Friday, March 19, 2004

The Road to Petra

I've decided that every Friday, I will post something related to my admittedly limited travels in other countries. (Until I run out, of course.) Often these will be drawn from e-mails sent at the time, which means they won't have been proofread (run-on sentences abound), and were targeted to an audience conisting mainly of relatives and friends who don't study the Middle East at all. (Part of the reason so much Biblical stuff is mentioned is because that would have been a main interest for the relatives.) With that in mind, here is my description of the Kingshighway as it runs from Amman to southern Jordan, and of Petra and its adjacent city of Wadi Musa...

"Over the years, however, I have decided that the 'stereotype' of 'desert' also conveys something important, what I call the 'literary definition' of the word. And it is this definition that you find as you travel south on the Kingshighway, considered a candidate for the world's oldest continuously used road, a road so old that the brochures on it claim it was mentioned in the Bible as travelled by Abraham. Following this road, which runs next to the Hejaz railway between Istanbul and Mecca attacked by Lawrence of Arabia and the Hashemites during World War I (see last e-mail). Past the hills which characterize Amman and Irbid, the land becomes increasingly level, dotted with small shrubs which become increasingly infrequent so that gusts of wind blow large clouds of sand and dust across the land, obscuring the view of the scattered farms along the way and hills and mountains in the distance.

"All throughout this country are small, scattered villages, occasionally noted by blue signs that serve the same function on Jordanian highways as green in the United States. Between them one sees small stone walls and what I suppose you would have to call abandoned house parts, a few walls crumbling, always without a roof, the nature of which I don't know. Also seen as one moves further south are encampments of the Bedouin, large gray tents near a herd of animals and pick-up trucks which can at times barely be seen against the brown-gray landscape covered in a haze of desert heat.

"In the middle of all this are occasional springs near the settlements, each varying according to the amount of water it contains. The largest and richest of these is the Wadi Musa, at which is found a sizable town of the same name. According to one of those stories common to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, when the Hebrews were wandering in the wilderness, Moses struck a rock here, and it produced the stream that, in English, means "River/Spring of Moses," flowing from its source in a large gray stone enclosed with a white mosque-like structure down into a valley until it joins another stream far out of sight in the distance. The water of this spring produces soil that is apparently quite rich; outside the mosque across the street is grass, the richest grass that we saw in Jordan. Cool and clean, the structure which contains the source has a hollowed-out floor so that passersby can come and fill their water bottles or other containers with as much as they like, and one sees this happening irrespective of nationality or religion.

"As interesting as all this might be, however, the town of Wadi Musa owes its prosperity not only to the supply of water, but its proximity to Petra, Royal City of the Nabateans, the Rose Red City of the desert carved out of the living rock of in gargantuan proportions which must be seen to be believed. As Jordan's leading tourist attraction, Petra has around it a number of hotels in one of which we stayed, as this week and last week were trips sponsored by the program, which paid all the costs.

"To describe our hotel, the "Petra Forum," as expensive would be an understatement in American terms, much less Jordanian. Eating a standard meal in the dining room costs about $18. Needless to say, we passed on that, and instead wandered into the adjacent strip of restaurants in Wadi Musa before settling into a place called "The Bedouin Tent," this one multicolored with all sorts of what were supposed to be Bedouin implements hanging from the walls. The dining was a rather unpleasant experience - take my advice: If you ever do any serious travelling, try to get off the tourist track. It is here that the types of hospitality, etc. that I have described earlier start to give way to raw commercialism and swipe-whatever-you-can opportunism whether in Wadi Musa, Jerash, or wherever. In Irbid, you can't tip a waiter because it would give offense; here, a handsome gratuity was figured into our check for food which included a chicked dish which included only the skins of the chicken. And of course it cost about $5, more than my average day's spending in Irbid. That aside, however, we definitely enjoyed the hotel, and I even caught some of a Braves-Phillies game on a TV which carried stations in English, Arabic, Hebrew, French, German, Spanish, and I think Japanese. Friday morning, however, we were up at 6 a.m. anxious to hit Petra before the worst of the day's heat.

"Attempting to describe Petra would be an exercise in futility, you must for yourself walk the path past the large stone cubes known as the 'Djinn Blocks' erected for the Djinn (genies) whom the ancient Nabatean Arabs of 1000 years after Moses believed guarded the city they were building across the seemingly miraculous stream they had stumbled across and whose water they channeled through stone channels through the siq, the long, narrow canyon through which the visitor must walk for at least twenty minutes before catching a first glimpse of the Treasury, originally the tomb of the Nabatean King Harith IV, which is in the United States most famous for being used as a set in the movie Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Past this monumental structure one reaches a street containing row upon row of stone-carved houses that remind me almost exactly of Tatooine from the movie Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, small dwellings piled on top of each other behind the columns the Romans erected when they conquered this city through treachery, much humbler in scope than the giant royal tombs which line rock face in the distance but which still shine bright red and pink in the sunlight, as the city's nickname indicates.

"It is also here that one sees that Petra, although only a ruin of its former splendor, remains inhabited, for as they have for uncounted centuries, the Bedouin tribe known as the Banu Badul, professed descendants of the Nabateans who built the city, continued to sleep on mattresses in selected houses and the small stands which they run for their livelihood throughout the ruins with the permission of the government which failed in its efforts to evict them as it had the inhabitants of Umm Qais from their village atop Gadara. For the Badul, unlike the tourists who crowd the ruins with paid-for camel and donkey rides and sit sipping coffee at the restaurant at the end of the main street, are of Petra, knowing its nooks and crannies, masters of their domain as no distant government could ever be, so much so that after we had climbed the 800 stairs to reach the distant temple that at 45 by 50 meters is Petra's largest structure, we ambled huffing and puffing over the rocks to get to the top of it, trying to find our footing, only to have one of the Badul actually jog past us, setting his feet precisely and thoughtlessly on the right spots to appreciate the view that makes up his own backyard.

"This view, from the top of ad-Deir, known as the Monastary, is another one of those things which has to be seen rather than simply described, with the sunlight gleaming off the red buildings in the distance, the Wadi Araba into which the Wadi Musa flows cutting a deep gorge, and in the distance, looming over everything at a distance of four hours by donkey, the tomb of Aaron, brother of Moses, as-Salam alaihu, who according to the same story as that of the water from the rock died here atop a mountain and whose tomb is accompanied only by a small white mosque glinting in the distance."

Here is more about Aaron's tomb, including pictures.


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