Since the earliest times, people have ascribed sacred significance to certain places. Such places—whether human made or naturally occurring—typically inspire awe, and often invoke devotion and respect. Not surprisingly many of these places are revered and well known. There are some places, however, that are less known, even hidden. They await discovery. Here I pay homage to a place that has sacred meaning for me.
A mile long crack winds downward through the red sandstone mountain. The crack, called Siq, formed by tectonic forces, has 500 feet tall sides that are at times no more than nine feet apart. In the walls a few, small, votive niches occupy carved out spaces. Sunlight, so unavoidable in the nearby desert, struggles to reach the niches and the crack’s crushed pebble floor.
The Siq is the main entrance to the ancient city of Petra—rock in Greek—an apt name for a city carved into sandstone cliffs by the Nabataeans, a nomadic Arab tribe three centuries before Christ’s birth. Situated at the crossroads of Arabia, Egypt and Phoenicia, during Hellenistic and Roman times, Petra was a popular destination of caravans from Arabia, China and India. Petra’s lucrative trade of incense, spices, and silk coupled with its sophisticated water management system made it an oasis amidst the desert where 30,000 people could live comfortably.
As I traverse the Siq with Mario, my co-worker and friend, its steepness and narrowness make me feel insignificant. My tiny footsteps seem to inconvenience the expansive silence of this place. Thoughts of the work we are doing in Jerusalem, my family a world away, and the tensions in the Middle East cannot penetrate the thick walls that surround me.
Nearing the Siq’s end, I take a slight turn. I look up. There, Al Khazneh (the Treasury), overwhelms me with its breathtaking glory. Its ornate, imposing, and rose-colored sandstone façade is 131-feet tall. On its lower half, a crown-topped triangle sits atop a six-column portico. A horseback figurine stands on each side. Atop this, on the upper half, are six columns, five sculptures between them.
Al Khazneh is one of the nearly 800 structures that comprise Petra. After exploring it, Mario and I walk along Petra’s now silent Street of Facades, a row of 40, tall, rock-cut tombs. The street leads us to the Petra’s city center and Theatre, a rock-hewn edifice like all others here. The Theatre’s now empty seats abut its vacant stage. In its day, 8500 people would focus on the scenes playing out here. Across from the Theatre, overlooking Petra’s main walkway are the Urn, Silk, Corinthian, and Palace tombs. We take time to explore each solemnly empty site.
Leaving the city center, solemnly we walk up 800 rock-cut steps to Ad Deir (The Monastery). Similar in design to the Treasury, the Monastery is, at 45 yards wide and 40 yards high, much larger. Its colonnaded entrance is 7 yards high. It lights up the massive inside chamber.
As we continue exploring, I think about the people whose lives cut Petra into the red rocks of Jebel al-Madhbah. How the Petra they built is a monument to challenges overcome, adversity met, and alliances forged. I ponder how Petra prospered, thrived, and endured for two millennia. Then, lost for several centuries, is found.
Walking amidst the sacred glory of Petra, I hear it say, “Dig deep Mark. Build a life on the sacred bedrock of your soul, not its outward manifestation. Live fully –do not just scratch the surface.”
I take this to mean that I must make time to reflect on what my life means, unearth its potential, and dredge out and deal with its buried realities. This is the lesson I came halfway around the world, to this once lost city, to learn. Looking to the sky, seeing the rising Moon and twinkling North Star, I am reminded that lessons are everywhere and home is never far away.
Note: This is the second post in the Sacred Places series. Please click the subscribe button on the right side of the blog page to be notified of future posts.