By Pearce Paul Creasman and Jacqueline Salzinger
In January 2020, twelve months ago, few could have guessed what the year ahead held in store. The pandemic has altered the very nature of what it means to connect with one other, and for an organization focused on learning about and engaging people, 2020 has been a challenging, often frustrating, year. For the first time in ages, our hostel was virtually empty over the summer, the library was closed for extended periods, and no public events have been held at ACOR itself for ten months (and counting). Yet, because of our remarkable staff and their ability to improvise and adapt, we have continued to bring people together—digitally—in order to pursue knowledge and share it with the world.
Indeed, it has been a banner year for sharing information about Jordan’s past and present. We published Petra: The North Ridge, Archaeology in Jordan 2, The Story of SCHEP, thousands of images on our online photo archive, and dozens of new Insights articles and photo essays, in addition to scholarly lectures recorded and posted on YouTube. Virtually all of this content is freely available online, from anywhere in the world. A webpage overhaul of acorjordan.org, in both form and content, has seen new and expanded summaries posted for thirty extant and historical ACOR projects and initiatives, many going online for the very first time. The wheels are turning on other publication projects, too; we expect to see in print the Madaba Burnt Palace excavation report in 2021, the Petra Roman Street excavation report in 2022, and, also sometime in the near future, the final report for the Temple of the Winged Lions initiative.
This year has testified to the importance of organizations such as ACOR, as we have helped connect people while bringing the stories of numerous people and eras to life online. For many projects, ACOR has been the lifeline keeping them linked to their colleagues and sites here in Jordan. With our support, all of our fellows have been able to see their research through, adjust their plans to work remotely, or delay their work until a later time. We are grateful for the perseverance of ACOR-affiliated projects, fellows, and researchers and for the diligence and care of our staff.
In sum, we have kept our focus on what can be done and on moving forward (as “The American Center of Research”), yet, as the year draws to close, there is much to celebrate from 2020, so we pause to look back at just some of what we have accomplished together….
By January, a busy winter schedule of events had already enveloped ACOR. Chief among these was a gathering that we can now view as a sign of wholly different times: the ACOR-CAORC Faculty Development Seminar. Twelve North American educators traveled to Jordan for two weeks of in-person discussion and extensive domestic travel. Touring heritage sites in Jordan, meeting with social, religious, business, and urban-planning leaders, and generally trading ideas with one another provided long-lasting fuel for the participants’ professional development. Since then, keeping in touch with them throughout 2020 has been a source of joy for us.
Several scholars wintered in residence, too, undertaking research, including NEH postdoctoral fellow Dr. Christine Sargent, working on her book about Down syndrome in Jordan, and CAORC postdoctoral fellow Dr. Konstantinos “Dino” D. Politis, who advanced a publication on the site of Khirbet Qazone. We were grateful to have had the opportunity to connect with friends, new and old. The close of February also saw a momentous occasion, the transition of the directorship. On February 29th, prior director, and now ACOR Ambassador, Dr. Barbara A. Porter, formally passed duties on to Dr. Pearce Paul Creasman.
As winter edged into spring, the pandemic fell upon Jordan. Seemingly overnight, Jordan instituted one of the world’s most aggressive curfews, forestalling the outbreak—and, along with it, the well-laid plans of fellows, field projects, lectures, and ACOR’s own celebrations.
Our last in-person lecture, by Dino Politis, occurred on March 10th, and our last visiting academic group, a political science and women’s studies workshop organized by the Baker Institute, wrapped up their final meeting before making timely return trips, which would have been impossible just days later. Luckily, Dr. Porter and Dr. Creasman were able to undertake essential visits to ACOR’s key partners across the country before the true dawn of the outbreak. These outings included an unforgettable tour of Petra that Dr. Porter led for Their Majesties King Harald V and Queen Sonja of Norway (for more about this, see newsletter 32.1).
On March 17th, Jordan entered a nationwide lockdown. For months these measures included a legal prohibition against leaving the house for anything other than essentials or emergencies. Our center, and all of Amman, fell silent. Such conditions would endure through mid-May. The first weeks, and indeed first three months, were not easy, but the staff, scholars, and residents of ACOR made the best of it. We are proud to relay that, with support from ACOR’s officers and board of trustees, all staff have remained fully employed throughout the pandemic. Moreover, with grants from various COVID-19 relief programs, we were actually able to increase our staff at the height of the pandemic, helping to mitigate (in a modest way) the impact of the pandemic for several families in the U.S. and Jordan.
Looking forward even amid a challenging present, the board’s fellowships committee met remotely this spring and awarded ACOR’s 1,000th fellowship(!) to a member of the 2020–2021 cohort. During this time, when academic systems and research funding around the world are experiencing great stresses, we remain committed to providing critical financial support for students and scholars.
By June, the daily COVID-19 caseload in Jordan had dwindled, and it hovered around single digits until October. It was a remarkable achievement in a country of some ten million, and such progress allowed ACOR to reopen its doors. While Jordan’s international borders remained closed until September, staff and locally based fellows were eager to return to the center and continue use of our library, laboratories, and other physical resources.
The reprieve from curfew meant that our U.S. Department of Education-funded photo digitization project could return to working hands-on with negatives, slides, and prints in the archive. In the weeks before the grant was scheduled to end, we achieved our four-year target of 30,000 images published online. (You can learn more about how the team had adapted to remote working conditions via the YouTube presentation at right/below.)
This summer we were also able to expand our library and archival expertise to new opportunities. With a pilot project, we established the SCHEP Photo Archive, through which we are publishing thousands of images of Jordanian heritage sites as documented from 2014 to 2018 as part of ACOR’s USAID-funded Sustainable Cultural Heritage Through Engagement of Local Communities Project. In June, we hosted our first virtual Wikipedia edit-a-thon, which ran 24 hours across two hemispheres and led to the addition of over 30,000 words about Jordanian cultural heritage on this open-access resource. These efforts, and other like them, reinforce our mutual engagement with Jordanian history and culture, regardless of whether we can share knowledge in person or not.
By August, with the start of fall university terms, we were ready to return to hosting public lectures, albeit in an alternative format. Our first online lecture, attended in real time by more than 125 people (and viewed by hundreds more on YouTube since), took place on August 26th. ACOR trustee Dr. Betty Anderson of Boston University spoke on “The Making of Amman: Stories, Tours, and Traffic Jams.” Our next lecture followed in September, with Jehad Haron, SCHEP deputy chief of party, discussing the SCHEP-led collaborative project at Bayt Ras in “Heritage vs. Development: The Bayt Ras Tomb Project 2017–2019.” Both of these talks, along with dozens more, are freely available on our YouTube channel.
Perhaps the biggest ACOR news of the summer was publication of Petra: The North Ridge by P. M. Bikai, M. A. Perry, and C. Kanellopoulos, with nineteen other expert contributors. This long-awaited volume on one of ACOR’s most important field projects would make an excellent gift for the Petra fan in your life—perhaps a worthy holiday present? (Whether for yourself or someone else, you can order it on Amazon.)
With COVID-19 cases in Jordan still low in late summer and early fall, SCHEP resumed in-person iterations of its capacity-building training programs, supporting local communities with economic development and skill-building during the economic downturn. Some trainings, such as “English for Tourism” for institutional partners in Petra (conducted in partnership with AMIDEAST), furthered our pre-pandemic goals for 2020. Other trainings had to be newly devised to address unique issues of the COVID-19 era, such as a workplace protection training through the Talal Abu Ghazaleh Academy in Busayra. Many such activities have been held, and others are planned for the new year. All can be followed on SCHEP’s Facebook page.
We were pleased to catch up with current research and discoveries of our colleagues and fellows as major annual fall conferences went online. This November, the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) included, for the first time, an ACOR-sponsored panel filled with talented ACOR fellows reporting advances in their fields. Similarly, dozens of ACOR-supported or -affiliated projects and individuals presented at the online annual meeting of the American Schools of Oriental Research, including several ACOR staff. Our archivist, Jessica Holland, represented ACOR at the Middle East Librarians Association annual meeting, also online, for the first time. Her meeting alone covered a wide geographic breadth—with participants spanning thirteen time zones! With so much material and so many events going online, collaboration and dissemination of knowledge was as strong this year as any in memory. We are grateful to all who have been involved with adapting such vital exchange opportunities for our new, hyper-digital world.
Thankfully, some scholars have been able to find their way to ACOR in the fall. Predoctoral CAORC fellow Morgen Chalmiers is now in residence, undertaking her project on reproductive subjectivities and the humanitarian healthcare sector. Among our library users—admitted by appointment only—is former fellow Dr. Micaela Sinibaldi. None has been more stalwart at our center than Dr. Robert Schick, who found himself resident in March when lockdown began and remains here in December. Although nowhere near our usual hum of activity, we are busily adapting as many of our research resources for online access as we can.
Still, we are engaging in the field wherever we can do so responsibly. In November, we helped prepare the Petra Church baptistery for the winter rains and, having been awarded our first grant from the National Geographic Society, we will soon conduct site monitoring in the Wadi Rum World Heritage area by drones. In December, at Khirbet Salameh, the ruins just outside of our center in Amman, we undertook needed stabilization and preservation measures, in preparation for more extensive works at the site in the spring of next year.
All through this period of intensive digitization and remote meetings, we look forward with eager anticipation to the day when lecture attendees, book readers, and traveling field researchers fill the center yet again. With the pandemic and the December start of our USAID-funded renovations of virtually every room at ACOR, such a day lies many months away. As we have through the pandemic, we will remain open and active throughout the renovations. We look forward to hosting as many of you as possible in fall 2021 in our renovated building for a (hopefully!) post-COVID celebration and acknowledgement of everyone who has made these times fruitful in their own way, another robust chapter of our shared history.
Your support is critical. ACOR remains a community of researchers dedicated to expanding knowledge, engaging new learners, and forging sustainable, long-lasting practices of international exchange. Our mission remains critical in these times, but the pandemic has stretched our resources and impaired our ability to undertake all the activities you have just read about (and more). With your support, ACOR’s future remains bright, but we need your help in order to pursue our mission.
Please consider making a donation to our Annual Fund. As we adapt our programming for an online world, and until such a time as a vaccine is widely available and international travel and fieldwork return to Jordan, our empty hostel and restrictions on in-person meetings make for a difficult financial balance. We need your help. Your support will help us sustain our activities and prepare for the future.
ACOR is deeply grateful for any contribution you make. Please consider donating by mail to our U.S. office in Virginia or online at acorjordan.org/donate.