In comparison to Egypt, Jordan is a country that trades on one amazing ancient monument – Petra. And what a monument this is.
Petra from the Greek, meaning ‘stone’ is an archaeological city that is famous for its rock-cut architecture and water conduit system. Established possibly as early as 312 BC as the capital city of the Nabataeans who were an ancient people of North Arabia. They had a loosely controlled trading network which centered on strings of oases that they controlled on various trading routes that linked them. Trajan conquered the Nabataean kingdom, annexing it to the Roman Empire, where their individual culture became dispersed in the general Greco-Roman culture and was eventually lost.
Pliny the Elder and other writers identify Petra as the capital of the Nabataeans, and the centre of their caravan trade. Enclosed by towering rocks and watered by a perennial stream, Petra not only possessed the advantages of a fortress, but controlled the main commercial routes which passed through it to Gaza in the west, to Bosra and Damascus in the north, to Aqaba on the Red Sea, and across the desert to the Persian Gulf.
Petra is a symbol of Jordan, as well as its most visited tourist attraction and has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1985. The site remained unknown to the Western world until 1812, when it was “rediscovered” by Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt. It was described as “a rose-red city half as old as time”. UNESCO has described it as “one of the most precious cultural properties of man’s cultural heritage” and one of the “28 Places to See Before You Die.”
As you approach Petra, your anticipation mounts as the impressive eastern entrance leads steeply down through a dark, narrow gorge (in places only 3–4 meters wide) called the Siq (“the shaft”). This natural geological feature formed from a deep split in the sandstone rocks and serving as a waterway which can be treacherous during heavy rain as you can be caught in a flash flood and swept away.
The gorge is deep, with vertical stone cliffs that soar upwards blocking out the sun which is only able to penetrate to the floor of the gorge as it passes vertically overhead. It is a cool, quiet place. After about a 2 kilometer walk, you approach the end of the gorge and you see before you, a bright sunlight area, the size of a football field and surrounded by high sandstone cliffs.
Your breath is taken away by the immense stone carved structure before you. There stands Petra’s most elaborate ruin, Al Khazneh (popularly known as “the Treasury”). Hewn into the sandstone cliff many centuries ago. This was not a place for storing the King’s wealth but actually a tomb where he would rest for eternity and enjoy the next life.
There are a number of other tombs in the area that are not as elaborate as the Treasury, however impressive nevertheless. These tombs reflect the social status and the wealth of the individual who commissioned their building. Some are just small burial niches, others are more substantial, with carving and decoration on the outside. The very wealthy were able to afford elaborate tombs that are guaranteed to impress and insure a comfortable passage to the afterlife.
Jordan is a country that is 75% desert and the remainder is semi-arid and sparsely populated. The significant minority group is the Bedouins. These ancient nomads call the whole of the Saharan desert home and easily travel across borders with scant regard to passports and immigrations laws. Some have adopted a semi-permanent lifestyle where they live in small towns and villages for part of the year, but regularly return to the desert with their tents and camels for extended periods of time.
Wadi Rum, also known as The Valley of the Moon, is cut into the sandstone and granite rock in southern Jordan, 60 km to the east of the Red Sea port of Aqaba. It is the largest wadi (valley) in Jordan. The name Rum most likely comes from an Aramaic root meaning ‘high’ or ‘elevated’. The stone mountains have been carved by sand and wind erosion for thousands of years, forming amazing and fantastical shapes on the rock face of the mountains. This gives the mountains the appearance that they are melting like a dripping ice cream cones on a hot day. The colours of the rock are fantastic, rich and varied; black, red, warm colours of orange and ochre, creamy whites to vibrant yellows.
I spent the afternoon with Atala – a local Bedouin who supplements his income by taking tourists out into the desert and making them a cup of tea over a small brush fire and showing them his skill of driving in powdery, slippery sand and over rocky dunes. I feel like I have stepped back into time. I ride alongside Atala in his 4×4, hearing stories about Bedouin life in the desert, and how the ancient trader’s caravans used Wadi Rum as a major route through the centuries; trading myrrh, frankincense, and other precious cargos from Asia to the Middle East.
Atala is dressed as traditionally – he is wearing a loose long-sleeved grey gown that falls to his ankles over a pair of loose cotton pants, on his head is the traditional head-dress of a red-and-white checked head scarf (the keffiyeh) secured by a rope coil (agal) around his skull. The red-and-white keffiyeh is a symbol of Jordanian heritage, and is strongly associated with Jordan. The Jordanian keffiyeh has decorative cotton or wool tassels on the sides and it is believed that the bigger these tassels, the more value it has and the higher a person’s status. It has been used by the Bedouins and villagers throughout the centuries and was used as a symbol of honor and tribal identification. The scarf can be tied in a variety of ways and reflects the personal style, as well as, serving a practical purpose to protect the eyes, ears and mouth from the sun, wind and sand. British Colonel T. E. Lawrence (better known as Lawrence of Arabia) was probably the best-known Western wearer of the keffiyeh. He wore a plain white one with agal during his involvement in the Arab Revolt in World War I.
Atala’s handsome face is deeply bronzed from years spent in the desert’s sun and wind. There are lines that crease around his eyes when he smiles and then you are dazzled by his brilliant white teeth. I am not sure what the secrets of his dental hygiene are, and how he maintains such radiant teeth as I note how much sugar he pours into his tea. Teaspoons are not part of local etiquette and he measures out the tea leaves by generous handfuls and the sugar in the same way. He is amazed that I prefer my tea without any sugar.
Gazing at him I, am unsure of his age – he is either incredibly young and has weathered badly, or, of more advanced years and looks fantastic for his age. I suppose he is somewhere in between. A father of 7 children – the eldest is 12 years old and the youngest is 2 years old. No doubt there will be one or two more to follow. The Bedouin place great importance on having children, and in large numbers, as this is an investment in their future and security in their old age.
As the largest minority group in Jordan, the Bedouin receive certain advantages from the government. However the Bedouin place an importance on self-determination and managing their issues inside the tribe. If there is a transgression within the community, they will seek the counsel of the headman to determine the appropriate course of action and appropriate punishment. As a nomadic and free-spirited people the worst punishment that can be metered out is home detention. To enforce this punishment they do not need high-tech monitoring devices – such an electronic ankle bracelets but simply they shave half the culprits moustache off. The moustache, to the Bedouin is a major feature and they are particularly vain about their luxuriant growths. Any self-respecting Bedouin would not be caught dead without his handsome moustache – let alone half a one.
Vanity is not only the prerogative of the men. The women too use cosmetics as Atala showed me. He found two pieces of a particular stone and rubbed them together vigorously. This formed a brick-red powder which he carefully spread over my cheeks in large round patches. He stood back and admired his artistic endeavours and was certain that I would make a good bride price. However, desert life for me is far from comfortable; living in sheepskin tents, milking camels, surviving the elements – searing hot in summer, and bone chilling cold in winter, horrendous sand storms that can block out the sun for days and cover anything that stands in their path.
The Bedouin are to be admired for their pride in their culture and traditional way of life. Harsh and as hard as it is.
Next blog – more about Lawrence of Arabia….