Petrafied - Visiting Petra with Worries
In March I had the opportunity to go to Jordan, through my university. The two key places that I was looking forward to visiting were the ancient city of Petra and the natural wonder that is Wadi Rum.. Both have been immortalized because of film, Wadi Rum because of Lawrence of Arabia 1:39, and Petra because of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.
If you've watched Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade then you know the building. It's the location that the grail is enshrined in in the final scenes of the movie. (I've linked the relevant clip in the title if you'd like a refresher.) Next week I'll be talking about Wadi Rum, Today Petra.
Now Petra is not a single stone facade cut into the canyon rock. Although to be sure that single face would be worth the journey alone. Petra is a city. An enormous city. What took me four hours to explore was just one part of a massive complex that should have taken me four days if I'd been allowed the time. But what a four hours it was, The Rose City did not disappoint.
To walk down that canyon, stone walls rising so high that they seem to bow out and then curve in, almost touching above your head. And you walk along the ramp down, down, down, the canyon breaking away every once in a while to some ancient guardpost, or water cellar, and you keep walking. You think it'll be fairly quick, and then you walk ten minutes and you think, "Oh it's right around the corner." Then you turn the corner and there's another twist ahead in the canyon and you think, "Oh, this corner for sure." And so you walk, and you walk, and you walk. Then it's twenty minutes. Then it's thirty minutes. And you look to the person you're walking with and you keep making the same statement until at last, you see the faintest change up ahead in the rocky crevice. You see the glimpse of a shadowy alcove, set high into the rock. Then you walk further and you see a little more until the path curves back and it becomes obscured again. The sunlight hits you from above as you step out from the archway and you see it.
This huge stone edifice, stands out from the cliff around, carved out from the very rock that it was carved from, then reformed around it, then was carved from again. Heading deeper into the canyon the rock opens up into the valley around us and the city became alive. So many different periods of time all strung together from the Nabateans, the original owners and builders, to the Greeks, to the Romans. Earlier at Wadi Rum I’d gotten the chance to see cave paintings by the earlier Nabateans along the red rocks of the canyons. With barely any fences, hardly any barriers, and the freedom to go virtually everywhere, it was incredible investigating every small corner that I could. And yet with only four hours I could only hit the details at the very largest levels, speeding by ramshackle huts, hawking authentic Chinese made artifacts, looking over their roofs to see the towering building.
And yet standing at the top of the cliff, sitting there with my legs dangling over the edge, you could hear, in the wind, the voices. Not from peoples long ago who finally disappeared as their children, and their children, and their children faded into their new civilizations and nations, as well as into the voice of the city itself. You can feel, on your skin, the voices of the rock. The rough sandstone beneath your palms is a whisper of the hidden stories no one will ever hear. The sun beating down from above is the voice of the old man who watched as young shoots grew, matured, and died as he watched on, and tells the stories of younger times in the history of humanity. The wind the watchful eyes that do not remember the past, nor wait for the future, but remain in the present. In that moment, with my legs dangling into empty air and the stone outcroppings laying there before me, I felt invisible. Just an observer able to see one small scene among the hundreds of thousands that play out in echoes among these cliffs.
In these ancient places, especially at Petra, there is... a state of being. The closest thing I think that I can experience to Zen-like. Similar to how I feel when I find myself immersed deeply in nature. A state of balance not with my place in the universe, but with time. That my place in it did, does not, not matter. What matters was that I existed at all. It’s beyond a doubt that existence is an exercise in pain tolerance. Too many philosophers and writers have broken that egg open for it to be beyond a shadow of a doubt. This would seem to many people,, like a statement of hopeless despair. A statement of dissatisfaction and unhappiness. It’s not.
It’s a reaffirmation. To really believe in something you have to go to the brink of madness and return. Not with your beliefs unbroken, but deconstructed and reassembled. A religious fanatic has the zeal and certainty to never doubt their beliefs, but do they really believe in what they claim? Sitting at that ledge, I could have been a thousand years in the future or a thousand years in the past, and it would have made all the difference in the world, but it wouldn’t have changed anything. Sitting there, in with the valley laid bare before me, it helped me to remember that being in a place may not mean anything, and being at a point in time may not mean anything, but being in a place at a certain time does. What we decide to put our faith in, and what we decide to live out in our lives matters. Right now I think that a lot of people are experiencing a crisis of faith in things that they thought they believed in.
I’m not sure what to tell them, we each have to confront our own existence differently.
However, with so many people feeling so lost at one time, there’s a chance to rework the world better than before. I can’t tell people what they should work towards, what they should believe, or what they need to do to confirm their own sense of being in the world. It’s not my place to. But if we all step to the edge together, stare into the absurdity that is us, that is humanity, and then step back and agree to continue on, we won’t be able to stop the pain of existence, but we will be able to make existing less painful. And find reconciliation and a salve for the pain that already exists.
In Petra, just for a little bit, I was able to abstract my own fears and worries about the many tumultuous moments that I find myself living through at the moment and considering so much throughout each day. School Shootings, Ecological disaster on a global scale, economic instability. It’s possible to get too close to these problems and to forget that they are symptoms rather than causes. Sitting there, watching modern lives carrying on in an ancient city, I remembered that while we may manifest our most basic problems in strange and different ways from those of the past, they are basically the same. And the solutions to those problems that have plagued humanity through the millennia are not hard to find.
When you zoom out you can become overwhelmed with the absurdity of ourselves, but you can also be inspired by the simplicity. Raising instead of lowering those around us in every way: financially, morally, and intellectually. Working with deliberateness and resolve towards the manifestation of higher values rather than for short term, individual gain. Living out our values, not through our increasingly vocal pronouncement of them, but in our acting them out, every day of our lives, in every aspect.