Civilizations embrace when the wind blows, Petra, Jordan

There is a wild beauty to Petra, Jordan, both heavy and mournful, that shakes you. These canyons that stand as natural barriers, just north of Aqaba, became the capital of the Nabataeans, a Bedouin tribe that came from the depths of Arabia through these rocky passes to control the road of the caravans. People of the desert, the Nabataeans didn’t sow, didn’t plant and didn’t build houses. When they became rich and came in contact with near and distant civilizations, they wanted to embellish their capital with carvings of huge funerary monuments in the rock facades.

These are the notes I wrote in my travel journal, perched on one of these graves, which had the aspect of a Hellenistic monument with capitals, triglyphs and metopes. No one could subject the Nabataeans, only the Roman emperor Trajan, and later the Byzantines used them as guardians for the extreme borders of their Empire. To find yourself in Petra, flying in from Rome, is an awesome experience. You walk like an acrobat in the depths of History, while all is suspended inside you as you try to conceive of the reality of those distant times. So many civilizations ... You definitely need the power of your imagination to recreate their images.

Indeed I was walking like an acrobat, and it wasn’t only in my imagination.  First I went up some steps carved in the rocks, and then I ascended narrow and rugged paths to meet ... the Old Testament. As I climbed, the wind grew stronger and the landscape became more and more fierce. Rocks, everywhere rocks! When I reached the top of a harsh mount and I saw the precipice below, I remained speechless. The rocks descended abruptly and, in the endless horizon, the Negev desert extended.

I wanted to write about Moses' brother in my travel journal, but I didn’t know where to sit while the wind was raging around me. The mausoleum of Aaron could be seen at the top of another hill, five hours walk away, as a Bedouin told our company. Tradition says that Aaron died there because God had forbidden him from going to the Promised Land, and it was the Arabs who built that little white mausoleum.

“Go and sit comfortably at the altar” said the the Bedouin finding a solution for me where to sit. Strange or not the solution, for him, seemed normal. The altar was on the highest side of the rocks and, to reach it, I had to climb a smooth surface along the edge of the cliff. Looking down at the precipice, I remained speechless for a second time, but I recovered quickly as I watched a young Japanese lady sitting high up on the altar, smiling at her co-traveller, who was taking a picture of her.

While I was climbing and looking at the vastness of the desert below, I felt a light vertigo, but it went away when I inevitably crossed with the Japanese couple who were leading down the cliffs. The utter calm on their faces, expressing their inner peace, was probably due to their Zennist attitude, I thought. We exchanged a smile without saying a word, but we felt united at that moment. It was our common experience right there on that cliff. To stake your life when the depth of a precipice lies beneath your feet has an exciting impact on you.

When I arrived at the altar, I sat down and opened my travelling journal, but it was difficult to write because of the strong wind. My hair waved before my eyes and it was impossible for my hand to stay fixed on the page because the force of the air was pushing it aside. Nevertheless, I managed to write four words: "Civilizations embrace when the wind blows”.

The Treasury in Petra, Jordan - Middle East

The Treasury in Petra, Jordan - Middle East

Barbara Athanassiadis