Swans Commentary » swans.com November 16, 2009  



The Monuments Of Civilization: Petra
The Grandeur of Tolerance


by Raju Peddada





[Author's note: I instantly recognized that backdrop and asked him if he saw that ruined place behind him in detail. His answer: "Man, they're a bunch of fallen stones...what's the big deal?" This ignited my rage, which I had held in check for years on him who had forced these pictures on me every year after his travels. "You fucking imbecile...that is the PELLA palace of Phillip II where Alexander the Great was born...you moron...you stood a few feet from where the greatest of the legends came to life and have the nerve to say "bunch of fallen stones"...fuck you and your travels!" His retort: "fuck off you freak!" We split, leaving the friendship in ruins.]


"He who cannot draw on 3000 years is living hand to mouth."


(Swans - November 16, 2009)   The trouble with me: This is how twenty-three years ago my friendship dissolved following my paroxysmal pillory on his attitude after visiting historical places. It so happened that this trust-fund friend of mine was lucky to have the means to travel every year to the Greek Isles, with its ubiquitous ruins. But his travels, like those of millions out there, did not translate to any amount of reflection or erudition, and like many, he came back unaffected, except with a repulsive tan. He had always claimed it was the Mediterranean climate that drew him. His travels frustrated me -- I often wondered how anyone could be oblivious to all that steeped seminal history whispering around. Ironically, it was over the ruins that our friendship was ruined -- I still recall that exchange vividly after almost a generation. Perhaps I should have couched my criticism and let it go that day, but in the ensuing years I felt increasingly better after that catharsis.

Immersion as an imperative: Are you going there to "see" the place, or see "yourself" there? Seeing places where our civilizations germinated and blossomed is a privilege many can afford in the present. But the "real seeing" of these ancient locations is a fantasy and transport only a very few are able to consummate. If any sort of revelations or aha! moments are to be experienced it would be utterly remiss of us not to prepare before visiting that place in the least. There are thousands of folks out there who travel to these wonder-filled, echoing ruins of the ages needing only their imagination; yet, most come back with a tan, a handful of postcards, pictures, souvenirs, and an empty mind. What an utter stupefying waste!

In a metaphysical way one ought to periscope himself into antiquity to experience that unique feeling of living history. The only way to hear these whisperings from the past is through an "immersive relocation" of the heart and mind by feeling the presence of the "living past" around you. I experienced this at the Volubulis in Morocco, an ancient Roman outpost from the second century in the Trajan (53-117A.D.) era. I could clearly see the togas and sandals on the gentry, the gaiety of children, the scampering stray fouls and dogs, the boisterous repartees on the streets between friends in a strange language, the smoke billowing from the market ovens casting a haze over the thoroughfare, the smell of myrrh and terrestrial fragrances of the passing bathers from the public baths, and the grinding cart wheels in the stone ruts with the loud verbal prods of the driver on the steeds...this cerebral immersion into the past rendered me completely immobile, almost in a trance like state, to the amusement of the passers by, especially the locals.

One such romanticist enterprise had eluded me, and that is the destination of Petra, in Jordan. However, metaphorically I had traveled several times to that place with the aid of some great archaeologists and historians; particularly Jane Taylor's panegyric book Petra and the Lost Kingdom of the Nabataeans, which drew lucid accounts of great archaeological discoveries that rendered one from a topical visit, to one that immerses us in the milieu of this ancient town by the account on specific individuals who lived back then, like the one called "Babatha" covered in chapter eight in the aforementioned book.

I also cannot imagine anything more alluring than the sight of ancient ruins abandoned by man, covered by vegetation, as if nature coddles the ruins and swiftly brings it into its bosom, hiding it from the plunderers and pillagers, and defending it from the clutches of the man from the future. Sort of like Nature's safekeeping of the secrets of the past, for those whose protective limbs have disintegrated long ago and are not available to defend their own creations any more. Petra is one such place in the modern day Jordan.

Nabataean origins: In 1806, an intrepid young scholar named Ulrich Seetzen became the first to set foot east of the Jordan Rift Valley since the Crusaders. He came to know about the ancient ruins of Petra through word of mouth, as well as some "tempting" references in Byzantine journals and crusader chronicles. Before he could cast his eyes on this elusive prize he was murdered in Yemen in 1811. Into his shoes stepped the itinerant Swiss, Johann Ludwig Burckhardt, and on the 22nd of August 1812, his were the first eyes to see the Nabataean Capital in over six hundred years.

I have no pretensions or any claim to original scholarship, but after an assiduous consumption of their mind-numbing history, I present here my own perspective and perception of that place of secular brilliance and seminal ideas that saw its heyday over two thousand years ago. The Nabataeans were one of the many wandering tribes of Arabia, where most of the tribes had vanished in the drifting sands of anonymity or had mutated into warring sects in the following generations. But one tribe mysteriously caught the spotlight of history and prospered conspicuously during its time in this phosphorescence, before dissolving into the sandstorm of memory. Assyrian annals from the eight century BC mentioned them as "Nabatu," a belligerent Arab tribe of the region. This mystifying Assyrian reference is also revelatory in that it seems to place their origin in Mesopotamia, who then later migrated around the fifth-sixth century BC and claimed the northwest part of Arabia, what today is Jordan.

Few peripatetic nomadic tribes made such dramatic ascendance from a semi-arid pastoral subsistence to a settled life in a fine city. They brought and traded incenses derived from myrrh and frankincense grown in the southern region of Arabia. Their settlement in the convolved sandstone hills became a starting point of the incense route. The Nabataeans discovered what the Old World and the New World discovered almost two millennia later, and that is the control of water, trade, exchange of ideas, and the mastery of their surroundings facilitated their freedom. Greek historian Diodorus Siculus claimed later in his journals that these Nabataeans were "exceptionally fond of freedom." With their successes they had also discovered another source of freedom: wealth. It is the deft management of their surroundings and protection of their freedoms that enabled them to remain independent from enslavement at the hands of the then superpowers: The Assyrians, the Persians, and the Macedonians. They dominated the trade of incenses and spices with links to the south and east, finding customers in the west, like Egypt, Greece, Rome and most of the Levant. Nowhere on the Arabian Peninsula did such wealth and technologies develop to exist in tandem.

Topographic and architectural eclecticism: The early Nabataean tribal scouts had to be prescient topographical geniuses for picking the place most forbidding, yet naturally beautiful and protective in the convoluted sandstone mountains created by primeval cataclysms east of the Great Rift Valley. The iridescent russet sandstone outcrops are magnificent in their spectrum of reds that seemed to throb with mystery as well as solutions. The abyssal fissures carved by the wind and water through the eons became the surreal gorge walls called "Bab as Siq" leading up the most stupefying and dramatic entrance to Petra's "Khazaneh" the treasury temple. Whether traversed from the north or the south, upon turning the corner to the east, visitors are slapped out of their stupor from the reddish twilight of the "Siq" (narrow dry stream beds as a walkway under the naturally carved, looming and converging sandstone walls -- similar to that seen in the Bryce Canyon in Utah) to the brilliance of the astounding litho-scooped monument before them. Even the most fecund imagination is suspended in rapturous yet silent awe at the abrupt sight of this honey-hued petroglyphic magnificence.

Perhaps the best description of the place was by an itinerant lawyer and writer John Lloyd Stephens (1805-1852), who later attained immortality for his writings on the Maya ruins. His 1837 bestseller Incidents of Travel in Egypt, Arabia Petra, and the Holy Land gives us a vivid account of his indelible memory of Petra: "...this ancient and extraordinary city is situated within a natural amphitheater of two or three miles in circumference, encompassed on all sides by rugged mountains five or six hundred feet in height."

"...while their summits present Nature in her wildest and most savage form, their bases are adorned with all the beauty of architecture and art, with columns and porticos, and pediments, and the ranges of corridors, enduring as the mountains out of which they are hewn, and fresh as if the work of a generation scarcely yet gone by."

The Nabataean capital is another representation of their inclusive, wide ranging imagination and eclectic tastes. Inspirational elements from Indian wildlife, Greek Hellenistic sculptures, motifs and Roman structural components make up the architectural identity. One obvious and classic structure based directly on the Vitruvian principles was the amphitheater carved out the naturally conducive Siq walls, apparently hewn out during the reign of Aretas IV, a veritable people lover. Again here is an excerpt from Stephens's journal that pretty much encapsulates the impact this place has on any visitor: "...and I can well imagine that, entering by this narrow defile, with the feelings roused by its extraordinary and romantic wilderness and beauty, the first view of that superb façade must produce an effect which could never pass away. Even now, that I have returned to the pursuits and thought-engrossing incidents of a life in the busiest city in the world, often in situations as widely different as light from darkness, I see before me the façade of that temple; neither the Colosseum at Rome, grand and interesting as it is, nor the ruins of the Acropolis at Athens, nor the Pyramids, nor the mighty temples of the Nile, are so often present to my memory."

Religious inclusion and women's rights: In addition to their glowing extrinsic monumentality, what distinguished the Nabataeans was their intrinsic resplendence in their religious "inclusionism." Not much remains of their gods and deities, as most of the representations were defaced or vandalized by fanatical iconoclasts after the 1st through the 7th century AD. Their pre-eminent god was Dushara after Dionysus with a trinity of accompanying goddesses known as "Allat, al Uzza and Manat." Most of the lesser deities were carved as "Betyls," meaning human heads inside circular floral medallions. Their main temple was adorned by "Tyche" modeled after Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of fortune and protector of cities. Aphrodite as al-Uzza also was the great goddess of Petra along with Castor and Pollux, who guided dead souls to their Elysian fields. Basically the Nabataean pantheon of gods included the Egyptian, Greek, Roman, and Arabic deities, which in turn fostered a cultural lubrication of peace and trade. This assimilatory profusion of tolerance is evident on all the architectural elements of this ancient city. The Nabataeans indulged in a fair amount of adaptation of their original Arabian gods. Their greatest king Obodas was like Zeus, a concept later adopted by the Romans when benevolent emperors were deified.

In Petra and at the Hegra tombs, one finds evidence of cohabitation of disparate Arab tribes along with Jewish people who had lived with a Nabataean majority -- apparently unafflicted by problems arising from cultural or religious differences, unlike today. Nabataean women had full rights of ownership and of entering into legal contracts on their own account. The high status of women and their parity in family and property matters is obvious in various inscriptions found. This prescient social milieu sported the recorder of deeds, a magistrate to legislate inheritances, divorces, property ownership, small claims, alimonies, and lawyers to represent women's rights. The present is a far cry with the region's misogynistic theocracies and autocracies subjecting their populations, especially the female gender to cold-blooded primitive absolutism.

The Nabataeans became a highly evolved sophisticated civilized society, who did not prosecute each other, but in every way kept peace. Fights and disputes were often resolved without recourse to the bloodshed or the courts, thereby inventing the concept of arbitration. Most issues were resolved by mediation and arbitration within reason.

Petra was the coruscating crossroads between distinct and great civilizations of the East and the West. It was a place where people of all origins and faiths assembled for ideas and trade from and on their way to the Levant. It welcomed outsiders and visitors as the bastion of inclusion. Today, in a stark and foreboding contrast, this region is the quick sand of exclusionism and xenophobic isolationism under suffocating regimes in quite wiles with a messianic zeal for vertiginous oneness that has ignited a demented fanaticism in men, and consequently, where ideas have dried up since the seventh century onwards. It is a sad and manifest case of the latitudinal goodness and preponderance of diverse ideas and faiths vanquished by the vertical viciousness of one idea, pounded down the gullets of peoples whether they liked it or not. The tolerant Nabataean culture nourished freedom in the love of god, which was later obfuscated with force to become the fear of god terror in the second century AD, which was further cemented with bloodied mortar after the seventh century, and descent into the present. One thing is a certainty: fanaticism begets ignorance and both feed on violent intolerance. Fanaticism and ignorance also grow when the future is rendered obsolete by the oblique ascendance of one idea at the expense of other great and diverse ideas.

Their sublime message: Why Petra and the Nabataeans? My criterion for this gravitation to this seemingly clairvoyant and mysterious place is that it is truly a great monument of civilization, an unequivocal celebration of collective achievement. It is not a forced tribute for a specific conqueror, neither is it a place honoring or glorifying an individual, but the collective genius of the Nabataeans, a nomadic group long dissolved in the pouring sands of time. The overwhelming resplendence of Petra eclipses something very obvious from the view. At a deeper level it is veritable symbol and an emblem that represents tangible achievements of a secular culture at its zenith, it is also a paradoxical metaphor, sort of an anachronistic window to a future that could have been. Today it is an ancient outpost of ideas -- ideas that are still viable and vibrant, but ironically trapped in the contemporary surroundings devoid of reason. It was a place where the progressivism of the region passed away, but what the Nabataeans had accomplished will echo into eternity.

Petra had transmogrified into a sandblasted logo for egalitarianism. I see it this way: what the Nabataeans built is indeed the implacable testimony, irrefutable evidence, and didactic commentary on the power of a secular society with free exchange of ideas and mutual nurturing of discrete and disparate faiths or belief systems that became the fecund ground for indigenous innovations and inventions. The exemplary governance system, and the paradigmatic water management with their hydro and litho engineering to build a city and conserve winter rains and floods in a parched land, is nothing sort of miraculous, especially with the technology available. These were not imported ideas here. Contrast this with the state of affairs today: With a turn around from sixth century BC free and independent Nabataeans to the twentieth century, this same region, imprisoned in its own ideological miasma, depends entirely on imported ideas and technologies. From the consumer products to the water reclamation and purification plants, as well as the oil drilling and refining technologies -- are simply ideas from open humanistic cultures of the west, exactly what the Nabataeans had over two millennia ago.

Travel with the third eye open: Ironically, ancient Petra glows intensely in stoic defiance and in mockery of the frigid absolutism that surrounds it today. The Nabataeans knew that ideas are greater monuments than grandiose buildings, and the capacity to reason and compromise is a better celebration. In a cryptic way, the Nabataean achievements are an atavistic challenge to us to reverse the regression of the present state in our societies. "History repeats itself" is a worn-out cliché; however, it harbors obdurate facts in that having started with great ideas in no fortification nor guarantee against aggression or complacency, and that if we do not consistently guard against gathering malignant forces behind bad ideas we are at the risk of becoming another Petra for the Western posterity, albeit with no magnificent structures like they had.

In conclusion, we all have the capacity to see with our inner eyes, or let's say the "third" eye, which tends to see more. Perhaps that is why we are afraid that this third eye may reveal more about ourselves than we care to acknowledge when we look into history, as we continue to relegate historical subtext and places as mere escapes into grand romantic sceneries. While we all cannot express ourselves like Stendahl, Edward Gibbon, Jane Taylor, Brian Fagan, Shirley Hazard, or Paul Theroux, we still possess this third eye like them, which represents our emotions, intuition, imagination, and intellect in metaphysical way. But somehow, by the thousands, we continue to travel with that shut inner eye. In which case, do yourselves and especially me a favor, if you want to be a Cyclops, and cannot find a way to un-shutter that inner eye to absorb the sublime, the subtext, and the whispering milieu at ancient locations, please stick to the local shopping malls and bazaars and leave the destinations like Petra to those who can "immerse" themselves. This way your banality and your CO2 emissions will not leave history in ruins, and that is the least our antiquity deserves.


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Further reading:

1.  The Medieval Plague: The Black Death in the Middle Ages, by Geoffrey Marks  (back)

2.  The Western Canon, by Harold Bloom
Mimesis, by Erich Auerbach
The Novel, by Franco Moretti
The Black Death and the Peasant's Revolt, by Leonard W. Courie
Boccaccio and Freud, by Eugene W. Holland  (back)


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About the Author

Raju Peddada is an industrial designer running an eponymous brand, purveyor of ultra luxury furnishings of his own design (see peddada.com). He is also a freelance correspondent/writer for several publications, specializing in commentary, essay, and opinions on architecture, design, photography, books, fashion, society, and culture. Peddada was born in Tallapudi, a small southern town in south India. He's lived in New Delhi and Bombay before migrating to the West Indies and eventually settling in Chicago, Illinois, where he worked in corporate America until he chose to set up his own designing firm. He lives with his family in Des Plaines.



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This Edition's Internal Links

Dors Petit Homme, Dors Petit Frère: Priam (May 1999 - November 2009) - Gilles d'Aymery

The First Time As Tragedy - Michael Doliner

Jonah Raskin's The Mythology of Imperialism - Book Review by Louis Proyect

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Howard Zinn And The Co-option Of Social Change - Michael Barker

Nancy Nye And Humanitarian Capitalism (For Palestine) - Michael Barker

The Moses Fallacy - Michael DeLang

Ghana's Ministers In Trotro - Femi Akomolafe

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Dream (Fragment) - Multilingual Poetry by Guido Monte

Regret - Poem by Jeffery Klaehn

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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
URL for this work: http://www.swans.com/library/art15/rajup23.html
Published November 16, 2009