Showing posts with label jordan. Show all posts
Showing posts with label jordan. Show all posts

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Exploring Jordan and Syria

Sometimes we go on vacation to enjoy nature’s lush scenery, other times to meet the local people and experience their cultures. A visit to the Biblical lands of Jordan and Syria, which we did recently, is to be reminded of the vital importance of water in shaping civilizations.

As we looked over the once mighty River Jordan, now reduced to a modest stream a few meters wide, the crucial role of water in the making and breaking of civilizations really came home to me. Control of access to vast amounts of water was a necessary condition to the creation of great empires such as Petra in Jordan and Palmyra in Syria. Trade was the other necessary condition that assured their greatness. So long as overland caravans needed to pause and replenish, Petra and Palmyra extracted their pound of flesh and accumulated great wealth.

From wealth came power and the luxury to pursue finer things in life such as erecting elaborate temples and memorials to celebrate their accomplishments and to remind future generations of the greatness that once stood. The building material of choice from antiquity until fairly recent times was stone. Stone provided an aura of permanence like nothing else could. In the case of Palmyra, the stone structures and colonnades remained pretty much intact and partially crafted stone blocks could still be seen in the nearby quarry where they laid for well over a thousand years. Being an oasis, Palmyra ruins were free from predations of successive generations harvesting blocks from preexisting edifices rather than quarrying from scratch.

Petra had an even greater staying power since their tombs were carved right into the rocks of the hillside that ringed the town. Today, not much is left that would show how the Nabateans lived in Petra—hardly anything remains of their living quarters--but plenty of tombs showed how they died. A thrill not to be missed is to take the donkey ride up to the highest point to the massive tomb known as the Monastery. The ride would cut the two hour trek by at least half. The ride up was merely hard on one’s bottom. The ride back down was an exercise in terror as the donkey seemed to go out of its way to find the biggest drop for prancing down while the rider held on for dear life. Dismounting after the ride despite wobbly legs felt wonderful for having survived the experience.

Without water, there would be no Fertile Crescent, widely attributed to be one of the birthplaces of civilization. While much of the Crescent is in Iraq, northern Syria is also part of the Crescent thanks to the Euphrates River. Only a small part of one horn of the Crescent makes it down to Jordan which is why Jordan is 70% desert. But all is not well in this Semitic paradise. It is drying up. Even Syria, though much greener than Jordan and obviously more agriculturally bountiful, is now 58% desert.

The towering waterwheels, several stories high, situated near Hama once rotated tirelessly, driven by the fast flowing Orontes River to convey river water upwards and spilling onto a network of Roman aqueducts. When we drove by to see them, the few surviving waterwheels sat motionless in stagnant pools of water waiting for decay to administer the ultimate coup de grace. I could not think of a more appropriate symbol of the dilemma that our over populated world is facing today than these forlorn waterwheels resting on dry river beds. In this part of the world, the Dead Sea is getting saltier; the rivers are dwindling into creeks and dry beds and people having to reach ever deeper to find ground water. Sooner or later, other parts of the world will face the same hurdle.

Special thanks and acknowledgement to:
Ms. Rita Zawaideh, president of Caravan-Serai Tours, who made this trip possible.