Tuesday, August 08, 2006

The middle east before the war: Petra, Jordan

Oct 11

Sela, Jordan 4PM

Sela, or Artham, is the modern town on the outskirts of the fabled “lost city” of Petra, Jordan’s great tourist attraction. This was the capitol of the Nabitean Arabs for the better part of five centuries, and a major trading center for a few more until the place was flattened by an earthquake early in the Byzantine era.

The great African rift goes far to the north of Africa itself, and the suq, the entrance to the lost city, was allegedly created by a magnitude Ten sometime in the Pleistocene. The tremendous colossal quake wrenched open a crack in the earth so large that a person can drive an oxcart through it. This, as you might remember is where Indiana Jones found the entrance to the temple of the holy grail in the third film all those years ago [most of the hotels are forced to show this film at least once a day, and thus they hate it like poison ]

I’ve been here before, eleven years earlier, I had gone with the first YM/WHA trip here, and saw a much less excavated city. Back then, the suq’s floor was nine feet above where it is today, and it was a dirt road. They’ve gotten down to the paved cobblestone floor, and you can see some interesting carvings and fossils dating back two thousand years.

The Arabs invaded this part of the Middle East around 400 BC, the Babylonians had exterminated most of the indigenous Edomites around a century before. The Nabiteans, legend states, were originally from Yemen a century before that, and set up shop, taking cultural bits and pieces from the locals. They would carve tombs in the rocks on a massive scale, and this is what remains. The regular housing, except for one part of a palace, were all flattened by earthquake of 442 CE, or burned down by the Romans, who invaded in 106 CE.

The two main gods were Bashira, who can see and touch but cannot speak, and his mother Alosia, who was similarly handicapped, not much is known about them, as the Christians and muslims weren’t much into preserving pagan traditions. Finally, we get to the bottom of the Suq, and the famous treasury, also known as Al Fasma, which is almost the symbol of the country. A perfect Greco-Roman façade, which now fronts nothing, however, it was the tomb of a great king. Who he was is unknown.

It’s still an amazing sight to behold.

Walking past the theater and the necropolis, we notice a number of restaurants, some ancient, the Nabiteans liked to eat near their dead, and some modern. It’s hot even in October. Tomarrow, I climb to the top of a mountain with a bunch of other people to the great alter, where the ancients would sacrifice to Bashira and Alosia, then rapidly running out of water head back down to ground level where the lost city of the living was and where the museum is now. That has been rebuilt, but still isn’t all that good.

Inside the tombs is the glory of the area. The natural coloration of the rocks is amazing, resembling modern art. God paints like Chigal here. There are snack bars all over the place, and being thirsty, I purchase lots of water whenever I pass one.

The excavations of the city itself shows that paganism died out here about the time it did everywhere else in the Roman world, and by the time the Muslims invaded, the town, which had never recovered from the fifth century earthquake, was in serious decline, another one in 717 left Petra pretty much moribund, and nobody much lived there afterwards. The locals knew there were magnificent ruins, but the west had forgotten the place completely until a guy named Brukhardt found it again in the 18th century.

“A rose-red city half as old as time”, he said. Yup.

Petra Oct 12

Last night I got a bad case of the shits and spent much of the night on the toilet. Also, the roosters were crowing at all hours. I love colonel Saunders just about now…

I’m back at Petra where I’ve just spent almost, if not over ah hour climbing the endless stair to the high place of sacrifice, I’m not too sure that it’s worth it. There’s a refreshment stand near the top and I just spend a dinar on a bottle of Nestle’s water. Otherwise I ould have died…I wonder how they got all this stuff up here? Helecopter?

Just a bit more climbing to do and we’ll see the remains of the temple here. Then it’s all downhill….I’ll still be too hot, but at least gravity will be on my side for once. On top, my bag broke and I had to fix it. I couldn’t, at first, find the way down, which was scary. Even more scary was the way down, which was about an 80 degree drop—vertigo city— and I was very lucky not to fall down and break my neck, although I fell just before getting to the museum. No real harm done to my person.

I met three people from the group and we took donkeys up to a place called the monastery, which was a giant tomb almost as well preserved as the Treasury. My donkey was in a head-on collision with another donkey. It could have been a sexual encounter for all I know. Yet another near-death experience! But I wasn’t winded.

The Monastery, is almost free of withering and is more Persian in style. Almost everything else looked its age. It’s quite beautiful to look at, especially from the restaurant right across from it. It’s all very expensive, but I’m not complaining.

The people running the place decided that there were enough people interested to put on an extra performance of the weekly light and culture show, which was actually quite fun to observe. The suq was filled with candles and we went down to the treasury we saw traditional dances and heard traditional music.

Then it was back up the suq to find out where the hotel’s van was and get a good night’s sleep at last.

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