Jordan Treasure Hunters Ruin Ancient Artifacts

PETRA, JORDAN - MARCH 29:  A general view of the Treasury building at Petra on March 29, 2013 in Petra, Jordan.  (Photo by Ad
PETRA, JORDAN - MARCH 29: A general view of the Treasury building at Petra on March 29, 2013 in Petra, Jordan. (Photo by Adam Pretty/Getty Images)

By Adam Nicky/The Media Line AMMAN, Jordan – Under the cover of nightfall, Emad Jarur drives his black van to an ancient site near here, to dig, drill or even use explosives to reach a suspected treasure of gold and ancient artifacts.

His determined look as he flips through pages showing ancient maps reflects years of an arduous search across the kingdom's vast plains to find treasures buried by Ottomans, Romans, Byzantines, Jews or others who once lived here.

Jarur, 42, uses advanced technology, along with less conventional means like archeology students and even sorcerers, he says.

"Treasure hunters like me try every possible means to uncover, to find these treasures, from science to magic," he told The Media Line from his home in east Amman, a working class neighborhood.

Jarur taught himself about the Ottoman treasures, the most common and sought-after troves, said to be pure gold coins. He's read every book he could find on the subject, learning the significance of the tiniest signs and illustrations on maps or rocks that could lead him to the precious metal.

Yet, there are considerations one is not likely to foresee.

"Some sites are protected by supernatural powers like genies. These are the most dangerous sites," said Abu Salem, a colleague of Jarur. He swore that he saw a man killed in front of his eyes by a powerful genie near the King Hussein Dam.

"The genie warned my friend and told him not to return to the site, but when he returned anyway the next day, my friend died of a sudden heart attack while digging," he said, shock and disbelief still visible.

Jarur explains that to fight off genies, exorcists read verses from the Quran, while other treasure hunters use expensive Moroccan incense to keep them away.

The gold fever that has swept across Jordan with great intensity since the kingdom's economic nosedive in the early 1990s is resulting in the destruction of priceless relics by the treasure hunters, say local archeologists.

The Hijaz railway, a train line built over a century ago that once linked Amman and Damascus, has become the focal point of the gold frenzy. The Ottoman Turks built the railway in the early 1900s to supply their army in the region. Treasure hunters have since dug hundreds if not thousands of holes along the 300 mile railway.

The Ottomans ruled Jordan from 1516 to 1918, building fortresses to protect pilgrims. Legend has it that after conceding defeat in World War I, the wealthy Ottomans who ruled the area could not carry their gold home.

Instead, they chose to hastily bury their valuable possessions just beneath the ground before fleeing. The Ottomans engraved signs in nearby rocks pointing to the valuables' exact spot.

"We can find Ottoman treasures less that one meter below the surface. They did not have time to dig deeper as they hurried to escape British forces," explained Jarur.

Earlier this month, police were deployed to guard a construction site in the posh neighborhood of Abdoun, where a local contractor unearthed an ancient Roman burial site. Eyewitnesses said several treasure hunters tried to break into the site hoping to find gold.

Department of Antiquities Excavation and Survey Director Mohammad Najar said the dream of finding hidden gold has gripped Jordanians' imaginations for years.

"Some stories about treasures found could be true but most of them are false," he told The Media Line. "We are more concerned that diggers will ruin ancient treasures," he added.

Such destruction is most evident in the Jordan Valley and north, where fertile land covers most of the region. Away from curious eyes, farmers practice illegal excavation in search for the yellow metal or any ancient artifact that can be sold to tourists. Ancient coins start at $15 and can cost hundreds of dollars.

In the past, Jordan was at the crossroads of history, witnessing the rise and fall of several civilizations as far back as the Bronze and Iron Ages.

From the west, Egypt extended its power and culture, while Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian, Greek, Nabatean, Roman, Byzatine, Islamic and Ottoman civilizations have all been pieces of the country's mosaic of archeological heritage.

Official figures indicate that there are more than 10,000 known sites waiting to be excavated. Unknown sites are estimated to be triple that number.

Archeology department officials admit that treasure hunters contribute to the country's archeological plight, but add that they are not responsible for all of it.

When farmers plow their fields or contractors dig foundations for their building sites, ancient ruins often appear.

As he races against time to sow his field before the winter arrives, finding an ancient ruin could be a nightmare for a farmer who barely makes ends meet. By law, he must inform the authorities of his findings, meaning that archeologists immediately seal off the area and begin the exhaustive process of evaluating the land's archeological value.

As far as the farmer is concerned, time is a luxury he cannot afford. Archeologists say that many farmers choose to bury their findings and continue planting, but not without first taking a look at their find. Precious relics from the ancient past are often ruined in the process, according to Jordanian archeology officials say.

Driving through the night, Jarur says he is determined to continue his search, insisting that members of the royal family are also involved in the search.

"Prince Hassan (uncle of King Abdullah II) is known to have a large vault of ancient treasures," says Jarur. "He spent decades hunting treasures throughout the kingdom."