“I have become a pilgrim to cure myself of being an exile.” -G. K. Chesterton
I'm a clumsy Christian on a journey of discipline and discovery with Jesus. As a recovering Pharisee, I'm learning to trust God's grace over my goodness. I love the world, and I'm excited about learning what it means to be salt and light in a Post-Christian culture. This is where I write about living the sojourn.
Sunday morning we crossed the border into The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan to tour the ancient city of Petra, a 2-hour bus ride into the heart of the country. Before driving through Aqaba, Jordan's port city on the Red Sea, we passed the "Garden of Peace," a young forest of half a million trees planted between Jordan and Israel after Jordanians cleared the area of land mines in 1994.
Our tour guide kept us informed and entertained with a continuous narrative full of Middle-Eastern wit and rife with propaganda, made all the more conspicuous by his adequate but somewhat limited English. We heard about the international prestige of Jordan's hospitals, the health and vigor of it's thriving economy, and the outstanding quality of it's roads. (He didn't really need to tell us about the quality of the roads; we could feel the quality well enough, even through the buoyant suspension of the tour-bus.)
Jordan is about the size of Portugal, and is 95% Muslim and 5% Christian. We were in high desert, and there was lingering snow on the ground from the storm a week prior. The topography reminded me strongly of Colorado.
The city of Petra is about the size of modern Paris, making it the largest ancient city in the world. Caravans of 10,000 camels would pass through here, traveling the old spice road from the Orient.
We walked down to the city through the Siq (pronounced "seek"). In ancient times this canyon served as the ceremonial entrance to the city and was used for important events, which consisted primarily of funerals. The culture of the Nabataeans revolved around death; the center of their community was the Necropolis, which is a cemetery. The caves you see in Petra are not homes, they are tombs - 5,800 of them. This preoccupation with death I find quite disconcerting, and hardly indicative of a healthy civilization. As Gandalf says in The Return of the King, "The old wisdom borne out of the west was forsaken. Kings made tombs more splendid than the houses of the living, and counted the names of their descent dearer than the names of their sons."
Here our tour guide Ashurov (in sunglasses) is explaining the idolatrous practices of the Nabataeans. In various places along the Siq, idols would be placed in candlelit settings like this one. Ashurov mentioned an incident when, according to either legend or sacred texts - I don't remember which, the patriarch Abraham once destroyed an entire city of idols, leaving only the largest idol intact in order to prove it's impotency; a quite ingenious idea, and one you may want to remember if you plan on doing any idol-smashing. This is the most famous edifice in Petra, known as The Treasury. All the buildings in Petra were cut out of solid stone; really, they might more properly be called carvings rather than build-ings. Because no iron tools have ever been found here, archaeologists believe the Nabataeans simply used hard flint to carve the soft limestone.
We continued walking deeper into the city. The canyon was cold. Ashurov, who seemed himself to be some kind of mystic, commented about how ancient myths regarding virgin births were eventually absorbed into Christianity. I thought instantly of C. S. Lewis's essay Myth Become Fact in God in the Dock, in which he argues that these sorts of myths were not absorbed but rather were actualized by Christianity, which is a deeper difference than it may seem. The color in the caves was stunning. It was unbelievable to see the effect created by slicing a flat plane through the wild veins of mineral brilliance.
There's nothing significant in this picture. Except me, of course. Everywhere there were large posters of King Abdullah II alongside his late father King Hussein. The Jordanian people all but worship their king and royal family, creating a strong atmosphere of political idolatry. They trace King Abdullah II through the royal genealogy 42 generations, right back to Mohammed.
As we drove back to the border in the dark, we passed numerous Muslim prayer towers, lit with a ghastly green light, the holy color of Islam. Throughout Palestine we saw numerous bright green doors, bright green railings, and bright green tapestries. I don't care much for this decorating scheme myself, but most of the time it's not particularly obnoxious. However, using green electric lights around the platform of a prayer tower just doesn't look very good. In fact, it looks like Minas Morgul - vacuous, gasping, "a corpse-light, a light that illuminated nothing."
Keep your passport handy: tomorrow we go to Egypt.
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Finally, brothers, rejoice. Aim for restoration, comfort one another, agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you. - 2 Cor. 13:11