We look at Petra and see a wonder of how nature has carved the rock and what humankind has carved into the rock. But the greatest wonder is the stories of the civilization, the people who lived there. The Nabateans.
As I understand it this Arab tribe first lived as bedouins in the Negev Desert eventually spreading into the Kingdom of the Edomites. They began trading spices along the Incense route from China and India to Egypt, Greece, and Rome. They became very wealthy, … very wealthy … so much so that they sought a place where they could live securely but close enough to the Incense route to continue their trade. They found a home through a cavernous route through a mountain split in two from earthquakes and flood. There is only one way in and one way out and the way is not easy.
When we hear the word Petra the image that comes to mind is what has been called the Treasury, the three story edifice carved into the rock face – column upon column, stairway and lintel, complete with Greek gods and other symbols of religious significance. It was called the Treasury because of its grandeur. The thinking was such a building must be used to keep secure the enormous wealth they had amassed. I discovered to my surprise that this is actually the tomb of a Nabatean king. In fact, the Nabatean king whose daughter was married to Herod Antipas of Jesus’ day. Herod returned his daughter to him when he married his brother’s wife Herodias. Not a good move as it caused quite a bit of tension and conflict between the nations. The tomb took over 20 years to carve and the interior includes lower floors. The more floors in a tomb the more important the person. None of the work was done by the Nabateans themselves but by hired artisans imported to complete the work. There are many tombs scattered throughout this Nabatean city, which in its heyday was home to over 30,000 people.
They worshipped many gods setting up altars along the path into the city with an ingenious system for collecting, storing, and carrying water from a fresh spring over 2 miles away. This water served for ritual cleansing and purification as well as for the daily needs of the city. Channels carved through the rock and into the rock had clay pipes inserted to carry it and keep it pure. They also had a purification system within the channels to cleanse the water and facilitate an even flow of water. Brilliant.
When the Romans began moving into the area and conquering the kingdoms, the Nabateans moved north to Syria taking their wealth with them leaving behind the poor. The Romans marched into the city and easily took control, however the trade moved north with the Nabateans. Little did the Romans know but when they paved the King’s Highway they led all the trade right through the new Nabatean home.
Descendants of the Nabateans still reside in the area today, many of them eager to ”trade” with tourists walking the cavernous route to the ruins. I did meet such a one who no longer lives in the caves with his mother but in a house. His trade in incense has afforded him this. Whether or not his story is true (was it merely a ploy in his bartering technique?) I negotiated a price for his incense that truly has a most wonderful scent. He also showed me a technique for how to burn the incense cleaner. Good trade. I am bringing it back with me to bless our time of worship and the Lord. (BTW, crosses and Christian inscriptions have been found at the Petra site. It seems Christianity came with the Romans.)
As we reflected on this city, we asked ourselves what those in the future will say of us. When they sift and sort through all we leave behind, what story will it tell them about how we lived and what was important to us? It’s a question worth considering.
Today we go to Madaba to see a 6th Century mosaic on the floor of a Byzantine Church. It depicts a map of Biblical sites for the Christian pilgrim to follow. We were told that it is 85-90% accurate. Regardless, the mosaic itself will be most beautiful to see. I believe it was only uncovered in the late 1800’s and so kept in good condition. Then, to the airport and home. See you soon, until then Shalom.