Jordan, August 2012
The Bedouin of Petra are not happy. Generators were in loud operation throughout the site and a group of them in a cafe told me they had written to UNESCO to complain because they had been promised solar power, but they didn't have it. Most of the Bedouin families who lived in Petra, approximately 4000 people, have been moved to a purpose-built village, the nearby Um Sayhoun, outside of which is a forest of solar panels, but according to the Petra storekeepers, they are not linked up. Seventy families who have refused to move still live in the caves on site. One old man said Petra was his home and why would he move to a cement chicken-coop when every morning when he opened his eyes he had an unobstructed view of Petra?
As we walked past the amphitheater a young boy selling guidebooks told us 'Jews were here' and I later heard that some sources suggest that the Bedouin tribe in Petra, the Bidool, are originally Jews from Yemen. It did not seem far-fetched- some of cameleers and donkey-handlers had long hair which they wore oiled and curled the way some tribes still do in Asir province in Saudi Arabia (which formerly belonged to Yemen), and they looked Yemeni. In 524 a Himyarite king, Dhu Nuwas who had converted to Judaism, massacred thousands of Christians living in Najran, formerly a Yemeni town now part of Saudi Arabia. The Byzantine Emperor is said to have requested his fellow Christians, the Ethiopians, to send an army to avenge the killings and restore the Christians, which they did. It is possible that some Yemeni Jews moved north to avoid retribution. (A tiny number of Jews remain in Yemen but no Christians.) But there is also speculation that some Nabateans were forcibly converted to Judaism by the Hasmonean kings in the 1st century BC. Records from the Arabian peninsula are patchy, and after the Roman defeat of the Nabateans in 106AD, they disappear, subsumed into the Roman Empire.
Obelisk Tomb, Petra
There were few people in Petra because it was Ramadan and being the height of summer, it was off-season. One afternoon we went to Little Petra which we had to ourselves. Often overlooked by the masses, the site is nonetheless a highlight. The monumental tombs there are similar to the Nabatean tombs at al Khuraymat near Meda'in Saleh in Saudi Arabia, with Assyrian crenellations, Mesopotamian stepped pyramids and Greek-style urns and pediments. A large columned adminstrative hall, and Roman-style tricliniums with wall niches are also very similar to those found at the southern end of the Nabatean sphere of influence.
Back in Amman I had dinner with friends of a friend who told us, as if everyone knew, that the reason the Russians are supporting Assad to such degree is that they don't want Qatar's proposed gas pipeline to Europe to go through Syria. Russia supplies Europe with more than a third of its gas needs, but Europe would be happy to reduce its dependence on Russia and Qatar, with some of the largest known gas reserves, is interested in building a pipeline through Saudi Arabia, Syria and Turkey to Europe. According to the Jordanians Assad was told by Russia not to allow it. Syria and Qatar were friendly until recently and Qatar had considerable investment in the country and the general stories of Russia needing to keep its port in Tartous, or Syria being such a huge arms clients of Russia has seemed a bit lame. So is it just another conspiracy theory of which there is never any shortage in this part of the world, or is there a germ of truth to it?