AMMAN—Mohammed Waheeb, the Jordanian scholar who discovered what is known as the Baptism Site of Jesus Christ, listed on the UNESCO Heritage List in 2015, speaks simply as if he were a storyteller instead of a professor.
Perhaps the secret of his ability to tell stories lies in his 25 years of collecting oral histories and folk tales from the residents of Jordanian cities. For all those years he has driven the same car, an Opel Kadett, and he always smiles and speaks passionately when he talks about his work in excavation, exploration and documentation.
“Archaeological excavations are very important,” he said. “But documentation and verification of those excavations are no less important than the discoveries themselves in preserving researchers’ efforts and informing the local and global community about the discovered treasures.”
“This is an essential part of writing history”.
In 1980, Waheeb studied at the University of Jordan to get a bachelor’s degree in archaeology and heritage. Later on, he received a master’s degree from the same university before obtaining his doctorate from Hacettepe University, in Ankara, Turkey.
He became interested in studying archaeology, he said, because “It is a science that deals with the land and the environment. I always wanted to do field work on the ground.”
In 1996, Waheeb and a research team from the Ministry of Tourism’s Department of Antiquities began research and excavation near the Jordanian-Palestinian border. “All the signs found in ancient texts suggest that Jesus Christ had crossed the Jordan River,” he said.
At the time, researchers working on a survey founded scattered pottery fragments and pieces of mosaics. Then they began to use probes to find out how many layers the site had. The research continued until 2002, when they announced that they had discovered the site of the baptism of Jesus. The exploration of the site and the area nearby continued for several years. In 2014, Pope Francis visited the site. Churches were also discovered on the eastern bank of the river, besides monks’ caves and mosaic paintings with Greek text describing the Christian pilgrimage routes down from Jerusalem to the baptism site.
“We have found a site of huge cultural significance,” said Waheeb.
Despite the importance of the discovery of the baptism site and the international recognition it received, Waheeb has many other widely recognized achievements. For example, he documented the discovery of a bird with a wingspan estimated at seven meters or more and known scientifically as Arambourgiania philadelphiae which lived in the Maastrichtian Age (66-72 million years ago). It was discovered in 1942 in one of Jordan’s Phosphate Company mines.
“There was misinformation that a worker on the Hijaz Railway found the bones of this bird, but my team and I followed the discovery process, conducted many interviews and reviewed many documents to find out that a worker in a phosphate mine at Russayfah was the first to find the bones,” he said. “The detection was deep in the ground and not on the surface. We have also been able to locate where the bones were discovered and where the site is now.”
Waheeb has documented his research in books. “Waheeb works within ‘paths,’” said Abdul Aziz al-Huwaidi, an anthropologist and professor of history at Ahl al-Bayt University. “He takes a specific geographical area and carries out his research within the historical periods it has passed through. He then documents that in books, not only in research papers, to ensure accessibility.”
Waheeb believes that archaeological discoveries are important for Jordan provided that the country knows how to benefit from them. “Archaeological discoveries offer significant revenues that can support the kingdom’s economy, but unfortunately they are not being used in an effective and meaningful way,” he said.
Ministry of Tourism statistics indicate the baptism site is seeing some growth in visits: 104,000 tourists went to the site last year compared to 81,000 in 2016.
“We can say that there is an economy of archaeological discoveries, and this economy needs to be studied, planned and marketed to achieve the required development,” said Waheeb.
Some scientists criticize Waheeb’s work in documenting the discovery of the ancient bird and see it as going beyond his expertise. But al-Huwaidi thinks that this criticism is misplaced.
“Unfortunately, there is no cooperation between scholars from different fields and therefore Waheeb’s excavation efforts cannot be denied just because he is not a geologist,” he said, “In the end, archaeology and history should be open to various disciplines.”
To this day, Waheeb pays for most of his own field research. He formed a team of three young researchers who graduated from the Hashemite University’s Queen Rania Institute of Tourism and Heritage, where he has been a professor for more than 16 years.
“I dedicate 500 Jordanian dinars a month (about $700) from my salary to support exploration and research,” he said. “We get only logistical support from the university.”
Waheeb said that he seeks to “create a team of local talent capable of discovering, excavating and listing sites on the World Heritage List. I train graduates and turn them into scholars who will independently lead exploration projects in the future,” he said.