National Heritage Museum : A walk through Jordan’s cultural past

The National Heritage Museum is run by and belongs to the University of Jordan’s School of Archaeology and Tourism. (Photos: Yousef Mohammad/ Mohammad Al-Tarazi)
Located in the country’s oldest and largest university, visitors to the National Heritage Museum can immerse themselves in the rich history, distinctive traditions, and intriguing cultural relics of Jordan. اضافة اعلان

This miniscule museum, located on the University of Jordan (UJ) premises, displays, as its name suggests, Jordan’s valuable heritage: traditional national attire, simple tools, and fabrics specific to its classical communities. 

The museum, which is run by and belongs to the UJ School of Archaeology and Tourism, was established in 1986. It was created to document and preserve Jordan’s cultural heritage faced with international influences, especially Western, brought about by the process of urbanization, which started to have an increasingly visible impact on the country starting with the 1960s. Furthermore, it aimed to be an educational tool, for students at the Faculty of Archaeology and Tourism, and to create a workspace suitable for them to complete assignments, projects, and training.

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The museum highlights the three main components of Jordan’s culture: bedouin, rural, and urban. What stands out most is the exhibit’s attention to the details of bedouin culture. As you take the first step into the museum, you are presented with a variety of life-size objects that represent Jordan’s  bedouin life: tents, mannequins wearing typical bedouin attire, and primitive yet interesting utensils and instruments.

As I was ushered in by the extremely welcoming and knowledgeable museum curator, Tariq Al-Mhairat, I found myself embarking on an immensely inspiring and thrilling journey of both nostalgia and discovery.

The main tent, named “beit Ash-Sha’ar”, is made of goat hair; it would be typically used to house bedouins, protecting them from both the heat and cold weather. Tents usually have two sections, the largest being the seating area for men, formally called “shig”, and the smaller for women, named “haramm”. The shig is where gatherings are held when visitors and other bedouin families are invited to discuss tribal affairs and possible instances of war. However, it is also an area for “sahar” or “samar”, the Arabic words for staying up late during a night of socialization and fun.
A walk through our cultural past is a truly worthy endeavor; embarking on a journey of Jordan’s heritage is immensely fulfilling.
Coffee drinking is a great tradition, with bedouins having several rituals and customs surrounding it. For instance, different cups of coffee — based on the order they are served in — have different names associated with what they represent to the host who serves it and the guest who accepts it. Bedouins clearly enjoy the process of drinking coffee, but also view it as socially meaningful.

The first cup is called “heif”. Rather than being presented to the guest first, as one would imagine, it is consumed by the host himself, to prove that the coffee has not been tampered with and for the host to verify its quality. After the guest is assured that the coffee is exactly as it is supposed to be, he is served the second cup, called “deif”, which translates to “guest”.

The third cup, called “keif”, is served after the guest enjoys the second cup and wants more. The last cup, “seif”, is consumed with the understanding that the guest is now obliged to protect the host family under any circumstance. This is an example of a mere object representing something much larger than its simple physical function.

The nationally loved dish, “mansaf”, has always been a part of Jordanian culture and has been, naturally, consumed by bedouins. However, mansaf was not historically made with rice, as is customary today, but with “burghul”, which is crushed wheat.

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Past the bedouin tents, the next exhibit showcases the unique traditional Jordanian attire, specifically “thobes”, or female dresses. They were hand made with different designs and cuts, representing the diverse tribes and regions in Jordan: the “thobe” of the northern region (shamal), of Maan, Karak, Shobak, Balqa, Bani Sakhir, and others.

In the rural section of the museum, the agricultural tools presented resemble modern day instruments. They include simple tools like the grain separator, the “mithra”, a wooden tool used for throwing grain in the air to separate it from straw. Also represented are different animals that helped in the entire process, and items such as a “saj” to make the famous “taboon” and “shraak” bread.

One of the final sections of the museum moves beyond the traditional tents to “albayt al-reefy”, which despite looking like they were built out of bricks, were simply made of mud and “gash” (straw). These houses ensure that their inhabitants are kept cool in the summers and warm in the winters. They also house different upgraded tools, such as a “gwara” for grinding wheat and “khabieh” for storing it.

Finally, there are miniature models of houses portraying classic urban life in Jordan; some contain one of the earliest types of radios. As only a small number of people had access to radios, the entire neighborhood would head over to the radio owner’s house to stay updated on news and listen to music.

The entire experience at the museum was nothing short of a journey through the past, up to the early ages of urbanization in Jordan.

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The museum also has an educational corner: a section for visiting students and children to learn the process of creating objects like “hyaka” — knitting traditional house wear and items of clothing.

These days, we hear about such lifestyles in stories told by older generations reminiscing about the “good old days”, and shared nostalgically on social media. However, it is a completely different experience when viewing it through actual visual replicas, made possible by this small but rich museum.

After the visit, one has a vivid understanding of traditional Jordanian life, across different demographics.

A walk through our cultural past is a truly worthy endeavor; embarking on a journey of Jordan’s heritage is immensely fulfilling.

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