Learning from the Past: Antique Green Desert (South Jordan)

In ancient times, the steppe in the hinterland of Petra (Jordan) was transformed into a green oasis. This project tries to shed insights in the agro-hydrological and societal processes resulting in this transformation. This will be accomplished by practicing an interdisciplinary research approach, in close collaboration with the local community.

Stage of the project




Starting Up





Why was this project started?

Access to water is one of the greatest global challenges of the 21st century. Scholars from different fields of research around the world are dealing with the ever-growing demand for, and with the severe supply constraints of water. Most of the precipitation in (semi-)arid regions is lost through evaporation, surface runoff and seepage (in some areas approx. 90%), and thus becomes unavailable for agriculture and other use. Ancient societies dealt with similar problems. In ancient times land-use systems and resource management, particularly elaborated water-harvesting schemes, were employed to prevent this loss. In the Udhruh region, 12 km to the east of Petra, a wide variety of such techniques was practised turning the steppe into green oases. After several years of exploratory (2011-2015) and focused (2019 and 2021) archaeological field work we – a joint venture Jordanian and Dutch academic and expertise team – can conclude that the area around Udhruh (Southern Jordan) is a complete and well preserved field ‘laboratory’ to study the long-term development of innovative water management and agricultural systems throughout the Nabataean, Roman, Byzantine and early Islamic periods (2nd century BCE – 10th century CE).
On the one hand - as being archaeologists - our objectives are aimed on reconstructing the ancient agro-hydrological landscape and the longe durée-development of the Udhruh region wherein the physical settings, human agencies, socio-economic and societal interrelations are integrated.
Cooperation with the local communities has been considered of high importance for the success of the project right from the start. So on the other hand we hope that the interdisciplinary approach can also lead to translational innovations which can contribute to sustainable agricultural and water management solutions for future applications. In other words how can we learn from the past.

The results of the project so far

We are still working on the archaeological reconstruction of the ancient landscape development, but have already observed that different methods of irrigation have been practiced making use of preventing different ways of water loss (run-off, seepage and evaporation) for longer periods of time. One of the irrigation schemes – a qanat system – has been in use for several centuries, and can be considered an ancient sustainable solution. Millennia ago, such qanats were already practiced in Persia, and were propagated over the globe, while some remained in use throughout time. The Udhruh qanat is connected to an agricultural field system and a recent soil fertility study of these fields show that engineers and farmers apparently managed to conduct irrigation in the area of Udhruḥ for long periods of time without causing soil degradation.

What are specific, distinctive, strong elements in this project?

Longterm and inter-/transdisciplinary approach, broad stakeholder citizen science project.

Which specific lessons, do's and don'ts would you like to share? What would be suggestions for others when preparing or implementing the project in their own city?

We would especially like to share thoughts and ideas how such 'Learning from the Past'-approaches are considered by other parties, and if these can provide valuable contributions to sharing urban and rural knowledge.

Can you tell us how valuable this project was for you?

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2. Will you use this information in your own practice?
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3. Could this project be shared to - and implemented in - your own city?
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Yes I think so

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