National Geographic : 1998 Dec
T TOOK 12 WEEKS to get here from the frankincense groves of Oman, once the camels were loaded and the campfires stamped out. Then the caravan, single-minded as a line of ants, would set out through the morning mist, guarding its precious cargo from bandits, and pass uneasily, single file, through the treachery of Yemen. Later, if things were going well, the caravan would pause to trade at Medina, drinking from its brackish wells and gathering strength for the journey ahead. Then it would strike out north across the hellish, flint-strewn sands of western Arabia, living from one water hole to the next all the way to the capital of the Naba taeans, who ruled the lands east of the Jordan River. To the camel driver of two millennia ago, this city, Petra, beckoned like a distant star. What a relief it must have been to see the guards on red sandstone ledges, and to be waved in after paying the toll, and to breathe the cool air inside the Siq (pronounced seek), the 250-foot-high crack in the rock that was, and still is, the main road into Petra. For the thirsty there was water, lots of it, flowing down sinuous stone channels along the roadway; for the grateful and devout there were carved altars to Dushara, the head Nabataean god, on the chasm's sandstone walls. Boys on donkeys would dash by, shout ing news of the arrival; the smell of cardamom, campfires, and searing meat promised hospi tality just ahead. Finally, the caravan would swing wide around a bend to face Al Khazneh (the Treasury), that towering edifice carved from rose-colored rock, and plunge into the crowded marketplace beyond. Two thousand years have passed, but shades Frontdoor of the city, the Treasury (left) dazzled the first modern European to see Petra-JohannBurckhardt,a Swiss schol ar who traveled here in 1812 disguised as a Muslim pilgrim. Meetingforebears of the Bedouin who live here today (above), Burckhardtrecognized the ruined city as the Petraof ancient lore, which vanished from most maps in the seventh century. of ancient Petra still endure in the desert of southern Jordan. The facades of its buildings peer out from banks of drifted sand, and you can wander freely among them, fingertips on chiseled rock. Delicate bits of Nabataean pot tery lie scattered across the land like eggshells, so numerous at times that it's hard to avoid stepping on them. And if you're out early before the first tourist bus pulls up just past daybreak-you might even hear echoes of the ancient city, as I have, in the local Bedouin drifting by on camels in the mist or in the mur mur of voices over pots of steeping tea. After dozens of visits I've come to recognize this immediacy of the past as Petra's surpassing charm. Yet it's also the site's most profound di lemma: A living antiquity presents problems to those who would preserve the past, or uncover its secrets, or package it for mass consumption. Like other nomadic peoples who wandered through the spotlight of history, the Nabatae ans left little behind to explain themselves.