Monday, April 28, 2008

Touching down in Jordan and traveling throughout the country had all these strange, personal connections for me. I remember being intrigued by the country when I was a kid in the 1980’s, when the word “Jordan” evoked the world’s most famous athlete and not the present-day Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. I remember a group of us huddled around a battered globe in my fifth grade class, looking at countries on the far side of the planet. What countries did we notice? Chad, Niger, Jordan. For some reason we were focused on Africa and the Middle East, perhaps because the names were difficult and hard to pronounce, easy fodder for making fun. Jordan stood out, too, not just for its name but for its strange shape. It looks like key support for a weight-bearing wall.

Of course, our journey to Petra, courtesy of Jordan’s own Frankie Valli, our airport taxi driver on the Desert Highway, dreamy blue-eyed driver who stopped twice for breaks in a two-hour drive (and was angling for a third stop: if only I smoked!), was replete with allusions to my younger days, as well. The ultimate scene in 1989’s Indiana Jones movie makes prominent use of The Treasury at Petra. That movie, it turns out, represented a landmark in Mr. J’s own adolescence, as he attended said movie with a young lass we’ll call, I don’t know, Sunshine, his first girlfriend at the age of 13. (Sidenote: I now have two nieces aged 13.) Long before Indy emerges from As-Siq to stand before the ancient grandeur of The Treasury, somewhere in Italy when Indy is chasing some severe-looking Arabs through the water-roads of Venice? Big boats turbine’s chopping Indy’s small boat? A landmark moment emerged from the tumult on the screen, with Harrison Ford and Alison Doody as my witnesses.

These little connections were nagging at me throughout my stay, never really in the foreground of anything, but playing at low volume in a corner: a small noise always for accounting. At Petra, I was consistently awed by its grandeur and artistry—even the unintended artistry of half-completed facades that bleed back into the rock. I spent a lot of time hopping up and down rocks, sometimes with M, sometimes not (she usually preferred the stairs, and sometimes I went bounding over steep rocks or tried inching my way across a rock face suspended ten feet above ground, amateur rock climber all the sudden). The city of Petra is so different from sites in Egypt in that it appears to be largely secular and that it was intended to be hidden from the world. There is no deliberate grandeur here like the pyramids at Giza or Sakkara. There are no messages to the gods, no elaborately furnished tombs like Sakkara, Beni Hassan near Minya—no messages for the higher powers. No, the loving attention given the sites in Petra appear to be for secular appreciation and purposes. Even in the rebuilt Great Temple we see a small theatre in the round used for drama: of the courtroom and of the stage. Imagine one place serving both purposes, in a temple no less.

The structures themselves did not appear to serve the purpose of a message to God/gods, but to impress the living with its grandeur. That seems contemporary until I consider that Petra was supposed to be concealed, hidden. It’s as though the grandeur and the simple workmanship of the city carved from rock was intended for a very select audience. Then there is what happens once you enter these structures: nothing. In Indy, he walks into The Treasury and finds elaborate traps, an invisible bridge, an undead guardian and the fountain of youth. In reality? In The Treasury, The Monastery, all along the Street if Facades and the Noble Tombs, there are just single rooms. Some of them are quite large, have a few wings attached, but they are not elaborately designed. These are not the long subterranean tombs at the Valley of the Kings—the artwork might have been pre-modern, but loving attention was given over to these tombs, which were, at the time, supposed to be sealed away forever, seen by not another living soul. The facades at the valley of the Kings were virtually non-existent. At Petra, the artistry is much more modern but focused primarily on facades: they could have dressed up in the interiors if they had wanted—interiors meant to be accessed by people—but they elected not to. It’s strange to see this lack of depth in a place supposedly concealed from the outside world.

Rather than post some pics on here, I thought this time I’d give you access to my Facebook photo album, for those of you who haven’t seen it yet:

http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=37590&l=181ee&id=784484609

Perhaps M can do the same with her own pics, once she gets on the ball and does an album (and stops losing entire days to Scrabulous).

Next up: the Dead Sea.

James

1 comment:

Hala said...

I really enjoy reading your posts.. they truly capture how it feels to be a foreigner in Cairo!