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Patron of the past: The Jordanian duke who's preserving the soul of the Levant

Why We Wrote This

The Duke of Mukhaibeh, Mamdouh Bisharat, has devoted his life to protecting Jordanian heritage. His lifework is a lesson in how honoring one’s history can pave the way for a prosperous future.

Taylor Luck
Mamdouh Bisharat, Jordan’s only duke, looks across the city from his home in East Amman, Jordan. Now a concrete jungle, Jordan’s capital was green and lush with springs in Mr. Bisharat’s youth.

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Patron of the arts, archaeologist, environmentalist, curator, host, farmer, king’s confidant, playboy – Jordan’s first and only duke has played many roles in his life, but there is one he cherishes: promoter and preserver of Jordan’s heritage. Born Mamdouh Bisharat to one of the kingdom’s wealthiest landowning families, the Duke of Mukhaibeh (so named by the late King Hussein of Jordan) has spent six decades protecting Jordan’s heritage and culture. At 80, you can find him at the Duke’s Diwan, the oldest residence in downtown Amman. Its faded robin's egg blue walls feature an eclectic mix of art and history, an extension of the duke himself: photographs of 1930s Amman hang alongside sketches of Roman ruins and Ottoman homes, calligraphic poetry, impressionist paintings, bushels of dried wheat, and a mosaic portrait of his close friend, the late King Hussein. The duke sometimes reminisces about his time in England in the late 1950s – spent at England’s museums and historic sites – which inspired his lifework. “They celebrated their heritage and identity,” Mr. Bisharat says. “I knew we could do the same in Jordan.”

“Welcome, welcome!” a man in a tattered blazer and a chestnut farmer’s tan says to three dumbstruck university students who have just wandered in off the street and into the faded apartment. “I hope you are hungry.”

The duke, as always, has set a table for six.

“Eat. Then look around and see what Jordan was really like.”

Patron of the arts, archaeologist, environmentalist, curator, host, farmer, king’s confidant, playboy; Jordan’s first and only duke has played many roles in his life – often on the very same day – but there is one he cherishes: promoter and preserver of Jordan’s heritage.

Born Mamdouh Bisharat to one of the kingdom’s wealthiest landowning families, the Duke of Mukhaibeh has spent six decades protecting Jordan’s heritage and culture, and at 80 remains hard to keep up with.

You can find him, for a moment, at the Duke’s Diwan, the oldest residence in downtown Amman, which he has rented at double its value since 2000 to prevent its owner from knocking it down.

While diwan in Arabic is a grand reception hall for a sheikh or royalty, here the apartment from the 1920s is a portal to both the past and present: a living, breathing cultural center, arts space, and museum in the beating heart of Amman.

Its faded robin's egg blue walls feature an eclectic mix of art and history, an extension of the duke himself: photographs of 1930s Amman hang alongside sketches of Roman ruins and Ottoman homes, calligraphic poetry, impressionist paintings, bushels of dried wheat, and a mosaic portrait of his close friend, the late King Hussein of Jordan.

The rooms are arranged to show visitors how Jordanians lived for much of the 20th century. Now, artists and writers use the space for exhibitions, book launches, and work spaces, always free of charge.   

The duke often sits in the dining room for lunch with guests. Today is a cream of bulgur wheat soup and green beans, all from his farms, which he offers to a pair of German tourists and Jordanian teenagers.

Mr. Bisharat’s career of preservation started as a teenager in the 1950s.

Upset at the sight of treasure hunters breaking apart Roman statues, columns, and sarcophagi to sell as souvenirs to tourists in nearby Jerusalem, Bisharat arrived at a solution: to buy them himself.

Starting with a headless Roman statue for three dinars ($4.20) in 1958, he salvaged more than 200 pieces destined for the black market, now all registered with the country’s department of antiquities. He then set his sights higher, campaigning for the preservation and restoration of the iconic sites of Umm Qais, Jerash, and the Amman citadel.

With the flow of petrodollars from the neighboring Gulf in the 1980s and 90s, and with it, rapid urbanization and unplanned development, Bisharat acted as a one-person campaign to save historic buildings and monuments from the wrecking ball.

It had become a way of life.

Honoring heritage

“Action!” the duke calls, to no one in particular. Within minutes he has left the diwan.

The duke is always on the move. From a morning of building recycled art in his stately home, he goes to check in on the historic villas he is salvaging down the hill, then to his diwan to lunch with visitors, then to his design center to meet with artists, followed by his farm in central Jordan. He returns back in Amman in time for an embassy reception, and later, a dinner party for seven at home. 

Even the duke’s homes are alive, pulsing and flowing with people and art. Film crews move in and out of his old villas, and a calligraphy lesson gathers in the diwan while tourists take photographs and the duke’s employees carry in salvaged wooden furniture, discarded street signs, and stones from Ottoman-era homes. All move with the same kinetic energy he radiates.

He stops on the road outside his home to pick up a discarded bag of chips.

This is my favorite activity,” he says. Every couple of minutes he stops to pick up trash: plastic bags, soda cans, foam cartons.

While his relatives and other landowning families long ago sold their farms to be developed as apartment complexes and shopping malls, the duke maintains his farm in Mukhaibeh, in the northern Jordan Valley near the Golan Heights, although military restrictions have rendered it unprofitable.

His other ancestral farm in southern Amman is the last plot of open land in the capital. There, he plows the wheat fields, which have been cut in half by an expressway and crowded by an airport, factories, and now, an IKEA.

He maintains the farms and the diwan, the oldest continually inhabited house in Jordan, as a living museum and a reminder to Jordanians and the country’s elite.

“This area was once the bread basket for the Roman Empire,” the duke says, “and now we import wheat from the US.”

“If we don’t go back to living within our means and being self-reliant, we will always be in a crisis.”

If you can convince him to sit still long enough, Bisharat will reminisce about his time in England in the late 1950s, gallivanting with lords and poets, spending days in gentlemen’s clubs such as White’s and Travellers Club, weekending at the country homes of dukes, and meeting four prime ministers.

But it was the days spent at England’s museums, art galleries, and historic sites that were “a revelation,” he says. 

“They celebrated their heritage and identity,” Bisharat says. “I knew we could do the same in Jordan.”

Bisharat has done his part: helping establish the country’s National Gallery of Fine Arts and the National House of Poetry, and supporting an art scene. 

But the title?

The late King Hussein, enamored with Bisharat’s love of country, decided to make his nickname official, issuing a royal decree in 1974 recognizing him as “Duke of Mukhaibeh.” 

Dukedom has not given Bisharat airs.

While Amman’s rich and powerful clog Amman’s narrow streets with Rolls-Royces and Lamborghinis, the duke drives a silver Chevy pickup packed with tomatoes. His blazers and suits are frayed, dating to the 1960s.

“What I learned in England is that it is not the car that you drive or the clothes that you wear that is important,” Bisharat says, preparing for his next supper party, “but whom you dine with.”

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