Smithsonian Journeys Dispatches

Petra - City in Stone, Culture in Motion: Dispatch 15 from Extraordinary Cultures

Dateline: Petra

The so-called “Treasury” of Petra—seen in many movies including Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, is more likely a tomb and memorial to a king. Indeed, Petra as a whole, extending 20 square miles is a vast ritual complex of cave tombs, memorials and monuments, monasteries and churches that grew over hundreds of years in the southern Jordanian desert. The scale is impressive, and the terrain foreboding and harsh, as sandstone of every color, striation, and pattern forms canyons, rift valleys, mountains, hills, and natural outcroppings worthy of awe and reverence. Indeed, the name given to the place—“Petra”—means "stone" in Greek.

Managing this site couldn’t be easy. A ceramic tile irrigation system carried water down the main siq or canyon. Cisterns held rainwater. Well-engineered streets and paths cross the site. Caves, with pillars, columns, statues and ornamentation were carved out of the soft sandstone. Earthquakes were not infrequent, and building techniques had to account for their impacts.

Almost unimaginably, wheat and grapes for wine were grown in this arid soil. This city of the dead was also a trading center for caravans moving between the Arabian Peninsula and the Mediterranean Sea. It was built and occupied by the ancient Nabeteans, and later subject to Roman and Byzantine influence—apparent in the architecture and in mosaics. Some 30,000 people may have lived in Petra at its peak. We are still learning more about the city and its development and decline as a result of ongoing excavations and projects, including a long-term one run by Brown University’s Martha Joukowsky and reported in Smithsonian magazine in June 2007.

The site is of course still alive. Bedouins, who lived in the caves for perhaps the last hundred years until the last generation, now run souvenir and food stands and ferry visitors up and down miles of hilly trails and paths aboard camels, donkeys and horses. Thousands of visitors come every day. Preserving Petra has its challenges. Wind and sandstorms wear down carvings, obliterating the features. The normal ecological toll on the site is considerable—floods a decade away damaged some of the site, but interestingly, also revealed new carvings. People, as in ancient times, bring and deposit their garbage. Authorities managing this world heritage site and one of the great wonders of the world severely restrict vehicles, and have undertaking a variety of measures to safeguard the ruins.

The living culture of Petra is evident in the way in which the local Bedouin community of Wadi Musa—recognized by UNESCO for its intangible cultural heritage, has figured out how to process, service, and benefit from the tourism. A case in point is a local music group which offered a rousing dinner performance for us. This “Musa Team” as they are known combined typical Bedouin male line dancing and sword play with what I took to be British army marching techniques. The bagpipes, which accompanied drums and other instruments, were brought to the region by British forces. It was culture in motion—with a lot of testosterone. Many of us joined in. And not to be outdone by the musicians, out of the kitchen came the cooks and their helpers, wielding their carving knives, cooked chickens and lamb to serve up to their appreciative guests. Combined with other culinary delights, including an exceptional and distinctive Jordanian sweet cheese desert, we enjoyed a fantastic meal.

This post is fifteenth in a series. To see the other posts, click here.

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