A Final Ma'a Salaama from the Middle East

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January 20th 2008
Published: January 20th 2008
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Petra is something else altogether, a beautiful city carved into and out of the rocky outcrops of Wadi Musa - the Valley of Moses - and which was the capital of the ancient Nabatean people. It is also an area replete with Biblical associations, in which it was known as both Seir and Sela.

The most famous Petran was King Herod, he who lopped off John the Baptist’s head. Earlier, the Cainites (son of Adam and brother of Abel) resided here. Esau (son of Isaac and grandson of Abraham) moved his kin here after a spat with his brother Jacob. And when Moses was leading the Chosen People to the Promised Land, King Rekem of Petra refused them permission to pass through their lands, which I guess could go someway to explaining that 40 year journey that I pondered earlier. Furthermore, and for that reason, Moses was also the first to curse this city, a tradition that seemed to gain currency as apparently Petra is the most cursed place in the Bible.

But after all these old testament shenanigans, Petra went on to became the grand Nabatean capital, although it was also later renovated by the Romans; a magnificent and showy display of their immense wealth generated through trade, as well as being a natural fortress in itself. You enter the city through the Siq, a mile-long natural cleft in the cliffs that span only a few metres across in places and formed a natural protective barrier for the city. You slowly weave your way down through it, with the rock towering hundreds of metres above and then the Treasury appears, a massive building carved into the cliff opposite. If you can remember Raiders of the Lost Ark, you’ll know what I’m talking about…

The next couple of days were spent wandering around the various ruins, tombs and scampering up mountainsides. Camels, donkeys, sheep and goats wander around the rocky hillsides, occasionally tended by the odd Bedouin. And because of a high content of iron in the rocks, many of the buildings have a pinkish hue to them and they take on a remarkable quality in the late afternoon light. It’s truly an incredible site, and the views from the High Place of Sacrifice and the Monastery, both perched atop of massive cliffs, looking over the surrounding wadis and outcrops really is breath-taking, although a little nervy for the vertigo-challenged amongst us.

Eventually, we left Petra and slowly drove north, coming out of the stunning rugged ranges and descending rapidly towards the Dead Sea, the absolute lowest point on earth, sitting at around 400 metres below sea level. And, as we were approaching the end of our trip, we decided on a little splurge and so two grubby, tattered and in my case, considerably hairy, figures wandered into the plush lobby of the Movenpick which, according to many, is the best resort in the Middle East.

Thus the next couple of days were spent eating hideously well, drinking hugely overpriced drinks, and lounging around the spa where we (yes, even me) were pampered, massaged and wrapped in gollops of the local Dead Sea mud which is supposed to be remarkably rejuvenating and uplifting. And while there is obviously something quite decadent about being covered in hot mud and wrapped in large sheets of plastic, it sort of gave me the feeling of being a corpse, freshly dredged from some watery grave.

I also had the opportunity to float in the Dead Sea itself, where the huge amount of salt means that you don’t really have any choice but to bob on the surface, and woe be on anyone who had happened to shave that morning. But it was lovely, lying on my back as the clouds skittered overhead, gazing at the shores of Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian West Bank.

A final aside here. Islam has a wonderful term, Insha’Allah, which loosely translated means, “If God wills it so”. It is used for almost every conversation. “Do you have children?” “Not yet, but Insha’Allah.” “I would very much like to visit Australia. Insha’Allah” It can also however, be used as a sort of get out of jail free card, and much of daily life, and we’ve noticed particularly in Syria and Jordan, runs at a much, much slower pace. Thus inquiring as to whether the bus is coming, will undoubtedly be met with “Insha’Allah”. “And when might that be?” “In five minutes.” Long pause “Insha’Allah.” We’ve even met a couple of teachers who work locally and they’ve spoken of the bemused frustration of asking whether they can expect to have their students’ papers tomorrow - a reasonable query yet almost always met with a shrug and an indifferent “Insha’Allah”. At least one of these teachers has now taken to providing the same response to students when they enquire when they’ll get their work back…

And so we are now back in Amman and getting ready to return home, trying to cram in the many things that we’ve bought into already overflowing backpacks. And so, a final ma’a salaama to Jordan in particular and the region more generally. We both feel truly blessed to have been fortunate enough to visit and will long remember the wonderful places and the incredibly beautiful and hospitable people. The mouth-watering food and the countless cups of chay. The mesmerising calls to prayer first thing in the morning and as the sun drops over the horizon at dusk.

See you all soon…Insha’Allah


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