Standing on His Shoulders: a Tribute to Bert de Vries

Bert de Vries’ sudden passing at the end of March still feels more akin to a troubling dream than to reality. That uneasy feeling will no doubt persist for quite some time as the Umm al-Jimal Archaeology Project presses forward without its beloved founder and director. When one who has touched so many people and who has been such a selfless force for peace and understanding leaves this world, the memories left behind linger for many lifetimes. It is not the sorrow and pain that will win out, however, but instead the fondest memories: of time spent together; of places explored; of the “Bertisms” that we can still recite; of strong friendships; of overcoming obstacles; of working together to create a better world.

A book—or two—could be written about Bert and his many, varied efforts and achievements (along with his wife Sally) in archaeology, community and heritage studies, humanitarian issues, and conservation efforts. But anyone who knew Bert is well aware that he never sought or expected praise or recognition for any of his work. He was a rare humble soul, cognizant that very real lives would be impacted by the choices he made in work and life; therefore, he sought to lift others up, to oppose injustice, and to foster understanding. Of course, that attitude only brought him much praise and his work garnered many accolades, which he accepted with good grace, even if he privately believed that no achievements were lone ones.   

Bert and Sally de Vries at the American Center of Research in Amman (1989)

Rather than create a new tribute to Bert, we thought it fitting to compile the thoughts and memories of others and to preserve them here. Following his obituary are just some of the many beautiful remembrances that have poured in from friends, family, and colleagues around the world.

As difficult as it has been to continue UJAP work without Bert, and will be for quite some time, we each know that the best way to honor him is to complete the projects he had started, to tackle ones he had planned for the future, and to begin those he never even had time to fathom. Bert always meant for the Umm al-Jimal Archaeology Project to outlive him, and we are honored and blessed to have been entrusted with its care. Above all, we seek to continue his legacy of selfless service. What we do is not to make names for ourselves, nor to claim ownership over the past; what drives us is a desire for knowledge, a love of cultural heritage and for the people of Umm al-Jimal, and a desire to see the site preserved and the modern town thrive.

Since Bert loved literature and was a vocal champion for Palestinian justice and peace, the words of Mahmoud Darwish are especially fitting here. This poem encapsulates the essence of Bert and is a reminder of what we should all strive to be.

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