Much of Tuesday was spent in the rain enroute to Petra, travelling first to Madaba to see the remarkable ancient mosaic floor in St. George's Church, the earliest surviving map of the Holy Land, dating back to the 6th century. Continuing on after lunch in Madaba, we parked at Mt. Nebo and had a short discussion of whether or not to leave the bus to climb up the hill in the drenching rain. Several of us really wanted to do this, so surprisingly to me we all ended up going. We were a rainbow of colorful waterproof jackets and umbrellas winding our way up the hill; no two of us were alike. Amazingly, at the top, the rain stopped for a bit, enough of the sky cleared for us to gaze across the Jordan Valley and see the Dead Sea. It was here at Mount Nebo that Moses looked upon the Holy Land, just as we were doing, although Moses never reached it. We thought that we would.
The drive from Madaba to Petra took almost four hours, over convoluted, bumpy one-and-one-half lane roads. It was better not to look out the front window. The further south we drove the more desert-like the landscapes became. I saw herds of sheep, goats, and camels, and less and less green. The Desert or King's Highway was much better; it was a bit smoother and parts were a four lane highway although other sections being repaired narrowed to only two lanes. But Jordanians like to squeeze three vehicles into these two lanes, assuming, I guess, that all will fit. We were told there are many accidents on this highway, but today we escaped unscathed.
At Petra we very gladly climbed out of the bus. After a day of rain all of us were hoping for clear weather for the next day, our one day to spend exploring the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Petra. The forecast was good, so we took heart in hearing that. Everyone was up early, arriving at Petra before 8:30 AM. The day was gorgeous: pure sun, a light wind, and a deep blue Maine sky. What great good luck! Historians agree that Petra was built by the Nabataean empire during the first century BC, located within the heart of the Shara Mountains. It was a vital part of one of the major trading routes that connected ancient Mesopotamia with Egypt. Also called the Rose Red city because of its colorful sandstone walls, a large part of the city of Petra was destroyed by an earthquake in 363 AD. Local Bedouin moved in or stayed until as recently as 1988 when they were moved to a village twenty minutes away.
Walking along an ancient rocky road, always heading downhill, lower and lower, one can see tombs carved into the mountainsides; an extensive necropolis was built to house families in the afterlife. There are temples, a theater, side streets, a piped water system, and tunnels, the remains of a once thriving city. Walking through the canyon was a series of visual delights; looking up at the high, colorful, sculpted walls was a unique treat, reminding me a little of backpacking within the Grand Canyon and looking one mile straight up to see the rim. Here in Petra artwork depicting caravans of camels is carved in some places along the walls, plus one can see the carving of a fish, and then an elephant on opposite sides of one large rock. Ingenious! Creativity must have always been a basic human urging. Osama identified a small tree growing out of the side of a rock wall as the tree used to make Jesus's crown of thorns; looking closely we saw hundreds of tiny thorns in each slender branch. In this part of the world we were walking in living history, history made real and tangible. But one also has to be aware of the horse-drawn carriages careening up and down the canyon, carrying people who weren't able or didn't want to walk. The drivers beat their horses to make them run; the faster they run the more fares the drivers can make. Apparently inconsideration for or downright cruelty to animals exists everywhere.
But the best known site at Petra becomes visible as one walks through the narrowest part of the gorge; this famous facade is called the Treasury, a breathtaking structure, but one that is so often photographed that it seems quite familiar even when first seen. The approach from the narrow, dark canyon into the hot bright sunlight heightens its magnificence. How could this be here in this place? It reminded me of tombs I had seen in Egypt, but this Treasury seemed flat, two-dimensional in comparison. Visitors are not allowed to enter, but Osama told us he had been inside several years earlier. We learned that concerts are sometimes given here; I can imagine being here at night, listening to glorious music, seeing Petra's Treasury and the path through the canyon lighted only with candles. What an incredible experience that must be!
And decorated with colorful rugs, bells and baubles, complacent camels sit in a circle in front of the Treasury, waiting either for photographs or riders, or both. The whole area is crammed full of people, wanting to see Petra, most meaning that they want to see the Treasury. A little way off I spoke with a Bedouin standing beside his camel and he told me he lived twenty minutes away in their camp; it was probably the same camp where the Bedouins went when they were removed from Petra thirty years earlier. Would I like a ride either further down, or back up to the top? No, thank you, I said. I enjoy walking. But for me the walk through the canyon was perhaps the best part of this day; I knew what the Treasury would look like, but to meander through the miles between the high walls, visualizing a bustling city amidst all of this great beauty was a wondrous treat. Petra is far more than just the Treasury; there are many trails one can hike, and small shops along the flat parts after the canyon. Friends and I, supporting the local economy, purchased scarves supposedly made of 100% camel hair; whether or not they truly are doesn't really matter, but we have done our little bit to save this treasure. It is well worth saving.
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