National Geographic : 1955 Dec
Petra, Rose-red Citadel of Biblical Edom In a City That May Have Sheltered St. Paul, Unique Rock Carvings Have Defied the Elements for 2,000 Lonely Years BY DAVID S. BOYER 853 Foreign Editorial Staff, National Geographic Magazine With Illustrations from Photographs by the Author T HOUGH I had spent months in Bible lands, I had never heard a camel roar until the evening I entered Petra through the Siq. As we rode into this mile-long gorge that slices the mountains of Old Testament Edom, sunlight penetrated weakly from a ribbon of sky 250 feet above us. On the canyon's dark floor sparks glinted from the hoofs of my weary, underfed horse. Ibrahim, my 12-year-old guide-underfed too, but apparently tireless-jogged on foot beside me, singing a tedious song on four high-pitched sorrowful notes. The melody and the rattling of stream-worn stones rever berated from the sheer walls of the passage. Suddenly from around a bend came a roar. I knew only one such sound-lions! The noise vibrated down the narrow corridor. I scanned the vertical cliffs that hemmed us in; there was no ledge or handhold within reach. My only "weapons" were cameras. I took a Leica in each hand. When camels appeared, I almost dropped $700 worth of photographic equipment! Fifty of the ungainly animals strode by us in the gloom, brushing the opposite wall of Page 852 - Horsemen in a Canyon Approach Petra, "Rose-red City, Half as Old as Time" Thus British poet John William Burgon described the rock-carved tombs and temples of Petra, once populous capital of the ancient Nabatean kingdom in what is now Jordan. Travelers since New Testament times have entered the ruins through the Siq, a mile-long slash in the mountains of Biblical Edom. In Arabic, siq means "pass." Hundreds of feet deep, the passageway often narrows to a few yards; at places, overhanging masses of flaming sandstone almost shut out the sky. Paved by the ancient Nabateans, the defile served as a highway to their cliff-girt capital. Moslem legend attributes the cleft to a mighty blow from the rod of the Prophet Moses. Water from near-by 'Ain Musa, Spring of Moses, occasionally flows along the Siq's gravelly bed. © National Geographic Society Kodachrome by David S. Boyer, National Geographic Staff the Siq. Behind them came a lone Arab driver. The beasts were probably headed for new grazing grounds on the plateau east of Petra, but it took little imagination to visual ize this empty caravan heavy with silks and spices, jewels, and frankincense, and to pre tend that this was 2,000 years ago, when the mysterious City of the Rock was in its glory. Instead of a lone driver, there would have been dozens. Arab warriors would have rid den in the convoy, and slaves might have trudged before it. The caravan would have been setting out from Petra, in what is now the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, for Gaza, or Damascus, or desert-ringed Palmyra.* Desert Brigands Became Brokers At the time of Christ and for several cen turies before and after, rock-girt Petra was the capital of the Nabateans. Thousands of Arabic-speaking desert dwellers must have occupied the city and its suburbs. From their mountain stronghold these nomads-turned merchants ruled a domain that stretched from Madain Salih, in present-day Saudi Arabia, all the way to Damascus (map, page 856). The Nabateans are first heard of as no madic marauders, plundering caravans carry ing the luxuries of Arabia, India, and East Africa. When punitive expeditions were sent by their victimized neighbors, the brigands retreated into the desert, surviving on water drawn from hidden cisterns in the rock. Meanwhile, the pursuers' tongues would parch, and they would turn back. As their wealth and territory increased, the Nabateans cached their loot in caves at Petra. Once astride the caravan routes, their kings adopted a wiser policy, guaranteeing safe con duct to the merchants and exacting tolls for protection. The desert marauders became *See, in the NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE: "Hashemite Jordan, Arab Heartland," by John Sco field, December, 1952; "Arab Land Beyond the Jordan," 18 illustrations in color, December, 1947; and "Petra, Ancient Caravan Stronghold," by John D. Whiting, February, 1935.