Posts Tagged ‘Nabataean’
Petra is one of those places that has to be seen to be believed. Sure, it looks mega fabulous in films and documentaries, but it’s nothing like the pop culture simulacra the media has invented for it. The real place is so magnificent, so eye-popping and jaw dropping, it can only be defined as nothing less than an awe-inspiring, and truly religious experience.
An iconic site, Petra sits nestled in the Shara Mountains in southern Jordan. The Shara are sacred peaks, associated with the cult center of the Nabataean god Dhushara, lord of the mountains and son of all fates. But Petra isn’t just that one gorgeous building from Indiana Jones and the last Crusade (which is actually called al-Khazneh or the Treasury) nor is it just the Tomb of the Primes featured so prominently in last year’s Transformers 2 (which is typically actually called the al-Deir Monastery): it’s a vast cosmopolitan complex of sandstone wonder carved into a series of canyons and mountain tops over a series of approximately 36 square miles. You need days and days and oodles of energy to cover at least a partial hike of all the various sections of Petra proper (not to mention Little Petra several miles away from the more tourist-y central area). But it’s worth it, and if you ever get the chance to visit: do it. Just don’t forget comfortable shoes and a water bottle.
At the end of this last winter, I had two wonderful days out of my dig schedule to tour. The first I spent simply wandering through the ultra-tourist-y sections of the site. Petra, especially during high season in the fall, is exceptionally crowded. But as it’s an exceptionally big place, there’s always room for everyone to have their turn and pose for photos next to all the essential spots. And there truly never will be another moment in my life quite like walking up the long processional Siq and coming to its end and seeing al-Khazneh for the first time. It’s very Indiana Jones (and yes, my fellow archaeologists and I even had the theme song playing in the background off an I-pod to reinforce that notion) and it is a not-to-be-missed moment for anyone who has ever dreamed of seeing the world. However as impressive as it is now, imagine how amazing and magickal it would have been centuries ago as a culminating point for sacred parades. Hundreds would have trekked through the winding canyons to reach the space in front of al-Khazneh. Perhaps by torch light or by day light, the festive parishioners would have carried offerings; leaving some at the tiny altars carved into the walls they passed, and reserving others for the final destination. Sacred songs or chants, perhaps even dances would have been performed, but alas little is known of the ritual minutiae associated with this marvelous ritual landscape. However, participants would have come not necessarily to see al-Khazneh, but to have born witness to what was going on above it. For the cliffs above “the Treasury” rise ultimately to the High Place of Sacrifice, which for centuries, perhaps even pre-dating the more famous architecture below, a large basalt rectangle on a wind-swept plateau served as the ultimate offering place to the gods.
The High Place of Sacrifice, a two hour hike up and around the mountains is not often on the general tour. Typically a visit of Petra proper consists of a wander through the famous tombs, a stroll, or as in my latest visit, a camel ride across the Roman center of the city (which features the only remaining standing building, a later temple to the goddess al-Uzza), and a hike up a particularly treacherous mountain to see both the al-Deir Monastery and a panoramic of the site below.
The tombs stand out as the most prominent remaining feature, and many assume it was simple a necropolis. But what most people don’t realize about Petra is that it was a city of the living AND a city of the dead. Tombs and homes alike were carved into the mountain or else homes were built freestanding just beyond the ancestral tombs. And the living did not just live among the dead, they interacted with them on a frequent basis, often leaving feasts for the dead in the tombs and having celebratory feasts of their own. Later tombs, like the Tomb of the Obelisk just outside the Siq, even incorporated this element into their design and feature a special central room encircled with stone benches for the living to sit on as they enjoy their macabre meal. The close family ties this type of ritual communion implies and the respect of ancestors must have been a particularly satisfactory form of worship, because many of the Romans that were stationed in Nabataea, particularly the higher up commanders converted: living, dying, and being entombed according to local customs.
On the second day of my recent visit, in an effort to see some more of the quieter, less well known bits of Petra, I hiked even further off the beaten tourist path. Veering off just before the Siq a winding sandstone canyon, worn silky smooth by years of flood run-off, leads
up to an area of Petra called Moghar al-Nasara: a section of Petra you are virtually guaranteed to have to yourself on any given day. The canyon, a processional route, like most canyons round Petra, is dotted with carved altar niches to the various local gods. Some are topped with their totem symbols, and others, worn smooth by the wind, sand, and reverent hand, are mysteries even to the contemporary Bedouin tribe who work among the ruins. Several of the niches even contained recent offerings of stacked stones and small change. Upon encountering a particularly well worn niche which featured an intact and simple crescent moon above it (the symbol of the goddess al-Uzza), I too left a small offering of coins. I’m not sure how much of the goddess’ favor I can curry with 35 piastres, but I do really believe that it’s the thought that counts.
Towards the far end of the long and winding canyon, the niches take on a more decidedly Roman flavor with inscribed columns, more pronounced pediments, and a drastic increase in size. One along the way was more than 600 times the size of the regular 15×9-ish niches and more resembled a doorway. This change in style is not surprising however, considering that the canyon ultimately ends in another canyon, perpendicular to the first and parallel to the Siq farther south. This canyon is haphazardly lined with dozens upon dozens of purportedly later tombs, the nucleus of the later Roman enclave of Petra as the center of the region moved farther and farther away from the previous center below the High Place of Sacrifice and more towards the water sources farther southeast. The later Islamic period township is likewise even farther removed and the modern town of Wadi-Musa is even farther beyond that.
Seriously though, if you can go to Petra. Don’t leave it on your bucket list until it’s too late. Not only will it be a pain in the you know what unless you can get an ass to ride you round it; but carved as it was into the local sandstone: Petra is eroding away. Older tombs are already soft washed and blend into the background of the canyons, leaving only the odd opening shapes or occasional pediment to temporarily mark their passing. Petra is melting away into the desert cliff faces, blending in with the Gaudi-like landscape that the ancient Nabataeans changed to suit their religious and urban aspirations over two millennia ago.