Walking Among the Ancients

Petra, Jordan: The descent into the valley that disguises the ancient town of Petra held no clue about what historical and cultural intrigue I was about to discover. Stepping onto the path, the city of stone drew me into a corridor in the belly of “Jordan’s Grand Canyon” where striated rocks of rusty red, mauve and rose frame the walkway. I felt transported to an earlier era awash in spirits.

You can choose to head down the flat canyon floor by camel, which will satisfy the camel keepers, or go on foot, and spend all the time you want marveling at this architectural and cultural phenomenon, an official UNESCO heritage site. My friends and I decided to walk sans camel. Either way, the journey takes you not only deep into an old city, but back in time when goats and camels roamed the landscape.

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Soon the road brought us to cave homes carved right from the rocks—small and large, open doorways of soft curved rectangles emerging from natural walls. I could easily imagine families cooking fresh goat meat over an open fire at the front of the openings. The homes appear in different shapes, in different rocks for some two thirds of a mile. That’s a lot of patient chiseling by hordes of strong hands.

The Nabateans, the people who established this area, around the sixth to third centuries B.C.E. evidently enjoyed a vibrant cultural and religious life. Archaeologists have found pieces of jewelry and painted clay pottery. As I passed by, I looked up and saw wall carvings of an oversized camel and later, a lion. Symbols representing good and evil djins and other spirits could be seen just above eye level in the rockface. Other symbols sit high over openings and stone-carved rooms. Tombs and obelisks of myriad heights line the city, paying homage to mortals and gods alike.

Pink blossoms of oleander crop up in some areas along with a few other plants. But there’s no question this is hot, dry desert. The Nabateans developed an ingenious filtrated water system that captured water in flash floods and moved it through the town, which likely saved them in times of drought. The open ducts chiseled from sandstone line the walkway through the canyons.

As I climbed up and over crevices and steep hillside trails, I encountered a few female Bedouin vendors and their children, each at different self-appointed stops, selling jewelry and trinkets to tourists. Although the Nabateans were nomadic for a period before building Petra, it is debated whether or not they were a Bedouin people.

Ultimately, I came to the Treasury, hewn directly from a massive sandstone hillside. Although I knew that we were heading towards this temple, I was overwhelmed by its sheer size and complexity, and the knowledge that it was carved by human hands. It was like seeing Egyptian pyramids or Aztec temples for the first time.

Leaving the Temple area, I walked a short way east to a mountaintop that looks into Israel. How many times I’ve seen this region of internecine conflict on a map with distinct borders. From this peak though all I could see was trees.

On the way back, as my knees began to complain, I realized that I must have climbed hundreds of stone steps on the way in. I caught myself from grumbling when I considered that people must have spent days, weeks, even months, cutting these very steps by hand.

Drifting back past the sands of time to the beginning of the adventure, I thought how remarkable it was that we could drop into a real place that is over two millenia old, and do so without a time machine. Hats off to the archaeologists who made it all possible. If you’re an adventure traveler who enjoys historic places, be sure to put Petra, Jordan at the top of your list.

©Leanne A. Grossman

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