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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

notes on Petra

Last night, after dinner, when Kimmie was repairing to the kitchen to work on a wedding cake for this weekend, she suggested that I watch one of the research videos I got from the library a week ago.

"But--" I said, "but I don't...work at night."

"You watch your video," she said, patting my knee.

"Hm. Well. All right."

I loaded the VHS cassette of A&E's Ancient Mysteries' "The Hidden City of Petra", narrated by Leonard Nimoy, fetched my "sketchbook" (the leather-bound journal given to me by my coworkers at ICBC on my departure in December 2001), hunched over the coffee-table with my juice-glass of neat scotch (not full!), and started watching.

My practice when watching research videos is to roll some tape, and when I see something I want to record, I hit Pause and scribble in my sketchbook. My main interest is to grab descriptive sketches, only secondarily to record factual information (that is usually better got from books). This was my first entry, made while I paused the tape right in the opening credits:

Curving hogback of clay-red stone: jagged; flattish uplands on the horizon, and a whitish-gray watery sky.

That description might possibly wind up in my book somewhere.

Petra (Greek for stone), now a red limestone necropolis carved in the cliffs of southwest Jordan, was the capital city of the Nabatean Arabs in the period of my story. The Nabateans, a wealthy trading nation, were major players in the Eastern Mediterranean. They have a close connection to my story for several reasons, not least of which is the fact that Herod's mother was Nabatean. In more ancient times Petra was known as Moserah: the place where Esau is said to have settled and fathered the people called Edomites (edom = "red"), and where Moses is said to have kept the 12 tribes of Israel for 37 years while he wrote the books of Genesis and Exodus. So Petra was an important staging-post on the journey to take the Promised Land.

The city itself is a magical wonder: hidden in the rugged dry mountains, it can be reached only through a narrow canyon that in places is barely wide enough for a single camel to pass through. There are still more than 800 tombs cut into the sandstone of the city, which was destroyed by earthquake in AD 363. A secret known for centuries only to the local tribesmen, it was rediscovered by a Swiss explorer in 1842 when, disguised as an Arab, he was led to it by his guides. Today its excavation has barely begun.

It felt like a push taking notes as weariness came over me, but I was glad to get it done. If nothing else, this book will have taken me far and wide in my search for knowledge.


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