn’t believe they would make a difference.

“I’ve worked with engineering projects before. There’s absolutely no way that they won’t harm [the site],” said Kharieh Amr, an archaeologist who spent many years at the Department of Antiquities, and worked on the excavation of the Byzantine church in 1987.

Several archaeologists and conservators agreed with her. One of them is Ignacio Arce, director of the Spanish Archaeological Mission in Jordan and an expert in conservation. Arce directed the excavation and restoration of the Umayyad palace at the Citadel from 1995 to 2001, a project funded by the Spanish Agency for International Cooperation. While the Department of Antiquities says there is 75 centimeters of modern soil protecting the antiquities, Arce, Amr and Greene all said that the topsoil layer is uneven, and in many places much shallower than 75 centimeters. Some remains, like the foundations discovered during construction, appear to be only a few centimeters from the surface. The visitors’ center will have to have sewage pipes and infrastructure, Arce and Amr explained, which will impact whatever is below it; they believe the area needed to be totally explored before going ahead with such a project.

“There were important structures there [under the lower terrace], including Hellenistic structures, which is rare,” Amr said. “We don’t know much about them because there hasn’t been enough excavation. … I think had they been exposed and conserved properly, and been shown the public, it would have made a very important addition to the visitors’ experience of the citadel.”
Now, she thinks this will be “almost impossible” because of the presence of the visitors’ center.

But there are also many archaeologists, including some intimately familiar with the plans, who disagree. Mohammad Najjar, who has been consulted and asked out to the site many times by the Antiquities Department, said he thought the project would work exactly as described.

“There are a lot of activities now, but because they don’t go deep, [and] have floating foundations, the archaeological ruins underneath will be preserved anyway. … And the Citadel is big; I don’t know how many years it will take to excavate.”

Around the country, the Antiquities Department is currently focusing on preserving the sites that are already exposed, and said it was unlikely the budget would be available for major new excavations any time soon.

“I think they’re doing great job there, but I think people are scared, because people will come and see construction,” Najjar added.

“Certainly everything that they’re trying to do is reversible, so it’s not as if they’ve damaged the site,” said Barbara Porter, director of the American Center for Oriental Research in Amman. “A hundred years from now, they can take that [visitorsí center] down and keep going [with excavation] if they want to.”

Others, including former Antiquities Department director Ghazi Bisheh, also agreed.

Greene was cautious, not having been to see the project in person.

“One can accept that, yes, care is being taken. But the devil is in the details,” he said.

“Archaeological sites, despite people’s worry about them, are fairly robust: I mean, they’ve been around for thousands of years,” he added. “At some point, some research archaeologist will get interested [in the lower terrace]. … Maybe in 10 or 20 or 30 years’ time, if it really is reversible, and it really is possible to get some archaeological work going on that lower terrace, then it will be reversed. … It would give the people at the visitors’ center something to watch.”

DISSATISFACTION WITH THE appearance and impact of the final structure has run high, and led many to criticize how the project was planned and undertaken. Some have said that a visitorsí center could have been incorporated into the existing museum. Others have argued that a much simpler structure could have been built.

“I think it would have been better if they did something that is a non-permanent structure: some wood, some tents,” said Ayman Zuaiter, one of a group of architects who was asked by the municipality to assess the visitors’ center in response to the controversy. “Why pour concrete and stone and then get bulldozers to remove it?”

Others suggested that a longer-term plan, which also involved the areas around the site, could have produced better results. Still others have questioned the involvement of foreign organizations like Siyaha.

“I personally prefer to work with local institutions, regardless of their problems,” said Rami Daher, an architect and expert on heritage conservation and urban regeneration.

“The [Citadel] program was initiated by Siyaha, which is a USAID-funded project, and what Siyaha did is, very quickly, they came up with a solution — of course with cooperation with the municipality, and of course with the Ministry of Tourism, and with the Department of Antiquities. But if we’re saying that the local institutions don’t have the proper experience regarding intervention in such a sensitive site, we are seeing a major funding agency committing much worse mistakes than what the locals are doing. USAID should have known better, and a much more in-depth study should have been conducted.”

“There are hundreds of examples of visitors’ centers all over the world that are inserted gently into archaeological sites, from Stonehenge in the United Kingdom to Jamestown in the United States,” he added.

Critics have variously charged that the planning was undertaken too quickly, that it didn’t include enough input from archaeologists or conservators, and that the final project was a results-oriented “quick fix,” rather than something that would improve the quality of the site in the long term.

“What we see, after all of this effort, is this intervention that has a lot of arguments on it,” said conservation architect Leen Fakhoury, who was also involved in the early planning process. “The debate was not developed enough, and not mature enough, and it led to an intervention that everybody thinks was the wrong intervention. Further research and consensus should have been sought.”

But the planners themselves said the need to work on the site was urgent, that a large cross-section of experts were consulted, and that they believe the solutions, while temporary, were the best options given the limited time and resources.

Renovation of the site has been under discussion for years, Khraysheh said — particularly since reconstruction of the Umayyad palace was completed in 2001. USAID was eager to support further work on the site, and had sponsored at least three different proposed plans to improve visitor amenities.

After searching for the best way to refurbish the site’s facilities, the Antiquities Department decided in 2007 that it could carry out the project with help from Siyaha and GAM. In the end, Khraysheh said, the department needed two conditions to go ahead: the first was a scientific committee made up of people knowledgeable about the site. The second was a comprehensive management plan that would detail what the objectives were for the site over time.

Though construction has now started, the management plan is still not available to the public — something else that opponents of the project have criticized. Khraysheh said the plan had yet to be finalized: specifically, there were decisions still pending about how revenues from the site would be handled, and who would manage the new visitors’ services. One thing that was not in doubt, he said, was the Antiquities Department’s role as the ultimate authority on the site.

When the management plan was proposed, reactions were supportive.

“It was a very much needed document that implies not only conservation plans but also management, urban planning, accessibility [and] mobility,” Arce said. Because of his work on the Umayyad palace, the conservator was asked to be a member of the scientific committee, which first convened in the summer of 2007.

That fall, USAID-Siyaha paid for a conservation architect and environmental planner, Lori Anglin, to come to Jordan to facilitate the process of creating the plan.

“The reason that one puts these kinds of plans together is to ensure that you safeguard the historical resources and you plan in an appropriate manner for reconciling the demands of [the] visitor on-site versus the scholarly research and archaeological potential — because the two don’t always have a happy marriage,” Anglin said.

From there, things get complicated — essentially because Anglin describes the scientific committee’s mandate as limited to reporting on the issues that would need to be addressed in the plan, and providing updates on them, while some members of the committee, like Arce and Fakhoury, felt the committee had a broader mandate, and should have been consulted throughout the planning process.

“The moment that the Department of Antiquities requested or endorsed the issue that there was a committee, I believe that that committee had a role in understanding the final result,” said Fakhoury.

The management plan was put together through a process of many meetings and focus groups, including a large conference at the Dead Sea in December 2007 involving 60 to 70 participants, including Antiquities Department staff, tourism experts and guides, as well as representatives from a number of different fields. In the end, the scientific committee’s role was limited.

After a draft management plan was completed, Mayor HE Omar Maani and Minister of Tourism HE Maha Al Khatib visited the site and gave input on how to set priorities. One element discussed was the location of the visitors’ center, which Anglin said had not been on the initial list of short-term priorities. However, after the visit, the decision was made to remove the old, temporary Antiquities Department offices from the site immediately, and to create a new visitors’ center as part of the work to rejuvenate that area.

Work on the site commenced directly afterward, Anglin said.

“The initiative that the municipality took on its shoulders was done in complete alignment with, first of all, the requirements of the Department of Antiquities,” Maani told JO in July. “We had to take a lot of care in doing everything, in the beginning — from the design, and then the implementation, and the supervision of the whole thing with the Ministry of Tourism.”

But some experts, particularly conservators, believe this process was too hasty.

“Preservation in general is not a result that once you have finished, khalas, it’s done,” Arce said. “It’s a non-ending process, and … sometimes this is incompatible with the time scales of decision makers, politicians and some agencies. They want to spend a lot of money and have results in six months.”

“[Siyaha was] interested in … quick results, and quick impact,” Fakhoury said. “So the emphases were more on tourism, and maybe on the archaeological understanding and interpretation, but not on the conservation. And that gap has led us to the type of project that has been built … a project with too many interventions.”

In other words: too many things were built on the site. Arce and Fakhoury both said they had urged consideration of a much bigger, more long-term, holistic solution to the site’s problems — one they say would have kept construction off the archaeological areas by integrating the Citadel renovations with community rehabilitation projects in the surrounding neighborhoods.

In particular, they had suggested the expropriation of a group of semi-abandoned houses on the Citadel’s southern slope, and their re-use as visitors’ facilities. Fakhoury even had some of her architecture students at the University of Jordan work on a project that explored a possible solution, based on the southern slope.

Other participants in the planning process said the southern slope idea was discussed further, but it proved impractical due to the cost and time involved, as well as the steep grade of the southern slope, which made it inaccessibile to vehicles, and the bad reputation the neighborhood had developed for crime and unsavory activities.

Anglin herself said she had also encouraged the idea of rehabilitating the southern slope, but that there were time factors involved — and in the short term, neither the Antiquities Department nor the tourist police were willing to move their offices there.

“I was disappointed, because it was an opportunity to actually clear the [archaeological] site of the temporary facilities,” she said. “But there was a timeline. If we were also going to have the Greater Amman Municipality as a key partner in short-term implementation, then things had to move. It wasn’t that we were going to wait for another year, or perhaps a neighborhood revitalization program in order to change.”

(In late July, the municipality announced at a meeting with representatives from the Jabal Qalaa community that it was going to work with them on a plan for removing the semi-abandoned houses and revitalizing the area, local officials said.)

With the need for new facilities at the Citadel well-established, it’s perhaps unsurprising that a shorter-term solution was chosen over a long-term one, but the end result was a decision that spurred substantial controversy.

As it stands, construction of the new visitors’ center is well underway, and the plans won’t change now — authorities said the construction should be finished by the end of the year, and they hope that once the new facilities are functional, people will begin to see the benefits.

IN THE END, THE furor over the Citadel represents more than just an argument about the depth of topsoil or the location of sewage pipes, or a debate among scholars.

When people talk about archaeological or ‘heritage’ sites, they generally recognize three very different kinds of value that such sites provide. The first is the knowledge value they can provide to archaeologists, historians and other scholars. The second is their touristic value: the enjoyment they provide to visitors and the economic benefits that come from encouraging those visits. The third is their value as local heritage, as a source of pride and identity to the communities around them.

There has always been tension between these values, experts say — which is what conservation and resource management is all about. To be sure, tourists can destroy a site by visiting it, but the income from tourism can also preserve and maintain a site if properly used. And local communities can both protect sites and destroy them. Excavation also damages a site, and even as it reveals new information, it compromises the physical record of history and reduces a site’s knowledge value for future generations.

“We know that any kind of work, in any archaeological site, is a kind of destruction,” said Khraysheh. “Even the excavations, they are destruction of sites, because they are harming the archeology in one way or another. But you have to take into consideration … how much more is the benefit for the site? Is it more than the negative points, or not?”

Can some knowledge value be sacrificed in order to present a site better? Can a local community be excluded from a site in order to protect these monuments? As Greene pointed out, questions about the relationship between conservation and tourism are always going to be value judgments.

“That’s the dilemma that agencies like the Department of Antiquities and Ministry of Tourism face when they’re charged with maintaining sites, protecting sites, and presenting them to a public that is curious about them,” he said.

“Ultimately these are political decisions, and archaeologists cannot dictate based on a narrow set of criteria about what’s best for archeology. But the archaeologists do at least have to have a place at the table to make their case. And then somebody who has to make a political decision needs to make a political decision. But too often in the past, these decisions were simply made by planners or developers or people without any deep knowledge of what the implications of the decisions they were making were going to be for the cultural resources.”

“Every diminution of that body of data means we know a little bit less about the past,” Greene concluded. “Again, this is a value judgment based on my archaeological background; and the value judgment for the need for a visitors’ center, so as to make the Amman Citadel more amenable to visitation by tourists, is another value judgment.

“Somehow, one would hope that a compromise could be made, so that we have the best of all possible worlds. It may not be possible.”

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