Half As Old As Time

“In the face of Petra’s riddles, reason becomes unreasonable, but magic grows commonplace.”
Richard Halliburton, “The Enchanted City”

It seems no work of Man’s creative hand,
By labor wrought as wavering fancy planned;
But from the rock as if by magic grown,
Eternal, silent, beautiful, alone!
John William Burgon, “Petra”

Wadi Mousa is a small town in a desert valley named for Moses, full of mosques and little else.  The town’s boxlike buildings, many seemingly abandoned unfinished, blend into the pink rock of the mountains.  I saw only one woman who was not a tourist in the two days I spent there.  She was walking with a man along a road that curled around a hillside, covered head to toe.

At a bodega where I was trying to buy a cell phone, a Bedouin man a little older than myself, wearing a headscarf and with eyes so dark it looked like he was wearing eyeliner, handed me a cup of hot tea and asked where I was from.  He said he had been twice to California, then laughed.  He had been denied a visa to visit the United States twice.  When I asked him why he said, “Because I’m a Bedouin, an Arab.”  He smiled.  “I’m dangerous.”

This inconspicuous town settled into dust orbits around its unhidden secret, the lost city of Petra.  Though Petra is now an international tourist destination, phrases like “lost city” conjure images of adventure, memories of Richard Halliburton stories and hopes of creating my own.  In the biting cold wind, words like “hewn” and “wrought” speak of exhaustion and the muscles of forearms, the work of generations, including those still hocking their wares.  In the many caves and rooms of an ancient trade city, descendants of those who built it and those who uncovered it sell jewelry, scarves and knick knacks to tourists.  They lead them through the impressive gorge in rickety carriages pulled by emaciated horses, their clatter echoing in the canyon, echoing, too, the ancient sounds of ancient charioteers.  Even since their removal to nearby Umm Siehoun in 1985, the Bedul Bedouin are the caretakers of the city of Petra, protecting their birthright, making a living leading tours through its mysteries.

Petra, Jordan  January 2012

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