Monday, June 21, 2010

Professor Louise Harmon - Petra: A Dream Come True

So often the seeds of dreams are sown in elementary school. In this instance, the dream germinated not from my own elementary school experience, but from that of my daughter Kate’s. Her second-grade class had been responsible for the Middle East at her school’s International Day Fair, and Kate’s job was to educate her peers about Petra. I promised myself: This is her school project, not yours. Just provide the materials, and keep your nose out of her project. Let her do the work, not you.


That’s how I first learned about the amazing engineering feats of the Nabateans. I was so glad that Kate was the child who was with me this summer since it was she who had sprinkled gold glitter over a poster board-rendering of the Treasury, lo those 13 years ago. It was she who had stood tall before the second grade, solemnly imparting information on the Arab tribes of southern Jordan to all who would listen. (And there were not many…)

Last weekend, Kate and I finally got to Petra. Along with 15 law students, and four faculty members, we took a day-long tour from our base in Eilat, where we had spent the day before snorkeling with dolphins in the Red Sea, goggling at tropical fish on the coral reef, and hanging out at the motel pool, made tepid from 105-degree weather. The bus trip to Petra took several hours from Eilat, and we arrived at noon, just in time for a full baking from the unremitting desert sun. Several of us bought a keffiyeh, Jordanian head gear, and we all slathered ourselves in ritual fashion with SPF 45, donned sturdy walking shoes and sunglasses, and prepared for the blinding walk down to Petra.

Professor Louise Harmon adapts to the Jordanian heat and sunshine.

Once we made it into the Sik, the name given to the narrow, winding gorge that leads down to the ancient city, the sun ceased to be a problem. The high, rugged, rose-colored cliffs on either side created narrow bands of dark shade to stand in, and for some reason, a wind blasted through the canyon, drying us out and cooling us down. For me, one of the most amazing things about Petra is its entry.

Rock striations in the Petra Siq (canyon).

For reasons having to do with nothing in particular, I’d spent the spring of 2010 obsessing about Frank Lloyd Wright, and I took him with us to Petra. Wright, with his love of secret, understated entry ways that turn suddenly into large, open spaces, would have approved of the entrance to Petra. You have no way to anticipate what is about to confront you as you meander down the Sik, dodging the clattering horse-drawn carriages that hurtle down the canyon ways at break neck speed, carrying elderly tourists who opted for a thirty-dollar, bone-rattling chariot ride over the more leisurely descent on foot. The pathway twists and turns, but with no sense of purpose, taking its direction from the patterns of erosion, and the cutting edges of once rushing water – not that there’s a drop of water in sight now. Suddenly, you take a minor, inconsequential turn, and you’re standing in a huge, cavernous public space, staring at t he Al-Khazneh, or the Treasury. Carved in the first century BCE as a tomb of an important Nabatean king, its primary influence is Hellenistic, and it’s many stories high – an imposing architectural expression of masculine importance and power. With his love of the understated and the horizontal, Frank Lloyd Wright would no longer have approved. But both of us were enthralled, and told Frank to take a hike.

The “Treasury” building of Petra (actually, a grand mausoleum).

Carved from the cliffs…

Just a bit further into the site, I think Frank Lloyd Wright would have once again joined us in wonder – this time over a work of nature, not of man. Our colleagues were prepared to continue further down into the site. We’d made it as far as the theater that originally seated 3,000 under the Nabateans, but had been expanded to hold over 7,000 by the Romans. It was amazing, but Kate and I were dripping, over-heated, crabby and tired. We’d been seduced by a Bedouin and his ragged horse to take a carriage ride back up, but our wonderful guide, Adnan, kept begging us to just take a few steps further, to go inside some lesser caves that had “beautiful, beautiful colors in sand…. Just one more beautiful thing, madam, one more beautiful thing.”

A chariot driver and Kate Jordan in the Siq of Petra.

And there inside those cool caves, we found swirling striations of sand stone in every hue – purplish blue, orange, yellow, salmon pink – in outrageous, abstract and modern patterns. The walls of those caves made me recall Frank, and he too was moved by them. Their beauty was organic, and in his colors. I wish that I had words to tell you about that sandstone in the caves at Petra, but you’ll have to see my pictures, and take my word for it – it was one more beautiful thing.

Beautiful striations…

And more beautiful striations…

Sometimes dreams that come true are disappointing. Sometimes they are not.

By Louise Harmon, Touro Law Summer Abroad Program in Israel 2010

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