A few months ago, Nathan and I went to Petra for two full days of adventure. Petra is an ancient trade city in the Jordanian desert, carved into rose red and blindingly beige cliffs about 2,500 years ago. It was deserted about 1,500 years ago, and ‘rediscovered’ by a British explorer in the second half of the 19th century. The famous treasury building is where the holy grail scene was filmed in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Petra is a wonder of the world, and is on every ‘places you need to see before you die’ list I know of. Here are some stories from that trip:
Each morning while it was still dark outside, Nathan and I walked about three kilometers through the city of Wadi Musa to the entrance to Petra. On the second morning, we were joined by two Jordanian men in their 20’s. They wore pre-ruined jeans and fashionable jackets, and were eager to talk with us. They worked at the souvenir shops in the official Petra visitor’s center, which was generously built by the King not too long ago. One told me that the monthly rent on one of those shops is about 1,000 Dinar ($1,400), and they are having trouble paying the rent because of how few tourists there have been this year, possibly because of fear over ISIS next door. As an employee, he makes 200 Dinar ($280) a month. A chicken costs five Dinar ($7), but he can’t complain. He just wishes that he had a little bit more money so he could go out with friends, buy clothes, and live life. I asked him why there was no Arab Spring in Jordan. He said people see what is happening in Syria, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, etc. and are grateful to be able to sleep at home safely. As we walked past another public image of the King, he said that the King was responsive to the people. He tours the country and asks the people how he can better serve them. I told him that our politicians do this too, but we know that every time they say something like, ‘Today I met Susan Collins from Chicago, and she told me how…’ we know they are full of shit. The Jordanian man looked at me with surprise, and said, ‘Here, the King is sincere.’ I asked him if Jordanians come to visit Petra. He said they don’t. I asked him why, and he solemnly lamented that Arabs have no sense of history, they come here and just see rocks. He has a sense of history though, because his archaeologist uncle made a movie with National Geographic about how Petra was built. By this time, we had reached the beautiful modern visitor’s center, and Nathan and I said goodbye and headed down through the canyon entrance to Petra.
Nathan and I walked across the blooming valley and past the main Nabatean temple to hike to the Byzantine era monastery. We took a wrong turn on the trail and ended up at the ruins of a Crusader castle, sitting on top of a pillar of rock jutting hundreds of feet into the sky. With steep drop-offs on every side, and the sun half an hour away from being directly overhead, we decided to have lunch. The only three other people at the castle were also eating, and they invited us to join them. They were Americans, from the Midwest and the West Coast. They asked us who we are and what we do. We were eager to safely confide in someone that we are Jews, Rabbinical students, and are living in Israel. We asked them who they were, and they told us they teach English in an unremarkable Jordanian city a few hours from Petra. ‘How do you become an English teacher in Jordan?’ ‘You just show up,’ and they all laughed uneasily. ‘What have you learned so far?’ ‘I’m not as self-reliant as I thought I was.’ ‘What’s it like being an American woman in Jordan?’ ‘Sometimes you’re aware of it, especially when you realize there are no other women in public spaces. Sometimes I feel unsafe, but it’s not Saudi Arabia.’ They finished lunch and headed down the cliff for their next hike. Nathan told me that he thought one of them was gay. No straight man takes that much care of his appearance. I felt my own scraggly half beard and agreed. While we hiked down, we joked about the proper protocol for asking someone if they’re gay while sitting in castle ruins in Jordan.
After a tough hike to the monastery, Nathan and I sat down in the sand for our second lunch. We were joined by a young American man, a Menonite from Oregon who had just spent a few months working for Messianic Jews in the Baptist Village by Petah Tikvah in Israel. He told us that the Haredim (ultra-Orthodox) spit on them in the streets. We told him that we were Rabbinical students, and seeing that we were not Haredim, he felt comfortable to talk openly with us. He said that while there are Christians in the States who don’t think the Jews’ covenant between Abraham and God still holds, he does. And then he asked me the question that every fundamentalist Christian inevitably asks me, “Why don’t you Jews accept Jesus Christ as your lord and savior?” I wanted to give the answer I always want to give: Because after 2,000 years of crusades, inquisitions, blood libels, and holocausts, I don’t want to ever be more like you. I bit my tongue though, as I always do, and gave my standard answer: If Jesus were the Messiah, the entire world order would have been flipped upside down. Empire would crumble, and life for the last, the least, and the lost would be forever improved. Since that hasn’t happened, Jesus could not have been the Messiah. He said that will all happen when Jesus comes back. I told him that when that happens, I will gladly reconsider my position. He seemed satisfied, as if it’s only a matter of time before Jesus returns.
After hiking back down from the monastery, we headed across the valley toward the amphitheater and made a left turn toward the winged lion temple. We summited the hill to find an archaeological team digging out the still covered temple. An older member of the team came over to talk with us, and he recommended we go see the Byzantine Church on the other side of the hill. Nathan and I trekked to the Church, and while we were staring slack jawed at the beautiful preserved mosaic floors, the old archaeologist came over to talk with us. Him and his father worked together to unearth the Church back in the 1980’s. I asked him how long his family had been in the area. He said about 3,000 years. I imagined his ancestors carving the caves in the cliffs, welcoming traders and depositing tariffs in the Treasury, building the amphitheater and the temples, then the church and the monastery, then the crusader castle, then being shepherds, and now archaeologists. It was like talking to a James Michener character. He talked about how Jews, Christians, and Muslims are all very similar because they believe in the same God. I imagined his ancestors thinking similarly as they may have been Jews, then Christians, and now Muslims, changing gracefully with the tides of history. He asked what we were. We told him we were Jewish, the only time we trusted that information to a local. He asked if we knew any Arabic, and I said a few phrases. He replied in Hebrew, and we talked about how similar the languages are. His cell phone rang, and he excused himself by saying in Hebrew, ‘regah regah,’ meaning ‘wait wait,’ or ‘one second.’