The designation last week of the modern-day Seven Wonders of the World via a global poll of 100 million people offered a nice break from the usual menu of depressing conflict around the world. We in the Arab world are especially pleased that one site, Petra in Jordan, made the list.
Though all the winners were architectural or other built structures, there may be deeper lessons here than merely the expected rewards of greater tourism flows. I know that is the case with Petra, because I spent many months there some years ago researching and writing a book on the ancient city of the Nabataeans, who flourished around 2000 years ago.
Behind the hundreds of dramatic stone-carved and built monuments that define Petra’s valleys, mountains and rolling hills is a legacy of human qualities that both sparked the city’s success and should be very relevant to the Arab world today. For there is nothing in the contemporary Arab world that would cause hundreds of millions of voters to acknowledge its achievements many centuries from now. Perhaps Petra’s history can explain why this is the case, and what we might be able to do about it.
I have a soft spot for and much pride in the Nabataeans, an indigenous “Arab tribe that flourished for less than 500 years. Their architecture is splendid, but not really unique. They used stone-carving techniques that were already well established in the ancient worlds of Egypt, Assyria and Mesopotamia by the time they entered history around the 5th century BC; and they adopted many design techniques from the Greco-Roman world that they encountered through their extensive trading networks. The natural splendor of the pink-red Nubian sandstone that defines the Petra region is the work of the hand of God, and of geology.
What is so special about Petra and the Nabataeans are their human qualities and values, which generated the social, political and economic environment that made possible their magnificent urbanism. The Arab world would do well to reflect upon those attributes underpinning that achievement, and ask if any of those values remain operative and could be reinvigorated in the Arab world today.
My study of Petra and the Nabataeans suggests several core values that help explain how a small tribe of nomadic livestockers settled down in south Jordan and northern Arabia by the 4th century BC, and quickly developed into a wealthy, technologically advanced, small kingdom that also reached into Palestine, Sinai, and southern Syria. An attraction of Petra and the Nabataean people is the enormous mystery surrounding them, for they left no written records other than architectural and funerary inscriptions. We know them mainly from their archaeological remains, and some mention of them in Hellenistic and Roman-era texts.
All these sources suggest that the Nabataeans flourished for several reasons, amongst which I would single out the following that may be relevant to the Arab world today: First, they used diplomacy wisely to avoid conflict whenever possible. They did this, in among other ways, by entering into agreements with the great powers of the day–Greece and Rome–who acknowledged prevailing political realities and allowed the Nabataeans to pursue their critical commercial trading activities.
Second, the Nabataeans struck a sensible balance between the spiritual and the secular, acknowledging the power of their deities but also making sure to enjoy life and not focus all their attention on religious matters.
Third, they were masters of environmental protection and management, especially the harnessing of scarce water resources in an arid region.
Fourth, they generated wealth and security from a balanced economy. They did not rely too much on one source of income that would be vulnerable to disruptions, but rather balanced their dependence on agriculture, minerals, manufacturing and trade.
Fifth, they apparently governed themselves well, with a combination of an efficient judicial system (where even Roman foreigners could expect a fair trial) and a service-oriented monarchy that behaved humbly before its citizens, and shared meals and drinking bouts with them.
And sixth, they interacted widely and deeply with other cultures, self-confidently absorbing foreign technology, art and even religious values and symbols. This process enriched their own culture and allowed it to evolve into a strong, rich blend of indigenous and imported norms–one that would be recognized two millennia later by a still awed world.
So, go to Petra and the other modern wonders of the world if you have not done so already. As you gaze in amazement at the architectural structures, be sure also to see the galaxy of human values behind them. In the Arab world, at least, Petra and the Nabataeans remind us that values of cosmopolitanism, a balance between the secular and the sacred, peace-making, good governance and environmental protection spectacularly generated wealth, respect, and stability many centuries ago. There should be no reason why this cannot be the case again today. Rami G. Khouriis published twice-weekly by THE DAILY STAR.