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Paul Christians first saw the ancient village of Umm el-Jimal in pictures, with its Roman fort, Roman gates, ancient houses, and structures that housed first churches and then mosques.

The 2003 Calvin College grad saw the images while working as a student assistant to history professor Bert de Vries, founder of Calvin’s archaeology minor and, for more than 40 years, the principal investigator of Umm el-Jimal. “It was years before I visited Umm el-Jimal as a student and met the people there,” Christians said. “It felt like it was not only a beginning, but a culmination of things.”

Now, through a Site Preservation Grant from the Archeological Institute of America, Christians and 2001 Calvin grad Jeff De Kock are working to preserve Umm el-Jimal. They are founders of Open Hand Studios, a nonprofit organization that works in cultural heritage preservation. They are also partnering with de Vries to create a virtual museum and curriculum about Umm el-Jimal (

“This allows people to visit the site when they’re not there,” de Vries said of the online museum, which will feature virtual tours and photographs of Umm el-Jimal—along with filmed oral histories of the people who live there now.

De Vries, Christians, and De Kock have been working on the project for four years, including two months spent documenting the site with cameras and recorders. Crucial to understanding the ancient site, they say, are the people who live in Umm el-Jimal today.

“We think the communities themselves are best prepared to preserve their own cultures,” said Christians, and de Vries agrees: “Personal relationships are really crucial to this project.”

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