Khaznat al-Faroun at Petra, Jordan. Photo taken by Calvin College professor Bert DeVries

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Lost City of Stone

News: May 11, 2005

Kawar To Illuminate Cultural Treasures

On May 17, 2005, as part of a Tuesday evening lecture series accompanying Petra: Lost City of Stone, Calvin College will host Widad Kawar, owner of the world's largest and most comprehensive collection of Syro-Palestinian textiles, jewelry and household items.

Widad Kawar
Widad Kawar has collected folkart for the last 45 years beginning with articles from Palestine and then also from Jordan.

"She's a loving, Christian Palestinian woman who is expressing and preserving her heritage," says Sally de Vries, a friend of Kawar and fellow collector. "Every museum that has a collection of this kind has learned from Widad."

Kawar'’s lecture, "Cultural Treasures of Jordan: Traditional Expression," will take place from 7-8:30 p.m. in the Board Room of Calvin's Prince Conference Center. Petra: Lost City of Stone, the most comprehensive exhibition of Nabataean culture ever assembled, visits Calvin from April 4 through August 15.

Kawar, educated at the Women's College of Beirut, grew up familiar with the richly embroidered traditional dresses of Bethlehem, where she spent her youth. Following the 1967 Six-Day War, Kawar began collecting Arab clothing, jewelry and household items from the area formerly known as Palestine — the area today encompassing Israel, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria — as a means of preserving a way of life that was vanishing.

“Without her knowledge, enthusiasm and willingness to share, much of what was now known would be lost to mankind,” de Vries once wrote of her friend.

Kawar Collects Clothing, Stories

Kawar collected not only the clothing and accoutrements from Hebron, Ramallah, Jaffa, Bethlehem, Jerusalem, Beersheba, the Transjordan, and other Middle Eastern areas, but also the life stories that went with them. (Many of these stories she learned in Palestinian refugee camps.) Though self-trained, she has brought a scholarly rigor to her collecting, patiently learning the embroidery techniques of various regions and the meanings embedded in various pieces of Arab dress.

"Significant costumes were related to major life events," de Vries says.

And Kawar has inspired other collections and other collectors — notably de Vries, who, beginning in 1968 under her friend’s tutelage, has assembled a large, carefully researched Arab heritage collection of her own: "She helped me to buy the most representative, finest pieces," de Vries says. "She wanted me to have a collection that accurately represented her Palestinian heritage."

The de Vries collection is an accurate enough representation that a fraction of it serves as an exhibition of Jordanian cultural heritage — and the introduction to Calvin’s edition of Petra: Lost City of Stone. Three pieces from that exhibition, including a silk Ma'an dress, came from Kawar's collection.

Beginning in 1999, de Vries has helped Kawar to preserve and document her collection, which has been exhibited in Japan, Germany, France, Denmark, Sweden Norway, England, Iceland, Switzerland and Jordan. The pair's efforts, which included cataloguing each item (including Kawar's rare books) recording them in a database, and creating a collection Web site,, have turned the Kawar's collection into a research center of Palestinian culture.

And something more, de Vries adds: "It's the human dimension of an area of the world that throughout history has always been important."

Waves of sand