Thursday, May 31, 2012

It's about dead people: Part Two

Petra a city of the living and the dead.

Where the Egyptians built cities for their dead west of the Nile and away from where they lived and where we have tended, throughout American History, to prefer cemeteries apart and away from daily life (The church yard cemetery being the exception.), Nabataeans of Petra intertwined the lives of the living with the lives of the dead building houses and tombs in the same neighborhoods.

The region of Petra shows habitation going back to 9000 bc. It lay on caravan routes that would have been traveled by Abraham and Sarah. Tradition claims that Moses and the people of Israel traveled through the valley on their way to the crossing at Jericho. As a city Petra begins to flourish in the second half of the fourth century with the first dateable burial going to the beginning of the 3rd century bc. The city flourishes until the Roman period beginning toward the end of the 1st century AD when it begins a decline, that becomes a major decline with an earthquake in the mid 4th century.

The homes of the average Nabataeans were really rather modest, made of mud bricks with windows facing inner private gardens. Flat roofs supported by the scarce wooden beams. But in and around their homes were the elaborate buildings that we see today. Most of these buildings were tombs and a few were temples. It would also be most appropriate to call them building facades. They are carved right into the sandstone of the mountain. The most dramatic fa├žade is the one we first encounter after our long walk down the siq, the passage into Petra. This building is featured in Indiana Jones the last Crusade. If you remember Indiana passes three major trials to go deep into the mountain in order to find the grail. However in reality the 3 rooms of this building go only about 20 feet into the mountain and though called the treasury it too was a tomb. The standard tomb consisted of 2 or 3 rooms. One was for the dead. The other rooms were for family gatherings. We have few writings so we can only conjecture family meetings or meals with the deceased. We do know from the few unrobbed tombs that survived into modern times that the dead also watched over treasure for the family. I also believe that because there are tombs at the beginning of the siq and along the siq that maybe they guarded the way into the city.
One last note about Petra. The Nabataeans worshipped a pantheon of gods common to the pre-muslim Arabic world. Interestingly the primary gods and goddesses were not anthropomorphized in statuary but were represented by moderately adorned stone blocks. Am I the only one who sees a hint of “thou shalt make no images” in this?

When Petra was first visited by modern Europeans in the early 1800’s Bedouins were living in the tomb buildings. About 25 years ago the Bedouins were provided modern housing and the rights to work in Petra in exchange for moving out of historic Petra. Petra then became a world heritage site and the largest tourist attraction in Jordan. In our half day there we saw maybe a third of the site. Petra alone was worth the trip.

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