No, seriously. Petra, straddling something like ten square miles of Jordanian mountain-desert-canyon chaos, was the jewel of the Nabataean kingdom and makes everything that you or I have done in our lives look like so much small change.
Hey, that’s me! I’m famous!
Eagle-eyed viewers may just recognise this, ‘the Treasury’, as the resting place of the Holy Grail from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (as well as the narrow canyon they ride down, which opens directly onto this monstrosity). Carved into the solid rock, I’m there for scale. ‘Big’ is a fair description here, and whilst the Treasury is pretty big as Nabataean tombs go, it’s not the biggest.
Would you like to see the inside of one of these opulent tombs? I bet you would, you’re a sucker for fancy architecture. Here is one of the most impressive ones:
Actually, that’s a bit lame, isn’t it?
The first thing you’ve got to understand about the city of Petra is that it had serious motivation to look impressive. For four hundred years before Trajan annexed it to Rome, Petra sat on a number of key trade routes across the Arabian Desert: the Silk and Spice Roads come to mind, with ludicrously valuable materials having no choice but to pass through Petra. Indeed, that’s exactly why Petra’s there – another Nabataean settlement, Avdat in modern Israel, sits on the frankincense route up through Saudi Arabia. The Nabataean pattern is, essentially, to exploit the trade routes running through the desert to skim off the cream.
A breakdown of the East-West trade routes until the fall of Rome. Source: Wikipedia. Not shown, much to my irritation: sodding Petra.
The wealth of the city of Petra is reported by all contemporary chroniclers as fantastic, and a glance at the various styles of Nabataean architecture reveal obvious influences from Hellenistic, Roman and Persian contact that Petra, producing nothing of its own, absolutely depended on. Indeed, when the Nabataean kingdom was absorbed into Rome by Trajan, the same expansion cemented their control of the Red Sea, making the sea route to India plyable again, and as a nippier trip with less chance of melting to death, Petra receded into irrelevance, finally abandoned after a disastrous earthquake in 555 AD.
So why isn’t this wealth reflected in munificent tombs? Why is Petra a wonderful example of style over substance? The best way to demonstrate this is with the Unfinished Tomb, tucked behind the magnificent temple:
The majestic tomb fronts are carved out of the solid rock of the canyons. They’re not built, they’re sculpted: here you can see how masons would work their way down from the top of the facade bit by bit unless, for some reason, this were to be stopped, as it was with the Unfinished Tomb. It’s a lot easier to do this than it would be to build something of an equivalent size, which would need huge interiors just by the laws of engineering if nothing else. It’s Dwarf Fortress reasoning. When it’s anchored in solid rock, however, all you need is the impressive front, leaving the burial area, occasionally visited by living members of the family (it’s believed these were family tombs, as the multiple depressions on our second photo suggests) but mostly not accessed. These weren’t structures for daily use. What we see, as depressingly frequently with the Classical Era, are the large, grand structures of the local nobility, minus the houses, roads and activity: in other words, exactly what they’d want you to be seeing.
That’s like less than a third of the site and it’s all up mountains or in valleys or up in mountain-valleys and I’m going to stop writing now because even thinking about it is giving me heatstroke.
N.B. My time in Palestine is going to be out of sequence, mainly because I cannot help myself but to talk about this first. I remain of average intelligence, limited faculties and incomplete information. I beg you to do your own reading.
I entered the West Bank ten days ago. Contrary to the stories on the news, the warnings of my family and the general implications throughout Israel that Palestine is not safe, whilst in here the only reason I’ve managed to get anything done is the long succession of complete strangers who have led me around cities to my destinations, negotiated with their countrymen in Arabic on my behalf and given me advice on things to see and do without any expectation of reward. Some of them give me their phone numbers when they head off: “if you need anything at all, you call me”. This includes students, taxi drivers, shop assistants, academics and anyone else you can think of whom I’ve met. I’ve been given free food and water, reduced rates on shared taxis (servees) simply because I can’t find exact change and in-depth discussions of the political situation with people across the Palestinian political spectrum (even when we discuss Britain’s role in this travesty, it’s made clear that they acknowledge the difference between governments and their people). The English word that literally everyone knows is ‘welcome’. Their friendliness is breathtaking: if I had been walking around Scotland this clueless I would have been knifed by now.
Stepping onto the Temple Mount/Haram Ash-Sharif (hereafter Mount Moriah to make things easier) is a complicated proposition for a non-Muslim. Held by an Islamic waqf or charitable foundation since Jerusalem fell to Saladin in 1187, today it is the only Islamic-controlled territory in Jerusalem, a provision made for it in 1967 when Israel captured and annexed East Jerusalem during the Six-Day War. The Muslim authority is thus allowed to set its own terms for non-Muslim visitors: there are set times each day except Friday, and these set times are very strictly enforced.
Walking to Mount Moriah (walkway to gate on left). It almost looks as if there’s been excavation in this no-man’s land patrolled by the IDF.
The digs I obtained in the Christian Quarter were somewhat spartan. By this I mean that I was sleeping on a roof. The heat in the morning burned my face and cooked me in the sleeping bag that the cold nights demanded. Even if I had somehow survived unmolested by weather until half past eight in the morning, the sound of every church in the city trying to out-bell-ring one another is enough to wake the legions of the dead buried on the Mount of Olives (the idea there is that the closer you are to the Temple Mount the sooner you’ll be resurrected on Judgement Day, so presumably those guys are the light sleepers).
The view makes up for it though. Those blue domes there are the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the holiest site in Christendom as the traditional site of the death and resurrection of Jesus. The spire to the right is the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, interesting as one of the few Protestant sites in Jerusalem. The city itself is a beautiful maze of little churches, mosques, side alleys and souks, and the Sepulchre rises above them all, challenged only by the Dome of the Rock.
So naturally I went to have a look.
So Shabbat in Israel is taken very seriously in most of the country, with the exception of Tel Aviv. Jerusalem, of course, attracts the more dedicated members of any faith, and thus hosts a large population of Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox Jews.
You have to understand that these guys are deeply opposed to any sort of activity during Shabbat (which is Friday sunset to Saturday sunset). No work of any sort, no driving, no operation of electricity – the security devices surrounding the Western Wall actually required special rabbianic dispensation, as stepping through it would otherwise be a violation of the Orthodox interpretation of Shabbat and prevent them from accessing the Western Wall during its busiest period. Fair enough, to be honest. Since I arrived in Israel, I’ve found Shabbat to be agreeable so long as you’re prepared, and I’ve found it a good analogue to the Sunday trading hours that used to operate in Britain. 24 hours of religiously enforced rest, with the majority of businesses closed, is a good way of defending one’s right to a day off.
‘Enforced’, however, has multiple interpretations in Israel.
N.B. with thanks to Professor Neil Price, whose lectures I am shamelessly cribbing.
So instead of waxing lyrical about the timeless qualities of the East-meets-West city that I’ve been sleeping in bus stations and crossing Turkey in fantastic time to see, I’m going to show you the single most mindblowing thing in the entire metropolis, which basically has nothing to do with Greeks or Turks.
Preserved under glass now which is cool.
That right there, on the upper level on the right hand side of the Hagia Sophia, the grandest achievement of Byzantine Christendom, scratched into the stone, is a nice little set of Nordic runes.
Bet you didn’t see that coming.
So this leads to the obvious question: what on Earth are Vikings doing hanging out in Constantinople? The answer is surprisingly simple, but in explaining it we’re going to have to zoom out a little.
So the boat from Turkey worked in prinicple. Four hours late in leaving (people didn’t even show up until two hours after) and somehow eight hours early I beached at Taşucu at ten at night, tired, disoriented, and with absolutely no idea what was there.
It would be fair to say that I hadn’t really planned this part (or, indeed, any part). For a while the Internet had been swearing blind that a direct Girne – Istanbul route was running, but pretty much no-one in the TRNC seemed to agree (yes, I know, the Internet is a brazen liar). Only boat on offer, then.
A taxi tore out of the dark, preying on the people escaping customs, before spotting us, the only tourists on the boat, Scottish, Iraqi and Sri Lankan, holding up the Turkish labourers who were looking for work in Cyprus as the border guards reacquainted themselves with passports and their own visa laws.
Sod it. ”Evet.”
The bus station obviously has one goal in existence: getting people on buses. Reps from the myriad of bus companies patrol the corridors of all Turkish bus stations, shouting destinations like metronomes, escorting you to their booths, like wraiths on commission. ”Adana?”
I’m fairly sure this is a city I need to go to. ”Adana.”
”Bus in 20 minutes,” he says, taking my money. No time to think, no time to plan. The bus passes an open cheap hotel on its way out of the bus station, dragging me the 200km along the southern coast of Anatolia to where I think Adana is. I sigh.