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Who are the Nabataeans?
Reflections on Cyprus, Syria and Jordan
March 2009 - Dwain C. Illman, M.D.

 

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Who are the Nabataeans?

Reflections on Cyprus, Syria and Jordan
March 2009
Dwain C. Illman, M.D.

Who are the Nabataeans? It is obvious to answer, “Who are the Romans?” Or, “who are the pharaohs”? But the Nabataeans have been mostly obscured by so many other historical places, groups and tribes in the Near East (or referred to in the West as the “Middle East”). They formed a powerful and influential kingdom from about 250 B.C. until the middle of the 2nd century A.D. The group probably descended from the Edomites (Idumaens) who are mentioned both in the Old Testament as well as the New. The reference in II Corinthians 11:32 notes that “In Damascus the governor under King Aretas had the city of the Damascenes guarded in order to arrest me.” King Aretas is a Nabataean and was probably their most significant ruler. Alexander the Great and his subsequent generals who divided the empire as well as the Romans who followed mostly established treaties with the Nabataeans, as they were unable to conquer them.
Jesus never entered their territory but by the 3rd century it had a strong Christian community. Emperor Diocletian persecuted the young church and included in the martyrs were Nabataeans. Bishop Asterius of Petra was a participant in the Arian controversy in the 4th Century. When the Roman Empire shifted to Constantinople in the early 300’s, Petra continued to have influence. The Byzantines followed the Romans and allowed Petra to prosper. The Byzantines collapsed in the early 630’s with the militant and aggressive Islam forces defeating them. Earth quakes in 363 and 551 both contributed to the decline of Petra. By 650 Petra became a forgotten backwater of the Arab world.
This culture was one of the most powerful in the region. The people were prosperous traders and protectors. Caravans from the East and the South passed through this part of southern Jordan and stayed there for sustenance and protection. All of this led to a lot of income for the people. But by the 7th century the culture and community vanished. When the Silk Road and the spice road trade went other places, the Nabataeans lost their revenue, the advanced civilization collapsed and their luxuries disappeared.
The Nabataeans had their few centuries of influence and now have disappeared. The other empires in the area such as Babylonians, Assyrians and Hittites are as well gone. No culture no matter how strong is forever. There are a lot of parallels with the American experience. Will another generation ask, “Who are the Americans?”

The walk through the capital city Petra is perhaps the most moving, amazing, wondrous, spectacular and dramatic walk to ever experience. It has recently been included in the “New Seven Wonders of the World.” (The others are: Chicken itza, Mexico, Christ the Redeemer statue in Brazil, Coliseum in Rome, The Taj Mahal in India, the Great Wall of China and Machu Picchu, Peru). In my mind, Petra deserves this distinction and is at the top just ahead of the Taj Mahal. It is fabulous without the hundred of buildings and tombs carved into its walls. With these, it exceeds imagination and expectation.

Our guide was Hani Ali who is 92 years old, 2 months and 3 days plus he added the hours to his age as we walked for our 4-hour, 5-mile exploration. This man is a Bedouin who was born in a cave on the north side of the “wide bowl of Petra.” He has spent his life here and is recognized as an authority. This man continually amazed us with his knowledge, passion and vigor. Our local contact in Amman, Jordan persuaded Hani to guide us; he cancelled 2 other groups he had scheduled for that day.

This discussion describes THE PROSPERITY OF PETRA. The people became very wealthy. Their culture was very advanced. Women played a significant part of what was happening. Contrary to rest of the world at that time, women could own and transfer property

Guide Hani kept saying, “Only 10% of Petra has been discovered and unearthed.” As we continued to walk beginning with the 1.2 km passage through the narrow Siq which leads to the Treasury (made famous in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom).
The first description published in 1818 says: “A beam of stronger light breaks in at the close of the dark perspective and opens to view, half seen at first through the tall narrow opening, columns, statues, and cornices, of a light and finished taste, as if fresh from the chisel, without the tints or weather stains of age, and executed in a stone of a pale rose color, which was warmed at the moment we came in sight with the full light of the morning sun.” This first view is every bit as impressive today!

We continued to walk and explore more carved buildings made for tombs, temples and houses. The exploration revealed dozens of lovely carved buildings with the rose sandstone revealing many colors and multiple layers. Picture walking along the Grand Canyon with intricate Greek temples carved into its walls.

 

Children of Arabia
Credit Photo : Dr. Illman

 

THE PAGANISM OF PALMYRA

The city-state of Palmyra in northeast Syria just off the Iraqi highway was phenomenal. Palmyra is Syria’s start tourist attraction and one of the world’s most splendid historical sites. Palmyra’s intriguing history, along with a profusion of colonnades, temple and funerary towers are mesmerizing in this desert oasis. Palmyra means the city of Palms (as one would expect on an oasis in the desert).
The ruins mostly are from the 1st and 2nd centuries A.D. The history dates at least to the 2nd millennium B.C. Early rulers included the Assyrians and Persians and then the Seleucids under the descendants of Alexander the Great’s empire. This area was an indispensable staging post for caravans from the Mediterranean, Mesopotamia and Arabia. It also was important on the silk route from China, India to Europe. Passage was only permitted by paying a heavy toll (there is nothing new about toll roads!).
As the Romans became more powerful, Palmyra was permitted to be a free city and served as a buffer between East and West. The citizens had equal rights with those of Rome. This all led to great wealth and prosperity. Zenobia became queen of Palmyra in 267, expanded her kingdom but was eventually defeated by Emperor Aurelian.
The city fell in 634 to a Muslim army and literally disappeared under the sands of the desert until 1678 when two English merchants reintroduced it to the West.
The single most impressive part o the ruins is the temple of Baal (Bel). This was mostly completed by 32 A.D. and was a major site of pagan worship. There is a prominent podium of the sacrificial altar with a large canal leading from it to collect the blood. A million sheep and goats were killed her yearly. For comparison, Muslim men today go to Mecca once in their lifetime. Each man is to bring a sheep to sacrifice. During that special week, over a million sheep are killed yearly creating a river of blood. This happens every year even now. Palmyra was the center of pagan worship and continued the worship of Baal as noted in many texts in the Bible.

The great 1 km colonnaded avenue is really special. Around this are the theater, Diocletian’s Baths and the Tetrapylon. The Tetrapylon is a tight grouping of four columns with each of the pillars supporting 150,000 kg of solid cornice. One is of the original pink granite from Aswan in Egypt. The Valley of the Tombs is very striking. The underground burial chambers of “the three brothers” is a piece of art with frescoes, paintings and statuary.

The paganism going on here contemporaneous with the teachings of Jesus and the apostles presented a strong contrast of beliefs and hope.

 

THE PROMINENCE OF ALEPPO AND DAMASCUS

These two Syrian cities both claim to be the oldest continually occupied city in the world. Both lay claim to a 4000-year history of being a city. We found both of them to be fascinating.
Our introduction to Damascus was at night. We drove into the old walled city and were let out of our car. We followed our guide through a labyrinthine of narrow streets to our house-hotel. We knocked on a plain exterior door and were let in. Inside was a lovely courtyard with balconies, large decorative pool, plenty of plants all of which led to another courtyard. Our room was at the far end of the first courtyard. The furnishings were all dark wood inlayed with mother of pearl. It was breath taking.
The next day we were led throughout the old city. The emphasis was on the markets (souks) on and just off the street called Straight as recorded in Scripture Acts 9. We visited the Umayyad Mosque. This is Syria’s most significant religious structure. A mosque has been here since the Muslims came in 636 A.D. There were Muslim pilgrims and teachers from Iran and Saudi Arabia.
After that we toured the lovely Azem Palace which was built in the mid 1700’s. It includes lovely rooms, courtyards and fountains.
Aleppo is located near the Turkish border and the Mediterranean Sea. Our lodging was likewise in a 300-year-old house with lovely courtyards. The Citadel was built by the Marmukes, an Islamic dynasty, in the mid 1300’s. It is an impressive fortress on the highest point of the city.
The souks (markets) were fascinating. We watched the butchering of a camel. All meat sold is killed that day, as Islamic law requires fresh meat. The market was not as busy as Damascus and was designed for the residents, not tourists. Marilyn got some lovely jewelry. She also went shopping the night before at some shops in our neighborhood. The products included 2 Bedouin silver pieces for a necklace and a lovely 60-year-old embroidered tablecloth. We ate that evening at Sissi’s close to our lodging. We had excellent eggplant ratoulle, cheese bread, mushroom soup. The best was stopping at a small bakery with a wonderful variety of pistachio pastries covered in honey!

I will close with HIGHLIGHTS from a variety of places, then zingers and trip conclusions:

CYPRUS

1. The museum at Troodos at the mountain monastery. It featured Christian history from the first century to present.
2. Cyprus Museum was interesting with ancient items from 3000 B.C., pagan statues, Roman statues, and amazing life-size clay figures.
3. Border crossing in Nicosia going into North Turkish Cyprus. The U.N. is longer there and the guards on both sides are friendly. Still evidence of the war with this “green zone” surrounded by sandbags and bullet scarred buildings.
4. The thrill of walking Roman Pahpos where Paul walked. The mosaics there are really special.
5. Marilyn was amazed Dwain found things as we drove through Nicosia, to the Troodos mountains, Paphos, Larnica and got close to Salamis in the Turkish north.
6. We were unable to cross to go to Salamis on the east end of the island. (Salamis is where Paul landed as recorded in Acts 13. It was the second largest city next to Pahpos).
7. The Troodos mountains were close to 10,000 feet and have snow skiing. We drove through areas with piled snow on either side of the road.
8. The roads and streets in Nicosia were poorly marked and never went straight for more than 200 feet.
9. Our Holiday Inn in the old town was convenient, good facilities and with fine views of the old walled city.

 

DAMASCUS

1. It was disorienting arriving in the old city at midnight. Nearly all the shops were closed, streets dark and wandering as we walked to our hotel.
2. Amazing hotel. Our room had fancy light fixtures. The furniture was covered with inlay mother of pearl. The hotel had two lovely courtyards with reflecting pools.
3. Everywhere there was smoking.
4. Our guide and driver were terrific – Walid and Fadi.
5. The House of Ananias and the church built around it was a real highlight. Read Acts 9 to refresh your memory on the scriptural significance.
6. Next door to Ananias we stopped at a shop. The shopkeeper knew someone from Ellettsville, Indiana. He is Mark Vanest. Mark went to school with the kids and taught this man English for several years during the time Mark lived in Damascus.
7. It was cool in Syria with highs in mid-50’s to low 60’s.
8. I was thrilled to walk the Street called Straight.
9. The Souk had shops for everything. I took a lot of video.
10. The Large mosque – Umayyad Mosque was really crowded as it was Mother’s Day and a holiday from school. Marilyn had to wear a full robe with a hood. She looked like a Star Wars’ cast member.
11. The call to prayer is 5 times a day. There are so many mosques and the calls all seem to start a few seconds apart and are sung at slightly different tempo. We saw the muezzin at Umayyad do his call.

 

 

PALMYRA, SYRIA

1. The city has a phenomenal layout with a 20 km wall around it compared to 7 km for Damascus.
2. The temple of Baal was a frightening experience. At least a million animals a year were killed on the altar. It was completed about the time Christ died.
3. The burial process included 3 types of tombs – tall buildings, below ground crypts and at the temple at one end of the main colonnaded avenue.
4. The colonnaded main street is 1.2 km long. Impressive.
5. Rained the whole day of the tour!
6. That evening it cleared and I got terrific evening photos.

 

 

ALEPPO, SYRIA

1. Xenobia Palace Hotel and her courtyards were a lovely place to stay.
2. Sissi restaurant was excellent.
3. In the square near our hotel we had lovely shops for shopping.
4. Pistachio bakery near our hotel was fun and good.

 

KRAK DES CHEVALIERS IN SYRIA

1. The epitome of a dream castle of childhood fantasies.
2. TE Lawrence called it the “finest castle in the world.”
3. 12th Century Crusader fort.

 

 

KARAK FORTRESS, JORDAN

1. Phenomenal crusader fortress with lots of caves and tunnels and overlooks the lower valley of the Dead Sea.
2. The valleys in this area were stark but beautiful. We looked at the possible sites for Sodom and Gomorrah and saw Aaron’s tomb in the distance.


PETRA, JORDAN

1. Oh Petra!
2. One of the 7 modern wonders of the world. It deserves this ranking.
3. Guide Hani: “without Petra there is not Jordan.” He was speaking of tourists coming.
4. The walk through the Siq passageway is so dramatic and beautiful – 1.2 km long.
5. Everywhere there are carvings and tombs.
6. Riding the horse to the entrance of the Siq and then the 30 minute donkey road out and up to the Bedouin town was so much fun. I followed Marilyn’s ass the whole way out.
7. Our guide told kids to quit begging and go to school and then he got upset with the schoolteachers because they didn’t have respect for Petra.
8. Walking out of the Siq and seeing the Treasury building carved in stone was so impressive.
9. There are so many other temples and tombs that are dramatic but don’t have the visual impact of the Siq entrance.
10. Our guide: only 10% has been unearthed.
11. The Nabateans were great hydrologists as they took meager desert rains and provided for 100,000 residents plus thousands of camels and merchants traveling the silk and spice roads.
12. It was fun to negotiate for a Nabatean coin. Our guide said it is from the 1st century and the kids find them after a heavy rain.
13. Hani had 65 cats and 1 camel. One of his sons called during the tour as he was having trouble with his donkeys. To get me to hurry, Hani would yell: “yella, Yella.”
14. One evening we ate at the Petra Kitchen. The tourists prepare the meal with the help of 3 local chefs. We were with people from Germany, Philippines and Australia.

 

 

Mrs. Illman in Jordan

Credit Photo : Dr. Illman

 

WADI RUM, JORDAN

1. The area where Lawrence of Arabia wandered and organized Bedouins to attack the Turks. The film was filmed in this area. Quite lovely.
2. Our guide Saleem lit up when Marilyn asked about his son. His boy is one and a half. They live with brothers and parents in one house. He likes this arrangement.
3. The Bedouin prefer living in their tents. The government built blockhouses for them. They mainly use them for the animals at night!
4. The red sand is so beautiful.
5. It reminds me of Moab, Utah area with Canyonlands, etc.

 

DEAD SEA

1. Beautiful to see.
2. Jerusalem and Jericho were across from our hotel.
3. Israel had lots of irrigated areas for wheat, olives, fruit, nuts, etc.
4. Our Kempsinki Hotel was beautiful but it was hard to navigate. The Dead Sea was down 4 levels but not all accessible by elevator.
5. There were lots of police/military checkpoints on our drive from Aqaba.
6. The Dead Sea is receding so much as all the water is used before the Jordan River empties into it.
7. The bathers were totally black with mud.

HIGHLIGHTS OF THE TRIP

1. Being together.
2. Petra – majestic. The natural Siq was unbelievable.
3. Riding the donkey out of Petra.
4. Reminder that all peoples have a need to worship.
5. Palmyra was impressive.
6. Chevaliers Crusader Fort.
7. Seeing Islam up close. We seldom saw Europeans. We were not threatened. We were not singled out but felt very safe and welcome.
8. The young girls at various sites wanted Marilyn’s photo with them. She was a star.
9. It was such a contrast from Egypt where the touts pursue with vigor.
10. Marilyn had a good conversation with our guide in Syria about Jesus.

 

CONCLUDE WITH OUR ZINGERS (short summary statement)

1. The stereotypes were broken – people were very friendly and hospitable.
2. View of women interesting. Several had wanted Hilary to become our president.
We saw many women in burkas. It is a choice and not the law. They noted that long before Christianity and Islam, women in the area covered their heads.
3. Surprises everywhere!
Streets narrow, stark and enter a building to find great beauty and expanse.
Kindness of the Muslims
Extraordinary Petra
Beautiful Palmyra
Ancient but alive Damascus
Seeing the lights of Jerusalem from our hotel balcony.
4. We traveled the “king’s Highway” in Jordan.
5. Stepping back in time.
6. Ancient cultures: dead not but once powerful.
7. Damascus and Aleppo are the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world.
8. Then and Now.
9. Footsteps of Paul.
10. Precious water.
11. The Promised Land.
12. By the 2nd century all of this area was Christian. But it is a post Christian world now for very certain. How does the church die?
13. We entered another culture.



 

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Testimonial Posted on Frommers.com

Egypt and Jordan with Travel in Style (San Francisco)
Our family of 4 took a 3 week vacation in Egypt and Jordan in October 2008.
The trip was organized by Travel in Style.com , San Francisco.
We choose Travel in Style as they allowed us a better variety



posted at 2/8/2009 2:19 PM EST

Suzanne
Posts: 1
First: 2/8/2009
Last: 2/8/2009 Our family of 4 took a 3 week vacation in Egypt & Jordan in October 2008. The trip was organized by Travel in Style, San Francisco.

We choose Travel in Style as they allowed us a better variety of hotel choices and Nile cruise boat choices. We selected the Sonesta Star Goddess and the Four Seasons Hotels in both Cairo and Sharm El Sheikh.

After 3 days in Cairo, we took a week boat trip from Aswan to Luxor and back to Aswan . We then flew to Abu Simbel for the day, before heading off to the Sinai. From the Sinai we took a 3 day tour into Petra, Jordan. We ended up with a couple of relaxing days at The Four Seasons Resort in Sharm.

Travel in Style completely accommodated our many requests for various destinations.

As an architect, there were certain sites that were important for me to see while there and Travel in Style had no problem adding these requests to our itinerary.

Travel in Style, through their agents in Egypt and Jordan, provided terrific local support. The Guides (all Egyptologists) were absolutely excellent and the agents and drivers were superb.

Most importantly, throughout the trip we felt safe. Additionally, agents and guides were always flexible to our needs and requests.

We have no hesitation in recommending Travel in Style. It was a fantastic holiday on every level.


Re: Egypt and Jordan with Travel in Style (San Francisco)
posted at 2/9/2009 1:15 AM EST

Gottagocit
Posts: 256
First: 2/19/2007
Last: 1/4/2010 Hi,

Like you we had a fantastic trip with them last Feb/March. Omar and his team worked very hard for us before and during our trip to make sure we had an unforgettable 20th anniversary trip to Egypt and Jordan.

 

Re: Egypt and Jordan with Travel in Style (San Francisco)
posted at 5/27/2010 5:13 PM EDT

Arne
Posts: 1
First: 5/27/2010
Last: 5/27/2010 We agree whole-heartedly. This is an exceptional small travel agency.
Aside from working closely in advance to personalize our deluxe month-long trip to Morocco, Egypt and Jordan, their advice was superb. At each destination we were met at the airport by a local rep (in Cairo and Amman actually inside the customs area) and excorted to our hotels where they handled the check-in for us. At each airport depoarture, their rep handled the check-in and luggage check for us. We felt like visiting diplomats. When a small glitch in the itinerary occurred while we were in Cairo, I e-mailed the local rep and also Omar in San Francisco. Within 20 minutes the owner of the Cairo agency telephone me to assure me all had been straightened out; Omar had telephoned him immediately upon receiving my e-mail to make sure his client was well cared for. We cannot recommend them highly enough and believe it would be a mistake to plan a trip to this area without consulting them.


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