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Preserving Cultural Heritage in Jordan, HRH Princess Dana Firas

HRH Princess Dana Firas believes that the conservation of Jordan’s cultural heritage contributes greatly to protecting Jordan’s identity and sustaining its development. Her Royal Highness is not only a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador, she is also a Fulbright Scholar, and the President of the Board of Directors of the Petra National Trust.

We talk to HRH Princess Dana Firas about her passion for cultural heritage, the legacy of Islamic civilizations in Jordan, and the concept of living heritage.

You have always been a strong advocate for the preservation of cultural heritage. Why do you do what you do?

Let me start by saying thank you to Bayt Al Fann for this opportunity to highlight some of the work that we have been doing to preserve and promote cultural heritage.

I believe wholeheartedly that the preservation of cultural heritage is the foundation for human wellbeing and prosperity. I know this is a rather big and general statement, but it is true. Not only does cultural heritage relate directly to sustainable development in very tangible ways, it is also a celebration of beauty and the intangible qualities that enable us to enjoy emotional and spiritual wellbeing. Our cultural heritage is the source of our values, our identity, our future aspirations, our social cohesion and resilient strong communities.

And I love beautiful places. Every single time I make my way down the Siq in Petra and catch that first glimpse of the Treasury, which reveals itself gradually in all its incredible majesty, it takes my breath away. It’s a special and indescribable feeling. It renews my commitment to ensure that we protect these beautiful places and preserve their integrity to be enjoyed by all for years to come.

You work to place cultural heritage at the center of tourism and development policies in Jordan. What is the connection between cultural heritage and tourism?

In Jordan, over 90 percent of tourists are cultural visitors who want to enjoy the country’s archeological heritage and savor its unique flavors: its cuisine, music, dance, arts etc. Cultural heritage is the foundation of Jordan’s tourism sector. And tourism alone represents close to 20 percent of the country’s GDP, not counting the creative cultural industries, as well as related services in transport, hospitality, food and small businesses. Tourism is an important sector for growth and employment. Often, tourism can be a destructive force when it is not carefully managed. This is why its important to link tourism and cultural heritage in policies and practice. Most tourists today are well informed and seek experiences that are unique and true to their destination. This is exactly what cultural heritage offers. So, in essence, cultural heritage preservation is integral to tourism development and makes perfect economic sense.

How does preserving cultural heritage contribute to protecting Jordan’s identity and sustaining its development?

There is a deep and integral connection between protecting cultural heritage and sustaining development. It is why I have been advocating since 2016 for a Sustainable Development Goal dedicated to cultural heritage: GOAL18.

In Jordan, we have to contend with significant challenges: including poverty, unemployment, water scarcity, an unstable regional political climate as well as the impacts of global climate change. In response, we need urgent, rapid and far-reaching measures. But we know that change is difficult, disruptive and often unfair. This is why cultural heritage matters. It enables us to build on inherited values of trust and traditional social networks to enable communities to come together, to cope with stress and survive in times of challenge.

Cultural heritage contributes directly to development through tourism, cultural and creative industries and much more. It also acknowledges often-unrecognized local, traditional and indigenous knowledge, traditional technologies, resource-based livelihoods building practices including techniques and innovation through practice and adaptation to chart a more sustainable path to achieve growth and engage often-marginalized communities.

A stable socio-political environment is a prerequisite for sustainable development. In a country like Jordan, which was historically a cross roads of civilizations and today a home for a diverse group of people, our cultural heritage builds on values that honor that diversity and create an inclusive space for dialogue and exchange.

These are some examples. But in summary, cultural heritage contributes to building the values that sustain development, the enabling environment that sustains development and the resilience and strength to cope with challenges and sustain development.

You are a global advocate for heritage protection and preservation as a foundation for development, responsible tourism, identity and political participation, and peace building. What are some of the global issues and challenges around cultural heritage protection and preservation?

Cultural heritage is under threat from a number of factors, foremost among which are natural factors, particularly as a result of climate change. Climate change has a direct impact on monuments and sites, on natural heritage and on people and their relationship to places, to landscapes and to one another.

In addition to climate change, cultural heritage faces threats from tourism, from mismanagement by government authorities, from neglect and from deliberate destruction, whether as a result of conflict or the illicit trade in antiquities.

As President of the Petra National Trust, Jordan's oldest national nongovernmental organization in the field of heritage protection and preservation, established in 1989, what do you hope to achieve in promoting Jordan to a global audience?

I am immensely proud of the work of the Petra National Trust and its growth over the past 30 years to become Jordan’s leading national preservation organization. We started out and continue to be an advocacy organization, working towards making cultural heritage a national development priority. This mission has relevance throughout the world. The values of cultural heritage have no geographic boundaries – and our efforts to preserve it are more effective when we work together. This is why we believe most strongly in partnerships.

We have some experiences in Jordan that have been pioneering and successful, which we would like to see replicated elsewhere. PNT has developed a cultural education program that aims to enhance awareness of the values