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Entries in Jordan (3)


Water Conservation and Raiders of the Lost Ark

At this time last year, anyone concerned about my whereabouts would have found me walking through a majestic wind and rain-carved canyon, heading toward the center of the ancient city of Petra in southern Jordan. This tourist and scholar’s destination is an architectural and archeological marvel, considered by the UN to be the Eighth Wonder of the World. Ancient sculptors created Petra’s city structures and roads by carving into red, solid, sand cliffs. They started at the top of the mountains and worked their way down, developing grandiose buildings, temples, and tombs. Even the rooms inside the buildings were carved out of the rock.

It had been no more than two weeks before our group’s arrival when the temperature here had reached 44 degrees Celsius, [that’s about 111 degrees Fahrenheit!] Luckily, by the time we got to Petra, the heat had dropped to a mere 35 degrees, [a welcoming 96 degrees]. Large amounts of bottled water, a wide brimmed hat, and a neck scarf filled with cooling, gel crystals kept body temperatures at a survivable level.

The Nabataeans, one of the most gifted people in Middle Eastern history, settled this area over 2200 years ago. Here, where 90% of the land is desert, they built a powerful commercial and political kingdom. At one point, the capital city of Petra may have housed 20,000-30,000 people. With sparse rainfall and extreme heat, the Nabataeans were forced to excel in water conservation in order to sustain themselves. As highly skilled water engineers, they irrigated the land with an extensive system of dams, canals and reservoirs.

The inhabitants of Petra treated rainwater as a precious commodity. Paths carved into the rock mountains are lined with narrow gullies that send rain toward underground cisterns. Furthermore, carved into the facade of every building are vertical troughs that direct rainfall into aquifers. Historians and archeologists believe that it is this sophisticated knowledge of the power of water that allowed the Nabataeans to prevail in this harsh climate.

A striking phenomenon of this wondrous site is the blending of architectural motifs from several ancient civilizations. Their expertise in the caravanning business exposed the Nabataeans to diverse cultures, a fact that explains why the facades of their buildings incorporate design elements from ancient Egypt, Rome, Greece, and Assyria. Wealth had made that possible.They had enriched themselves not only from an exclusivity in distributing incense  - essential for pagan rituals -  but also by their mastery of the region’s trade routes, where they levied tolls, and from the wide range of luxury products that they handled.

This ingenuity of absorbing and interpreting the architectural themes of other cultures, resulted in the creation of one of the most dramatic ancient structures still standing. The glorious Treasury Building of Petra is so intriguing that it featured prominently in the iconic movie “Raiders of the Lost Ark”.

Most visitors to Petra ask what happened to such an ingenious, cultured, rich, and powerful, nation.Some believe that they were economically compromised by the decline in the use of frankincense and myrrh, when Christianity was introduced into the area.. Others believe that, when Islam became the dominant religion of the region, the need to maintain a separate national identity diminished and that most integrated into surrounding communities. Still others take a more pragmatic view, and point out that commercial caravanning became less profitable for them when trade routes shifted from the areas they controlled to Palmyra, Syria and when seaborne trade around the Arabian Peninsula expanded. As a result, during the fourth century CE,  the Nabataeans left Petra. The fact that archeologists have found very few valuables on site, leads them to believe that the withdrawal was an organized but unhurried process.

Our departure from Petra was also unhurried, but that was due to our exhilarating fatigue. It had been an experience not to be missed and all of us on this tour would do it again, in a heartbeat. -  It was that awesome.


How Landscaping Creates Serenity

Baptism Center, on the banks of the Jordan River. Photo copyright by Paul Charles Wolfe.The interesting thing about color in the Middle Eastern landscape is that it is found in very few places. To experience color, one must visit open air markets, gift shops, and art galleries. In markets, one finds colorful displays of spices and produce, as well as intricately decorated garments. Gift shops feature the handiwork of local artisans who create rather useful souvenirs in colors that reflect the vibrancy if the many local cultures that live there. In galleries representing local artists, the paintings have been executed in vivid reds, oranges and yellows - in shades so intense that they sometimes overwhelm tourists from more sedate cultures. Perhaps it is the bleaching sun that inspires the use of such vivid colors. However, as soon as one steps out of these venues, the landscape is bleak. Beige stone and sand are everywhere. That is the nature of the Middle East. Clearly one does not visit this part of the world for an aesthetic outdoor experience based on color.

Google aerial view of Kasar al Yahud, the location of the baptism centers on both sides of the sepentine Jordan River. The left side of the river is located in the West Bank; the right side is in the State of Jordan.During my visit there last August, when our tour group arrived at a baptism center on the banks of the Jordan River, we all let out a sigh of relief. We had found color. Baptism centers had been established on both sides of the river, in response to the needs of devout Christian tourists who wish to be immersed in the same waters used to baptize Jesus, over two thousand years ago. In creating this outdoor space, the attention given to atmosphere is impressive.

The azure blue of the water, combined with the pink of the flowers, are enhanced by the woodland effect of green-leafed trees on both river banks. All of these naturally occurring colors, deliberately landscaped only recently, contribute to creating a spiritual experience. The serenity of this place is palpable.


I Didn’t Know There Were Earthquakes in the Middle East. Did You?

I never stopped thinking like a gardener when I visited the Middle East, this past summer. Probably, that is what set me up for a shock as we were driving south from the Galilee to the central part of the Holy Land. About a few miles outside of East Jerusalem, the terrain suddenly changed. In place of the green farmlands, trees and plants, all I could see was cold dark rock. For a moment, I thought, that I was participating in a science fiction movie and that I was driving on a lunar surface! The terrain had turned a dark slate-grey color and appeared to be solid stone - not a blade of grass, not a single tree or shrub, not even a grain of sand or a drought tolerant plant, and not a sign of any wildlife. For as far as the eye could see, and broken up only by the distant sites of Palestinian villas towering on the horizon, there were rolling hills of stone, some in gentle undulation but most, aggressively protruding out of the ground, at right angle and 45 degree angles to the plane of the earth; and all in ugly pock-marked malformations. No life can exist on this bedrock: nothing can grow here, no animal can graze and humans cannot survive here for very long.

I asked our guide to explain the presence of this disturbing terrain. He replied that it was bedrock and that normally it is found deep underground. However, continuous earthquake activity over the centuries had pushed it up and out to expose it.

Credit: to our guide, the Holy Land sits on a geological fault line that runs from Madagascar, Africa in the south to Turkey in the north. Historical archival evidence confirms that earth quakes occur, in the area of this fault line, about every 400 years. This recurring phenomenon explains why there is mention in the Bible of certain significant towns in one chapter, and no mention of them later on. If an earthquake destroys houses, the inhabitants are killed and the town ceases to exist. However, if the earthquake activity leaves the houses untouched, at the least, it will choke off the town’s source of water, either from underground wells or from nearby sources. Without water there can be no life, the unharmed inhabitants of the town are forced to move to a new location, and the city is abandoned. A similar fault line is also known to exist off the coast of Lebanon, beginning just north of the Israeli-Lebanon border.

Credit: the next portion of out tour, our guide would point out ancient buildings that were built upon the earth quaked ruins of older structures. He would show us the different colorations of the foundations of homes and buildings, indicating that a darker formation represented the foundation from an earlier period, later used to support a newer structure. Of course, by newer, he meant from the Empires of the Greeks, the Romans or the Ottomans.




The vast Syrian-African Rift Valley - the physical boundary between the two continents of Africa and Asia. Credit: study was never this fascinating. But then of course geology and earthquakes were only marginal to the larger narrative. In school, we never did make it to study the book of Zacharia, where, in Chapter 14, an earthquake is described, as splitting apart the Mount of Olives.

Photo credit:AFTAUAccording to Tel Aviv University geologist Dr. Shmulik Marco, the Middle East is long overdue for a major earthquake that will have devastating effects. The last strong destructive quake occurred there in 1033 C. E. 


The Old City of Jerusalem after an earthquake, picture taken on July 12, 1927. Photo credit: American Colony Hotel, American Colony Collection, originally posted to 2007 The only known quake in modern time occurred in 1927 with an epicenter in the northern part of the Dead Sea and reading 6.2 on the Richter scale. Dr. Marco expects the next occurrence to measure over 7.0. That is why the government of Israel has already instituted codes, impacting the way new buildings are constructed, to help prevent catastrophic damage.

There is an old rhyming European adage that translates into “Man plans while God laughs”. Many in the Middle East hope for peace and secure statehoods while scientists warn of an impending physical disaster that will cut through all religious aspirations and political dreams. Earthquakes are equal - opportunity catastrophes. They don’t discriminate about whom they harm. Everyone will be vulnerable.