This summer I traveled to Jordan and Egypt to conduct exploratory research for my thesis. As a first year PhD student in Anthropology this was an early opportunity for me to get out into the field and begin investigating the questions that have been fermenting in my mind over the past few years. Questions surrounding community-engagement practices at sites of cultural heritage development, the positionality of cultural heritage and development practitioners in relation to local communities, and the relationship between local communities and cultural heritage sites are of particular interest to me.
I decided to carry out my research in Jordan and Egypt, with an eye on choosing one of these countries as the final research destination for my thesis. Both countries have a long history of investment from development agencies into areas such as agriculture, infrastructure, but most importantly to this research – cultural heritage. Tourism and cultural heritage development often go hand in hand, one demanding the other. Jordan and Egypt’s tourist industries have both been affected in recent years by ongoing instability in the region. Jordan has been directly affected by the Syrian Civil War, receiving an influx of Syrian refugees since 2011. Tourists have stayed away from the country due to its seeming proximity to the Civil War. Jordan is, however, often pointed out as the most stable country in the region.
Since the Arab Spring in 2011, tourists have all but deserted the Nile Valley in Egypt. Threats from Islamist groups such as Ansar Beyt al-Maqdis, who have carried out a number of attacks across Egypt against military, civilian, and tourist sites, have discouraged many Westerners from visiting the country. Most of the famous cultural heritage sites which were heavily marketed and developed under the Mubarak regime, are not receiving the same level of investment from development agencies.
Despite this instability, archaeologists and cultural heritage practitioners have begun tackling issues such as the suppression of local communities as fundamental stakeholders in their cultural heritage, which was a mainstay of cultural heritage practice for a period, through the establishment of models of ‘community engagement.’ Development agencies, major sources of financial support for cultural heritage projects, now recognize the necessity for inclusion of local community voices into interpretive processes and site management practices. An example of this kind of work is exemplified by the USAID funded Sustainable Cultural Heritage Through Engagement of Local Communities Project (SCHEP). Whilst in Jordan I had meetings with members of the team that run SCHEP to better understand how local community voices are being incorporated into sites of cultural heritage development. In Egypt, given the dearth of Western tourists now visiting the country, and the increase in cultural heritage destruction in the country, money is now being put towards urban and heritage preservation. Civil society organizations such as Athar Lina (the monument is ours) have emerged in recent years focusing on community engagement with cultural heritage. I am excited to have made contact with these organizations and hope to explore the potential that they can have on reshaping the heritage development agenda in both Jordan and Egypt.
The most positive thing to come out of my research this summer was the establishment of relationships between myself and some key stakeholders in both countries. Relationships with professionals and local communities in both Jordan and Egypt are going to be central to my research agenda. It is my intention for this research to be iterative, taking substantial direction from local communities, with the goal of capturing their perspectives, agendas, and aspirations with relation to their heritage and the advancement of heritage development projects in their locale.
I would like to thank the donors of the Student Field Research Grant at the Penn Museum. Without their continued support I would not have been able to travel to Jordan and Egypt this summer. Their support is much appreciated.
Robert James Vigar is a graduate student in the Department of Anthropology.