In a time of tension, Jordan's ancient 'forgotten city' returns to obscurity A LETTER FROM PETRA

October 21, 1990|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,Gilbert Lewthwaite is a correspondent for The Sun.

PETRA, JORDAN — Petra, Jordan--Perhaps it was Ismail's desire to put a modern spin on ancient history.

Standing in front of the sun-baked Treasury, the most famous of this fabled city's monuments, he told a story of how the Romans had driven the Nabateans out of this mountainous stronghold in the second century.

They had, he said, used a blockade, a primitive but effectiv version of what the United Nations is currently applying against Iraq, which is just across the shimmering sands. The Romans' masterstroke was to cut the Nabateans' water supply, a sophisticated system of channels carved through the mountains and pipes made of fine ceramics. It ran from the Wadi Mousa and was fed from Ain Mousa (Spring of Moses). It can still be seen today.

The system, supplemented by a series of carved mountainto cisterns that caught whatever rain or snow might fall, kept a population of up to 20,000 from going thirsty in one of the world's most arid climates.

The Romans, for all their military strength, would have been har pressed to attack, said Ismail. The only way into Petra was through the Siq, a mile-long gorge, up to 400 feet high and down to 6 feet wide at its narrowest.

It was tempting to seek parallels in what happened her centuries ago and what is happening in the region today as a mighty multinational army from the West tries to use a trade embargo instead of force to drive an Arab enemy out of his stronghold.

Unfortunately, Ismail's story was such an innocent exercise i misinformation that it would be a shaky basis for reliable precedent.

Current wisdom has it that the Roman domination of th Nabateans was finally achieved by Emperor Trajan when he ordered his governor in Syria, Cornelius Palma, to annex the Nabatean kingdom, based in Petra.

This was apparently done administratively rather than militarily an assumption borne out by the fact that Trajan coins, issued after the annexation, carried the words Arabia acquisita (Arabia acquired) rather than Arabia capta (Arabia conquered).

"There is no evidence of a fight to the last by harasse Nabateans: The Roman occupation seems to have taken place as a matter of course," wrote Iain Browning in his authoritative history "Petra." He suggested there might even have been a deal with the Romans guaranteeing the last king of Nabatea, Rabbel II (A.D. 71-106), full independence for life on the understanding that the Romans would assume power after his death. An early lesson in linkage, perhaps?

But so much for Ismail and the trade blockade.

It is not even true that there is only one entrance to Petra -- fro the east through the narrow and spectacular Siq.

In biblical days, when this was a major crossing point for trad routes, the peoples of Edom, Moab, Judah and Assyria came here from the north and south, through the Rift Valley, along the shores of the Dead Sea or across the scorching Wadi al-Araba.

What is true today is that the Siq is the dramatic entry route fo most tourists.

It was at the mouth of the Siq, below the village of Elji, that I me Ismail.

A Bedouin in his late 20s, he was casually dressed as much fo the city as the desert in black shirt and jeans. His face was darkened by designer stubble that would have done a pop singer proud.

He was born in nearby Wadi Mousa. He had spent 18 months i London as a waiter, and his English was happily more understandable than his facts were reliable.

I had hired him, a horse and groom for 11 dinars (approximatel $10) for the three- hour tour of the romantic ruins. Another dinar got me through the entrance gate.

I was invited to sign the visitors' book. Only three other name were in it the day I arrived.

The Bedouin groom, his red-checked kaffiyeh bound to his hea by a knotted black band, persuaded the scrawny but docile nag to allow me to mount. The saddle was covered by a multicolored cloth, doubtless crocheted by one of the black-garbed Bedouin women I had glimpsed on the drive from Amman through the desert.

The Bedouin nearer Amman opt to live in small, flat-roofe houses, but farther south toward Aqaba the number of traditional low, multiroomed black wool tents increases. There are camels roaming the sand, but some of the tents have pickup trucks parked outside.

The entrance to Petra is nothing short of fantastic. The Siq is s narrow in places that it is hard for horse and groom to squeeze through together. It is shaded and mercifully cool. High above is a sliver of bright blue sky. Along one wall runs the ancient water channel.

The horse clip-clops through, rounding familiar twists an stopping obediently whenever Ismail, mounted alongside, recognizes another point of interest.

Suddenly ahead, bright against the reed-thin dark frame of th gorge, is the first glimpse of this (in the words of an 1845 poem by John William Burgon) "rose-red city half as old as time" -- Pharaoh's Treasury, the Khasneh al Faroun.

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