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Entries in Raiders of the Lost Ark (1)

Wednesday
Sep072011

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.