My daughters, Sonia and Sheema, and Sonia’s husband Eric were in Jordan it seems ages ago, but was in fact only 4 months ago. And if there is one vision that continues to symbolize that experience, it was the first step into Petra on Day 5 of our trip. We had driven to the office of the tour operator, Zaman Tours, in downtown Petra to pick up our tickets. We then drove closer to the entrance of the ancient city of Petra which is at a much lower level than the modern city of Petra, which is full of houses and apartment buildings on hills surrounding the ancient city of Petra. As you get off the car, you start to go down a sandy descending pathway and you are approached by men with donkeys, horse-carts, camels, all offering rides down to the site. We declined and kept walking, and it was just as well. The first vision of the Siq, the entrance to Petra takes one’s breath away. Like the Grand Canyon in our country, red sandstone rocks beautifully carved by time, sand, wind and water rise above. Unlike the Grand Canyon, these are much closer together, and show signs of an ancient civilization all along the route, with carvings, caves, figures, carved at different heights leaving the mark of this ancient civilization. One sees aqueducts all along the wall which was used to carry water into the city of Petra, and we learned that the way the Romans defeated the ancient Nabatheans was by discovering the water source of these aqueducts and stopping all water going into the City.
As one continues, there are many beautiful bends and curves in the Siq until there is another sudden surprise: the Treasury, looming up into the mountain with its beautiful architecture carved directly into the face of the mountain. I had once watched a program on PBS that the Treasury was built from the top down, which was amazing considering the simple tools people of those ancient times had! No cranes or trucks, no power, no engines, just human effort and ingenuity. What a contrast to today – often while driving back from the City I see this new building going up in Fort Lee, right across the river from Manhattan, and a giant crane is positioned precariously on its top, and I marvel at this human ingenuity as well. How does the human brain even think of creating such things and making them work? The Treasury of Petra is the most famous photo of Petra that is shown to potential tourists, but no photo can prepare you for its majesty and wonder! People just stand there looking up at the carvings and admire the civilization that produced this. Even while we were there, we heard that continued excavation was going on and more underground structures were discovered right under the Treasury.
I thought that this is probably the peak of our day trip, and was ready to pack up and go back. Little did I know what else was in store! As we continued to walk for what seemed miles in the desert sun, we came to a great opening of a flat plain surrounded by mountains and caves and paths carved in them. There were Egyptian style tombs, and other types of tombs all around us. The younger ones hiked up the mountain and took amazing photos of the whole ancient city from a very high point. We older ones relaxed in a Bedouin tent sipping drinks and I bought some Bedouin jewelry to remember the people by. With rugged, weather-beaten looks, they live in the open and often one sees their tents and sheep along the highways. In the evenings or hot afternoons, they will sit and sing rhythmic songs. As we continued, we saw Roman ruins that must have been built later during Roman times, a long colonnade just as in Jarash, with ruins on either side. We even saw a recent excavation led by a US college, I think it was Boston College! While the group continued to the Monastery, with its thousand step climb, I decided to just sit and reflect on the beauty, which was already so overwhelming for me. I could not take in any more. I tried to imagine the people who lived here so, so long ago and was grateful that they left some signs for us to contemplate. As the rest of the group returned, we headed back up through the plain, the Siq and up the hill to return to our cars. My aunt knew the owner of Zaman tours, a proud Bedouin who she called Abu Rashid. His new house, which he built on the highest hill of Petra, overlooked the modern city of Petra, and even the deep cavernous ruins we had just walked in. I knew of Arab hospitality and generosity from all my years of growing up in the Middle East, but nothing prepared me for the lunch-time feast of the most amazing Jordanian dishes! Even though 2 of their daughters were fasting, they continued to serve food and make us feel totally welcome and comfortable – how beautiful that we can still see this most human of values being lived. It touched my heart and I only wished more fellow Americans knew this about Arabs instead of the media portrayals designed to fuel hate. Abu Rashid’s family had long ties to this land, and he was so proud of being a Bedouin, of the land and its beauty. Later we found out that his brother-in-law was dying in a hospital; yet he took time to greet us and spend time with us. As we left their house and headed back to Amman, we were happy to have this be our farewell evening in Amman, as we were flying out the next day. The memories of that afternoon will define the Jordanian character forever for me and my family.