Petra: Of ancient history and context

The largest and most impressive of all the ruins in Petra, a funeral chamber known popularly known as "The Treasury." (CNS/Mark Pattison)

The largest and most impressive of all the ruins in Petra, a funeral chamber known popularly known as “The Treasury.” (CNS/Mark Pattison)

By Mark Pattison

PETRA, Jordan –- Imagine going to your parish’s mission to hear a guest preacher speak, but your parish is in the Holy Land.

That’s what it’s like when you tour an archaeological find like Petra – which was only reintroduced to Christians from the West about 200 years ago — and you have a tour guide who is a font of knowledge about the Bible and the ancient history of the region.

So it is with Ra-Ed Haddad, who has been guiding this Jordan Tourism Board-sponsored tour for religious media writers and bloggers. Any tour guide worth his salt –- and we’ll get to the salt part later -– will have his or her facts straight, although they may get jumbled in the mind of the listener. But the bonus comes from providing context. It’s like putting shredded coconut on top of the cake frosting.

A sandstone carving of the Nabatean goddess  in Petra. (CNS/Mark Pattison)

A sandstone carving of the Nabatean goddess in Petra. (CNS/Mark Pattison)

So, did the inhabitants of Petra in Jesus’ time just “give up” Petra to the Romans? Yes, but also no. The Bedouins, a nomadic people who still traverse the Jordanian countryside today, were realizing less and less income from Petra. So while there wasn’t a battle or a formal surrender, it was more of an abandonment, Haddad said, and the far richer Roman Empire could do with it what it wanted. The Romans ultimately restored the Silk Road, which ran partly through Jordan.

Just as most world religions have something analogous to what Christians recognize today as baptism, Haddad says, so, too, do most world religions have a great degree of discomfort with recognizing the pagan element in their worship. Think of Moses coming down from Mt. Sinai with the Ten Commandments only to find the Israelites worshiping a golden calf.

Such was also the case with the different groups who had control of Petra over the years.

Take the case of a sandstone carving of a woman in which all is obliterated except for her legs. The Nabateans likely made the carving, but some other civilization — the Romans, perhaps? — pulverized the image to such an extent you can’t even tell what she might have been the goddess of. Haddad pointed out several tributes to Dusharrah, the Nabatean god of wine, but few remain intact to this day, due to both the ravages of man and the ravages of time.

With so many vendors hawking camel rides in and around Petra, one could commandeer a fleet of Magi along the way. But even this is an occasion for a bit of catechesis from Haddad — a refresher lesson of sorts from earlier in the tour. Myrrh, for instance, one of the three gifts the Magi bore to the Christ child, was known for its medicinal purposes, particularly as an anesthetic. (Dentists of the time, working with crude instruments, used myrrh as a painkiller for their patients.) And, as Haddad sees it, it was not vinegar that was on the soaked sponge held up by a Roman soldier for Jesus to drink while on the cross, but myrrh.

“It was an act of mercy” by the soldier, he said, “to put this man out of his misery. But Jesus refused it; “he wanted to feel the pain to the last,” Haddad added.

Let’s get back to that salt. The biblical account holds that Lot’s wife was instructed by God, like the rest of Lot’s family, to not look back at Sodom and Gomorrah, which were being consumed by fire. But she looked back anyway and turned into a pillar of salt.

Haddad explains that pillars were regarded as phallic symbols in those days. Some people placed their hands on pillars; for some it was OK to do, for others it was definitely not OK.

But did Lot’s wife actually turn into a pillar of salt? People may never know, Haddad suggested. “The concept is, don’t look back and be a prisoner of your past,” he said. “The longer you carry a grudge in your heart, the heavier it gets.”

– – –

I will blog from time to time about things I’ve encountered on my Jordan journey. Also, look me up on Twitter at @MeMarkPattison for Jordan-related tweets. Others on this tour will use the same Hashtags: #holyjordan.

A man playing the one-stringed rababa for tips in Petra. (CNS/Mark Pattison)

A man playing the one-stringed rababa for tips in Petra. (CNS/Mark Pattison)

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