Faculty Profile: Bert de Vries
August 13, 2009
Bert de Vries is among the small group of people who remembers that the first thing installed at Calvin’s Knollcrest campus was the cross country course. A former cross country runner, de Vries also remembers how the course meandered around the campus. “I remember the landmarks, but the cross country course is buried under this new layer,” he said, gesturing to the view outside his Hiemenga Hall office window. “One day, when I have time, I would like to see if we could dig up the old map.”
Digging and interpreting
De Vries has spent a large part of his career digging things up—and an even larger part drawing, photographing, documenting and interpreting them. A longtime history professor and the founder of Calvin’s archeology minor, he has concentrated his scholarly attention—and considerable passion—on the ancient and contemporary cultures of the Middle East. “My life isn’t programmed,” he said. “It just sort of flows into what comes along.”
De Vries’ life began in Zierikzee, an 1150-year-old town on the island of Schouwen en Duiveland in the Dutch province of Zeeland. “I believe you identify with your surroundings,” he said of his childhood. “You grow up with the stones of these buildings.”
He remembers the freedom of his early days. “As kids, we were encouraged to roam the countryside and swim off the dikes,” he reminisced. “When the water froze, you could skate forever.”
Exile and emigration
He also remembers the trauma of the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands during World War II. In 1944, the German Wehrmacht forced an evacuation of the Schouwen en Duiveland: "In preparation for flooding the island to prevent an allied invasion, they made everybody leave," he said. The family re-settled for a time on a farm in De Lopik, Utrecht near Schoonhoven. "Our exile ended when the war was over.” Eight years later the family emigrated to Chatham, Ont.
In 1956, de Vries enrolled in Calvin College, where he majored in engineering and met his future wife, Sally Northouse—on the cross country course. They married in 1961, and he went on to earn a bachelor of divinity degree from Calvin Seminary in 1964 and a PhD in Mediterranean Studies from Brandeis University in 1967.
De Vries went from Brandeis directly to the Calvin history department. "My expertise was in demand. I was available, and I was hired on the spot,” de Vries said. In the summer of 1968, he was invited to work as the project architect on an archaeological excavation of Tell Hesban, Jordan. He did all of the mapping and architectural documentation of the ancient site over the next eight years. “I really liked doing that kind of work in the field,” de Vries said. “When you document a building, you draw it stone for stone, so you become intensely familiar with it."
Life in Jordan
Travelling to Jordan became a regular part of de Vries’s life, as he worked first at Hesban and then at Umm el-Jimal, a site he began mapping and excavating in 1972. Since then, he has used the site as a kind of classroom, bringing interim classes there to learn archeology and Jordanian culture. “You could really see the effect of that on a lot of them because (they are) immersed in an Arab context,” he said of his students.
Jordan also became a regular part of DeVries' family life. From 1972 through 1974, the de Vrieses—including children Tara, Tanya, Jenna and Guy—lived there. Bert worked halftime on archeological fieldwork and halftime on refugee work for the Christian Reformed World Relief Committee (CRWRC), and Sally taught school.
"Every Friday, we would go on a family field trip. So our children learned all the corners of Jordan,” de Vries said. During that time, he also worked on a relief project for the Bedouin tribe which still lived in the ancient city of Petra, and the family camped in the caves there. “We became almost honorary citizens of Petra,” de Vries said.
Bert and Sally also lived in Jordan from 1988 through 1991, when Bert served as the director of the American Center for Oriental Research (ACOR) and Sally as its administrative director. During these sojourns, he strengthened his relationships with archaeologists in Jordan, and she assembled a world-class collection of clothing and housewares. "She’s really a self-made cultural anthropologist,” de Vries said.
Petra: Lost City of Stone
Sally’s collection served as an introductory exhibition to Petra: Lost City of Stone, an exhibition of ancient Nabataean culture created by the Cincinnati Art Museum and hosted at Calvin in the spring and summer of 2005. The couple played important roles in the many cultural events supporting the exhibition. Sally coordinated a lecture series that brought many notable archaeologists to Calvin, and Bert lectured and led a tour of the ancient city. “Having the exhibit here … gave Calvin a reputation in the archaeological community that was really positive,” he said.
De Vries directs much of his teaching and scholarship toward the pursuit of peace and justice for the Middle East, Iraq, Palestine and Central America. Throughout his Calvin career, he has brought dozens of speakers to this campus, organized teach-ins and given hundreds of speeches for church and community organizations around the country.
His passion for peace has also led de Vries into larger, collaborative efforts: From 1998 through 2003, he partnered with Birzeit University in Palestine for the teaching of environmental geography to Calvin and Birzeit students with focus on studies of the Jordan River watershed. And from 2005 through 2009, he has been among an international group of 20 archaeologists, anthropologists, geographers, historians and sociologists who engaged in Norway-based and funded multidisciplinary study called “Global Moments in the Levant” (the area encompassing Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria).
The motivation for his peacemaking can be traced to his childhood:
"I was acquainted with German soldiers when I was really little, and I saw what really hungry refugees looked like …,” de Vries said. “Later as I developed a sense of who I wanted to be and what I wanted to do, that had a great affect on me and made me sensitive to people and how they should be treated—whether in Grand Rapids, Michigan or in Amman, Jordan.”
A 1998 winner of Calvin’s Presidential Award for Exemplary Teaching, de Vries is as avid about the classroom as he is about the field. "Teaching feeds the research,” he said. My courses always get adjusted according to what I’m doing in my research.”
And last summer he and Sally helped their grandchildren get acquainted with all the corners of Jordan. “None of the grandchildren wanted to go home,” de Vries said. “One of them held onto the bedposts when it was time to drive away.”
~by Myrna Anderson, communications and marketing