Sunday, October 25, 2009

A Whiff of Ozymandias

I just finished the first of two days in Jordan. Most of it was spent exploring Petra, which is an ancient city constructed around 100 BC by the Nabateans (no, I'd never heard of them either!). Petra is located in southwestern Jordan about 50 miles (80 kilometers) south of the Dead Sea and the border crossing with Israel. The excavated city (and there is apparently more underneath the sand and rock) extends along the eastern flank of a great rift valley that runs from the Dead Sea to the Gulf of Aqaba called Wadi Araba for a good 10 kilometers. It remained unknown to westerners until it was ‘discovered’ by a Swiss explorer in 1812.

I had read many resources on Petra and seen countless pictures, but it is impossible to be prepared for the staggering beauty and scale of the actual site. The ‘buildings’ are not actually built, but carved into the sheer rock faces of mountains of rust-colored sandstone. According to our guide, a Jordanian, the artisans would first construct enormous piles of sand alongside the mountain they wished to chisel. As they completed work, they would cart the sand to a new location, working top down versus bottom up.

At the height of its power, the city reportedly held around 10,000 inhabitants. Our guide told us that he believed there were over 100,000 known tombs in the valley, which would include generations of deaths. According to what I’ve read, the Nabateans believed that the soul departed from the body and continued to live after death, so it should therefore continue to be fed and clothed by its living descendants. In fact, one’s house became one’s tomb, which is why there are so many available tombs at Petra. It gave me an eerie feeling to be surrounded by so many buried bodies.

Petra remained a trading hub until around 300 AD or so even after the Romans conquered the city early in the millenium. But after trading routes migrated and after an earthquake destroyed much of the water infrastructure, Petra gradually disappeared from records.

A somewhat well-known poem about Petra, written in 1845 by John William Burgon, an English Anglican divine was awarded the British Newdigate Prize that same year. Proving that it is indeed possible to imaginatively travel without leaving the comfort of one's armchair (although not as much fun!), Burgon had only heard Petra described and never set foot in Jordan or the city. The poem is 350 lines long in rhymed couplets, and to my ear, fairly bland. It doesn’t approach the unburied majesty of the city, but here is an excerpt nonetheless:

It seems no work of Man's creative hand,
by labour wrought as wavering fancy planned;
But from the rock as if by magic grown,
eternal, silent, beautiful, alone!
Not virgin-white like that old Doric shrine,
where erst Athena held her rites divine;
Not saintly-grey, like many a minster fane,
that crowns the hill and consecrates the plain;
But rose-red as if the blush of dawn,
that first beheld them were not yet withdrawn;
The hues of youth upon a brow of woe,
which Man deemed old two thousand years ago,
match me such marvel save in Eastern clime,
a rose-red city half as old as time.

But, I will say that I do like that last line!

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