are the Nabataeans?
on Cyprus, Syria and Jordan
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.
Credit Photo : Dr. Illman
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.
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:
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.
It was disorienting arriving in the old city at midnight. Nearly all
the shops were closed, streets dark and wandering as we walked to
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
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.
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
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.
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.
DES CHEVALIERS IN SYRIA
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.
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.
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
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.
Photo : Dr. Illman
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.
Beautiful to see.
2. Jerusalem and Jericho were across from our hotel.
3. Israel had lots of irrigated areas for wheat, olives, fruit, nuts,
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
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.
OF THE TRIP
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
WITH OUR ZINGERS (short summary statement)
The stereotypes were broken – people were very friendly and
2. View of women interesting. Several had wanted Hilary to become
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
3. Surprises everywhere!
Streets narrow, stark and enter a building to find great beauty and
Kindness of the Muslims
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.