Smithsonian Journeys Dispatches

A Q&A with Expert Rebecca Foote

Q: Rebecca, your archaeological work has brought you back to Jordan for the past twenty years. What are some of the things that continue to inspire or excite you about Jordan?


A: Jordan is a country with lots of open countryside. The highlands are green and brimming with wildflowers in the spring, and the large stands of poppies are particularly uplifting. The steppe and desert landscape is usually so stark and seemingly the same, but in hollows where winter rain collects, it is transformed by spring vegetation. Seeing the tiny flowers, insects, and other minute signs of life there always fascinates me. 

Q: Our tour to Jordan will provide a variety of experiences that draw upon the country’s rich history and heritage as well as its contemporary issues and challenges. Which traditions remain strongest in the way that people live their lives there today? 

A: The traditions that I see as strongest and most enduring are human warmth and generosity expressed through the rituals of reception. There is a deep commitment to extend hospitality and kindness to guests. Some would say this springs from a heritage of mixed pastoralism and settled farming, which created a societal mandate to accommodate the mobile elements. Today, with respect to foreigners, it seems as much to come from a genuine curiosity and tolerance for difference. Differences—whether political, economic, or religious—are overcome on the interpersonal level through the traditions of reception. 

Q: How does Jordan’s culture differ from that of its Middle Eastern neighbors? 


A: Compared to Egypt or Syria, where I’ve also lived for extended periods, there is less abject poverty in Jordan, mostly because the population is lower. The private sector also did not suffer like many other Arab countries which engaged in communism and socialism in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s. And many more of the elite of Jordan were educated in the U.S.

Q: Petra is sure to be a highlight for many. What insights can you provide to first-time visitors to enhance their experience of this ancient city?


A: I’d like our travelers’ insights to come by reflecting on several questions during their visit to Petra. Petra apparently began as a locus for burial, ritual, and celebration. Think about how and why such a place would become a cultic center (e.g. physical features, level of accessibility, relationship to routes of travel, or centers of population). The site receives about 6 inches of annual rainfall. Notice the presence of springs and the natural landscape features that augmented and enhanced the limited precipitation. As Petra became an increasingly settled community, featuring much more than stunning rock-cut tombs, think about how water was managed, both functionally (i.e. provision for drinking) and visually, and why? 

Q: Some of your current research involves examining past indicators for water management in the steppes and semi-arid regions. How can solutions by earlier civilizations be applied to similar challenges today?

A: The focus of my recent research has been on how surface run-off in natural water drainage catchments was historically optimized in areas with very limited rainfall (2-8 inches per year) to enable agriculture. I hope that by working with an NGO to revive and implement the historic water harvesting practices, it will enable self-sustaining agriculture in the villages of Jordan’s arid zone. At present, most efforts to cultivate rely on the trucking in of external water supplies or the pumping of limited ground waters at a higher rate than their recharge.

Q: What would you like Smithsonian travelers to take away from Jordan at the conclusion of this special journey?

A: I hope that Smithsonian travelers leave Jordan with rich multi-sensory memories of the people, the monuments, and the landscapes. I hope I am able to provide insights into the complexity of the culture—past and present—and the challenges and the achievements, leaving participants with an enthusiasm to return to the region.