If you were to stand high up in the Wadi Musa mountains of Jordan and look out across the landscape ahead to Israel you would see only more mountains, and desert. Completely unknown to you would be that, there, in the crevices of some of those mountain walls below, lies a hidden city, a city abandoned over 1,500 years ago, that once was home to an inspiring civilization – the Nabataeans.
I was fortunate enough to visit the ancient city of Petra and the nearby Wadi Rum desert while working in Jordan researching the impact of the Syrian refugee crisis. Long have I been in love with this part of the world – from Southern Spain and Greece down into Northern Africa and Egypt, and up and across through the Middle East to Iraq and Iran. These countries talk to me of ancient civilizations, of learned philosophers, astronomers, mathematicians and poets, of kings (and queens) erecting temples to their Gods (and to themselves.) They speak of aromatic spices, priceless gems and cloths, carried by wooden sailing ships, unloaded at the docks of noisy harbors, to make their way to be sold at incense-filled souks. It is where our recorded history as a human race begins to take shape – the rise and fall of the Sumerians, Babylonians, Assyrians, the Ancient Egyptians, Phoenicians, Greeks, and later Romans too. And so, they speak to me of possibility and also of the legacy we leave.
I had gone to Petra and Wadi Rum after spending several days in Jordan’s main refugee camps. They are home to 120,000 of five million Syrian refugees who fled their country when the conflict began six years ago. As time has passed, tents have been exchanged for more solid structures. Many have A/C or heaters. The camps have stores where almost anything can be purchased if you are lucky enough to find work, or receive money from relatives abroad. And there is mostly electricity and water. Advancements have been made there, if not in Syria.
There are vivid memories of bombs, violence, and the heartbreak of leaving, but it was not a sense of hopelessness or despair that met me there. What struck me rather was the resilience of the human spirit. Because, in spite of all they have endured, what the refugees desire now is to create a new life and to find work. Their hope is waning that other countries beyond Jordan will help them do so.
Petra was my first day off in weeks. To reach the city, you have to take the same path as people over 2000 years ago would have taken – through that hidden fissure in the mountain carved by tectonic forces millions of years ago. The narrow path, dotted now with other tourists, some on donkey, winds for almost half a mile between the rose-colored walls before ending in a large courtyard where the Treasury building is carved into the rocks. Beyond, among the sprawling ruins, archaeologists tell us there are administrative buildings, tombs, an amphitheater, a library, a monastery. There are remains of advanced water irrigation systems that enabled the Nabataeans to create an oasis in the desert.
So why did the people abandon Petra? No one knows. Perhaps it was a gradual change in climate, or the slow impact of changing trade routes that favored the Nile, or maybe people were forced to leave because conflict thrust upon them.
I had this on my mind when I arrived later at the Wadi Rum desert. My guide was a young bedouin called Hazzum who was going to drive me through the Mars-like dunes and rocks. By now, after weeks of work and travel, I was slowly beginning to unwind, and Hazzum and I had some light banter as we drove. When we pulled up to a shady spot to make tea, however, the chatter stopped as Hazzum instead turned his focus to starting a fire.
There is a silence that the desert brings that I have yet to experience elsewhere. With no trees to rustle, and no life in sight, the stillness of a desert forces the senses to give up, and the mind has nothing to distract it. You are left raw. I went and sat in the shade of a large rock, but in that moment the silence of the desert swallowed me whole, and I began to cry. If Hazzum wasn’t brewing tea nearby, I would have surrendered and sobbed my heart into the scorched earth.
In the ruins of Petra, a seed had been sown. It was a reminder of just how long we, the human race, have been doing this dance – of creating civilizations that strive to be brilliant, to develop new technologies that make us feel more “advanced” than civilizations that have come before, and of creating ‘legacies’. But for all these advancements, have we become any better at humanity?
Just 200 miles away, the electricity was being turned off in Za’atari refugee camp, and 200 miles beyond that, Syria’s conflict raged on. In the other direction, just beyond neighboring Saudi Arabia lay another humanitarian crisis – 20 million people on the verge of starvation in Yemen because of a war. And there just over the mountains beyond Petra was of course Israel and Palestine. And even thousands of miles away back in my own country I watched from social media as a different kind of crisis raged – one of a growing wealth gap, a seizure of public lands for profit, the threat of a nuclear attack, and an oppression of people because of the color of their skin.
The Nabataeans don’t make it to our history books chiefly because there is little record of their culture, but Roman writings depict them as a democratic people. Unlike their nearby counterparts, the Nabataeans rejected slavery. They also welcomed diverse people and religions alongside their own. And, for all their prosperity, the Nabataeans did not desire power. They didn’t seek out war, and indeed, tried to avoid it. When the Romans turned their sights on taking over Petra, the Nabataeans reportedly declined to fight.
While the living museum that is Petra, is something everyone should see in their lifetime, for me it is the values of the Nabataeans that will remain forever in my heart. In the end whatever we build, whatever we material advancements we achieve, history has taught us that all civilizations come to an end. But what if the legacy we leave is also one of a civilization that shared its fortune with those less fortunate, one that protected its land for the future generations, one that welcomed others to its shores, and one that was committed to unity and peace? That would be a legacy worth leaving, and it is also a possibility.
(This article was written originally for Books for Better Living.)