Nabatean legacy

Chasing rosy dreams, Hugh & Colleen Gantzer explore the archaeological riches of Petra, Jordan, a city that has been carved into the walls of a desert canyon.

The legendary city of  Petra. Photo by authorsIt was both magical and real. We had seen it in the movies and on the small screen. We had read about it, dreamt about it, drooled over it, but never really believed that we would walk through it. But sometimes, dreams do come true and this one did.

Chasing after our dream, we perched ourselves precariously on a rickety, aromatic horse-cart in a rock-strewn Jordanian town. For 1,200 m we stumbled, creaked and jingled through a deep slash in the towering rocks. Often, the sides of our ravine rose 80 m high, cutting off the sun, amplifying the sound of our horse’s hooves. Indiana Jones, in his Last Crusade, had galloped through this ravine at breakneck speed chasing baddies in German uniforms. We didn’t have stuntmen to help, so our muscles ached with balancing on our jogging buggy, but still, we were amazed by the flicker-swift passage of
images.

It was a tortuous, torturing, ride. Then, wonder swept like a balm over our tensed bodies. There, ahead, through a cleft in the rocks, constricted like the eye of a needle, was rose-red Petra, half as old as time.

We drew up in a piazza, micro-dotted with time-pilgrims like us, gazing around in disbelief. A whole winding canyon, a Siq, had been carved into tombs, palaces, churches, theatres, dwellings, even a high place of sacrifice atop a great flight of stone stairs. The most striking structure in this sculptured city — an entire metropolis chiselled out of the living rock — is the so-called treasury, the Al-Khazneh, 30 m wide and 40 m high. It really is a tomb to an ancient ruler, but later, inhabitants thought that the huge urn dominating its central columns was filled with gold and jewels. And so, it is pitted with the shots of would-be plunderers. The people who designed all this, from the 4th century BC to the 2nd century AD, could afford to entomb their dead in structures ranging from rock-cut caves to elaborate mausoleums.

We walked through this monumental town, mingling with ogling, clicking tourists strolling, or riding on camels and horses. The royal tombs included the Urn Tomb, the largest of the royal tombs, which had once been converted into a cathedral; the Street of Facades looked very Roman but had really been built by the citizens of Petra in the first century AD, and the theatre which could once have held 7,000 spectators. Sadly, the triple-level Palace Tomb has been badly eroded but we could still see its richly decorated façade. The pillars of the Tremenos Gate stood tall and led to the Colonnaded Street: once the bustling city centre.

A lesson in history

We had to knit together information from many sources to discover more about these highly talented people. The Nabateans were Arabs, quick-witted nomads with an intimate knowledge of the desert. They had discovered that bitumen, we call it tar, floated up from the bottom of the Dead Sea in sticky rafts. This was in great demand by the pharaonic people of Egypt, for embalming their mummies, and by the sea-faring Mesopotamians, to caulk their ships and make them seaworthy. Bitumen earned them a good income till they also discovered that their services were needed as guides for the silk, spice and incense caravans from China, India and the Mediterranean.

Though the desert is not just endless plains of featureless sand, and there are outcrops of rocks and hillocks eroded into bizarre shapes of djinns and hobgoblins, unwary travellers can get lost, follow shimmering mirages, and die of thirst and sunstroke. The Nabateans know where to camp and where the hidden sources of water lie. They also know how to use their camels to protect themselves from the searing, abrasive fury of sandstorms. As the reputation of the Nabateans spread across the traders of the world, their wealth and their power burgeoned.

Sadly, their growing strength got the Romans worried and their repeated
attacks weakened the Nabatean kingdom. Alternative routes and the diminishing market for incense, as Christianity replaced the older religions, also led to their economic decline. A great earthquake finally made the Nabateans abandon their city.

Petra was, virtually, lost to history, a vague legend circulating among the Bedouin. Then, early in the 19th century, a Swiss traveller named John Burckhardt, disguised as an Indian fakir, re-discovered Petra.

Enter, the Indians

Just as we were climbing onto our bone-shaking horse-cart again, a bearded guide strolled up to us. “Excuse me,” he said, “I hear you are from India.” “That’s right,” we answered. He held out his hand and shook ours. “We must thank you. If Burckhardt had not disguised himself as an Indian, our ancestors would never have allowed him into Petra. You see, after the tar-trade finished, Petra was sustained by the spice caravans from India. Thank you again.”

His comment got us thinking. Contacts between civilisations are always two-way streets. What were the cultural bridges between our two civilisations? Everyone we spoke to, however, said that the Nabateans were secretive people and kept their beliefs to themselves. Then, quite unexpectedly, we visited a museum in the old citadel high above Jordan’s capital, Amman. There, among the excellently displayed antiquities, we discovered some very curious figurines. There were statuettes with two heads and torsos on a single, lower body. They reminded us of some depictions of the Asvins, similar to the heavenly twins of Mediterranean myth, Castor and Pollux. The Greeks and Romans were very catholic in their tastes, easily absorbing ideas from other cultures. There was, however, one rather large sculpture that particularly intrigued us. It was of a seated woman and it must, originally, have had multiple arms though most of them had been broken into stubs. The curator said: “She’s a Nabatean goddess but we don’t know much about her”

We wondered then, as we wonder now, if spice traders from India had instituted, among the mysterious Nabateans, the worship of our all powerful, evil vanquishing, Durga Ma.

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