I walked into my friend’s guest house in London and admired the artwork on the walls. My British friends were hosting me during the planning meetings of the World Gathering of Young Friends. They were young adults like myself and rented a modest flat from someone in their meeting. Looking around the room where I would be staying I noticed a series of three pictures artistically framed in series. At first glance the red rock canyon and beautiful architecture seemed familiar. With closer inspection I exclaimed, “Isn’t that from the Indiana Jones movie? Where was that photo taken?” Laughing, my friend explained:
“It’s Petra, in Jordan. I went with an elder from my meeting last month. It’s beautiful.”
Six years later, I find myself walking through the grand canyon of the ancient city of Petra with the Associated Church Press tour. We entered the expanse and walked down to the treasure. I was struck by the genius of the ancient people who built elaborate water catchment systems and used the natural edifices for protection. From the outside, Petra looks like a series of uninhabited, unapproachable mountains. Inside, the canyon walls are riddled with caves, tombs, and ancient temples. Much of Petra has not been excavated. There is much mystery awaiting historians and archeologists.
The people of Petra have an interesting story. In 1985, Petra was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the inhabitants of Petra were relocated to a modern city a few kilometers away. These relocated people, the Bedul tribe, are still the only people allowed to sell or work inside Petra. The city where they now live was built specifically for them in the 1980s thus forcibly ending their cave dwelling days.
The stories of the Bedul raise may questions for me. While the development of the tourism business in and around Petra has dramatically improved the economy of the area, a way of living has been lost. Who are we, the privileged, to say how someone should live? Yet the development of schools, sewage, and health care has improved these people’s standard of living. Craft co-operatives have supported the empowerment of women and the international attention of Petra provides new opportunities to future Bedul generations.
Development? Is that our goal? What does the kingdom of heaven here on Earth look like? Do I have a right to paint that picture at the demise of other peoples' culture?
The United States of America believes that democracy is the best governmental structure (or at least something like it). As a U.S. citizen, I do think that the voices of the people should be heard and those voices should make decisions that benefit society and the world. As a Quaker, I believe that the living Spirit speaks in the decision-making processes and, to quote Margaret Mead, “a small group of committed citizens can change the world.”
Yet the questions continue to haunt me. Is the promotion of human rights and higher standards of living more important than cultural preservation? A loud voice inside me says yes! But, I respond, if that is our goal, to provide a better life for others, how different are we from colonialists?
Petra has become the pride of many Jordanians and the main reason that internationals come to visit. In 2001, Petra was named No. two on the new list of the Seven Wonders of the World. The Petra National Trust is beginning to teach tourists and locals about the importance of environmental awareness. One of the members of the Jordan Tourism Board North America who was leading my trip told me a story about this campaign to teach people about the impact of trash on the lives of the people living at the site:
There are many children selling trinkets in Petra. They should be in school but their parents make them work instead. These are the children of the Bedul and Petra is their Petra. One day I (the leader of my trip) gathered a group of children around me and said, “I’ll buy one thing from each of you if you help me pick up trash for 30 minutes.” As the word spread, soon 15 children gathered around and joyously cleaned up the area. When they were finished, I bought one thing (at one dinar) from each of the children and told them, “This is your home; you have the responsibility to keep it clean and to keep yourselves safe!”
My leader had grown up in Jordan; her mother is American and her father is Jordanian. Her mother is the only American on the board of the Petra National Trust and has recently published a children’s book (in English and in Arabic) about a goat in Petra who gets sick from eating trash. The book is touching and just one of the many projects going on to improve the standards of Petra for both the Bedul people and the visitors.
The towering canyon loomed over me as I walked out of Petra. So many people just come to see the Treasury and miss the wealth of other sites. The canyon holds much more than just caves, tombs, and temples; it is a library of stories. Whether they are exotic stories like the New Zealand women who married a Bedouin and the young American who moved with her mother to live with the Beduls or the common stories of the donkey boys, everyone’s voice is imprinted in the spirit of Petra, logged in a catalogue perhaps longer than time.
first published at the blog of Friends Journal