National Geographic : 2014 Dec
98 national geographic • December 2014 sandstone punching up from the Hisma, the pale frontier plains of south Jordan. Arab mapmakers of the Middle Ages drew this high barrier as an edge, a fulcrum point, a divide. To the south, the vast geometrical deserts of Arabian nomads, a redoubt of feral movement, of fickle winds, of open space, of saddle leather—home to the wild Bedouin tribes. To the north, the lusher, more coveted fields of settled peoples, of walled civili- zations, of layered borders drawn and scratched out—the many-chambered heart of the Levant. We walk into the Fertile Crescent, the prime incubator of human change. A cockpit of em- pires. A palimpsest of trade roads. A place of exile and sacrifice. Of jealous gods. The oldest of promised lands. Hamoudi, my guide, sings his way uphill. He leads a pack mule by a chain, bowed against an icy wind. His faded kaffiyeh snaps like a flag. I walk ahead, pulling another loaded mule. Hamoudi steers me too, like a dumb beast. “Left!” he cries in Arabic. “Right!” And “No, no, straight ahead!” In three days of walking togeth- er, my Bedouin traveling companion and I pass life-size Neolithic bulls etched into rocks at Wadi Rum, a fabulous corridor of tangerine sand— a primordial valve of human migration that T. E. Lawrence called a “processional way greater than imagination.” We trace our fingers over 2,000-year-old inscriptions pecked by Naba- taean incense traders and nomadic herders. We stagger over rubble from Roman forts. We camp beside ruined churches of Byzantium— the eastern Christian empire—their naves caved in, roofed now by desert skies marbled with cirrus. Everywhere we spot the prayers carved Stylized carvings of camels, one with a rider aboard (at left), are among the thousands of petroglyphs and inscriptions left by travelers over 2,500 years or more in Wadi Hafir, a narrow, boulder-strewn canyon in southern Jordan.