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 of cultural heritage among children and youth and build a generation of cultural advocates and leaders. The program has been implemented in Jordan for over 10 years now and we are proud to have launched it in the region, most recently with the Ministry of Education in Yemen. This is a program and an experience that we would like to share with a global audience because of its demonstrated effectiveness and impact and contribution to cultural heritage preservation.
In 2018, you became the first woman to win the Arab Heritage Person Award, how does it feel to gain this recognition?
It is always an incredible honor to be recognized for the work that one does. This award was quite special because it was based on votes from throughout the Arab world. And I am truly thankful that my work is seen and my voice is heard. It is also a reminder that there is still so much that needs to be done and that I have to persevere and work harder to continue to be worthy of such an honor.
Can you tell us about your Ted X talk - Heritage; who we are. What impact do you hope it had on people, and what was the reaction from the audience?
In my work, I am frequently confronted with the criticism that cultural heritage is a secondary concern when there are other development priorities. I wanted to address this in my talk to try to say that we must reconsider this paradigm and that at the core of any successful development effort lies our cultural heritage. Ultimately no society can advance without its roots and an understanding of its history, without a sense of what matters to people, without validating a knowledge base that is based on age-old experiences, without a sense of social cohesion and purpose and without an appreciation of what is beautiful and spiritual – those intangible qualities that make all the difference in building vibrant, peaceful and creative communities. I hope that the message resonated with the audience!
The Preamble to the Constitution of UNESCO declares, "since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defenses of peace must be constructed". I believe wholeheartedly in UNESCO’s mission and that the organization’s work is vital for building a thriving and peaceful world. I am committed as a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador to do everything that I can to advance the goals of the organization, and to use my voice and my platform to support UNESCO’s work.
What are your thoughts on the representation of Islamic art and culture globally?
I think on the academic level, this is a complicated question because we have to contend with definitions and what constitutes Islamic art and culture. I will take a non-academic approach in my response and throw a very wide net over definitions. In very general terms, Islamic art and culture span 1300 years of history, and cover diverse geographic locations and their unique history and people. There are some excellent examples of representation of Islamic Art and Culture within the Arab and Islamic world. Collections in museums in Kuwait, Qatar, Turkey, Malaysia and other countries have been exhibited, interpreted, shared and studied providing a wonderful resource and beautiful expression of aspects of Islamic art and culture. The work of academic institutions and other organizations has produced excellent material on Islamic art and culture, which has been widely disseminated. There is also interesting scholarship in Europe and the United States and other parts of the world that has enriched appreciation and understanding globally.
I know I am simplifying, but there is still an opportunity to make this material more accessible and easier to understand for a wider global audience. I believe that we need to amplify the voice and work of cultural actors and advocates working on issues related to Islamic art and culture. Bayt Al Fann’s efforts in this regard are very helpful and important. We have to utilize technology and media better, we have to increase cooperation with cultural institutions at the international level to promote more partnerships and exchange, and we have to work on educational materials aimed at young audiences as well to build a better appreciation of Islamic arts and culture.
I also want to add here that Islamic arts and culture are also modern living and evolving fields. There is a rich field of art and culture today that may fall under the definition of Islamic art and culture, which deserves significant attention.
Can you tell us about the Islamic heritage in Jordan?
Jordan is an ancient land and a cradle of civilizations, and its history tells the story of how Islam spread, coexisted and integrated with the civilizations that preceded it and evolved to create a unique culture and identity, which have continued to develop until today.
The legacy of early Islamic civilizations is well preserved on Jordanian lands as seen in several archeological sites that provide testament to the architectural heritage, lifestyles, political systems, arts and innovations of those early periods. We see evidence from the early period of the Rashidun caliphs through the Umayyads, Abbasids, Ayyubids, Mamluks to the end of the Ottoman Empire and the modern Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. The evidence represents not only Islam’s rich history, architecture, painting and arts, craftsmanship and use of technological innovations for agriculture and water harvesting and delivery in arid areas, but also provides evidence for the integration of Islam with preceding civilizations and religions, the development of traditions and values, and the emergence of political systems and power consolidation.
Again the evolution of Islamic heritage in Jordan continues to this very day. Heritage is a living concept, constantly changing, building on the past but embracing modern contemporary realities. We continue to see an evolution in architecture, the decorative arts, poetry, music, painting, traditions and lifestyles while preserving values inherited over the years from earlier Islamic civilizations.
Are there any Islamic archeological sites in the Kingdom?
There are over 400 Islamic archeological sites in Jordan spanning the periods I mentioned in the previous response from the Rashidun caliphs through to the modern Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. For a more comprehesive review of the sites, I would like to recommend a book entitled “Islamic Heritage Sites in Jordan” by Thomas M. Weber-Karyotakis and Ammar Khammash.
How can preserving and protecting cultural heritage from the past impact on the development of the future of Islamic art and culture?
As I have said, heritage is a living concept. Heritage is our inheritance from those who have come before us, we enrich it and add to it through our own experiences and it is our bequest to those who come after us. We have to understand our history, the values, beliefs and traditions of former Islamic civilizations, their arts and crafts, music and lifestyles, their relationship to places and to one another, their buildings, architecture, stories and relationship to the land in order to understand this inheritance. We can only understand what impact we make on heritage today if we understand what we have inherited in the first place. As we protect, preserve, and understand our heritage, it becomes a compass, an inspiration and a reference for the development of Islamic arts and culture in the future.
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