In early June my son Coby was finishing up a pre-college work-study year in China. I was headed to Tel Aviv for a conference. We decided to spend a few weeks together in Israel, visiting family and catching up with friends. Coby found a cheap flight that landed him in Amman, Jordan, where I met him. I’d found a pair of bargain tickets from Amman back to Ben-Gurion International, changing planes in Athens.
Along the way we did a bit of sightseeing. On Thursday we visited the ruins of Petra, the desert capital of the ancient Nabatean kingdom, three hours south of Amman. On Friday we toured the Acropolis in Athens.
And so it was that on June 23 and 24, while the world was watching Great Britain vote to shut out the messy embrace of global civilization, my son and I got an up-close look at the contrasting fates of two ancient societies that struggled, in opposite ways, with the same dilemma facing Britain.
Petra, Jordan’s best-known tourist attraction, was an ancient city carved out of solid red rock in the northern reaches of the Arabian Desert. Built around 300 B.C.E. by the Nabateans, an Arab people, it grew to great wealth and power because it sat astride the caravan routes carrying trade between Arabia, Egypt, Syria and Persia. The remains — only about 5% has been excavated so far — show an astounding combination of aesthetic beauty, engineering sophistication and the ingenious water technology that kept a city of 20,000 flourishing in the middle of the desert.
Besides the fantastical architecture, miraculously carved out of solid rock, what’s remarkable about the city is its defensive nature. It’s built in a deep canyon, ringed by mountains and cliffs. Every approach is dotted with mountaintop sentry and guard posts to keep out intruders. Invaders found it all but impenetrable — that is, until the legions of the Roman emperor Trajan managed to penetrate in 106 C.E.
The Roman conquest marked the beginning of Petra’s long, slow decline. Trade routes shifted to suit the needs of the empire, impoverishing Petra’s merchants and customs collectors. When a massive earthquake struck the eastern Mediterranean in 363, Petra no longer had the means to rebuild, and it slowly sank into the sands. By 1200 it was abandoned and forgotten by all but local nomads, until a Swiss traveler rediscovered it in 1812.
Since its rediscovery Petra has been steadily excavated and turned into a tourism magnet. It’s listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site, and was chosen by a worldwide poll in 2007 as one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. Its acclaim is due in no small part to its preservation as an intact marvel. It was a wonder of human ingenuity during its brief heyday. Since then nobody’s cared enough to tamper with it.
Athens’ fate has been more or less the opposite. It rose to prominence as the cultural capital of ancient Greece right around the same time that Petra emerged as the capital of the desert trade routes. Unlike Petra, though, Athens has no natural defenses. Spread out over a wide-open plain, it’s been conquered more times than you can count, repeatedly knocked down, rebuilt and then knocked down and rebuilt again. Its ancient treasures — the Parthenon, the agora, the Temple of Olympian Zeus — are so battered by time, invaders, earthquakes and vandals that visitors have to use their imagination to picture what it all must have looked like back in the day.
Yet still the visitors come. They stream in from around the world and line up for hours to gaze at what’s left. The reason is that when you visit Athens, you’re not just seeing a relic of an ancient civilization. You’re looking at a bit of yourself, seeing the seeds of the global civilization that is our collective heritage today. The sign at the entrance to the Acropolis calls it the “birthplace of Europe.” It could just as easily say “birthplace of world civilization.”
There are many reasons why Petra disappeared while Athens became an eternal cradle of civilization, but one of them is surely this: Athens didn’t close itself off from the world. It welcomed strangers. It conquered and was conquered, spread its ideas to foreign lands and absorbed the ideas of others. The exchanges weren’t always pleasant. Conquest seldom is. But through centuries of confrontation, accommodation and assimilation, the spirit of Athens grew ever stronger.
Petra did the opposite. It bet its future on strong walls to preserve itself as it was and keep out the rest of the world. When the walls no longer held, Petra had nothing left. It had no inner defenses.
Athens’ values, insights and sensibilities — democracy, honest inquiry and earthly, sensual joy — traveled around the world. They were championed in turn by the Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Turks, French and English, even when they were all but forgotten in Athens itself. In each new home they were adapted and updated as much as they were revered. To be sure, our modern civilization owes perhaps as much to the values of Judaism and Christianity as to the aesthetics of Athens. In the end, though, the separate roots are no longer distinguishable. And that’s part of its strength.
Today the heritage of Athens is under assault. The model of a confident, open society that looks outward and welcomes change has served us well for four centuries, since Europe’s dark ages gave way to modernity. Lately, though, we’re losing our nerve. We’re daunted by the accelerating pace of change. The things we gain seem cruelly, relentlessly outweighed by the things we lose in the exchange.
Most of all, we’ve lost faith in the leaders and gatekeepers. With each new transaction they skim a little more off the top and leave less and less for the rest of us. Our instinct is to shut the gates, call a halt to the exchanges and turn in on ourselves. It’s entirely understandable. The tradeoffs used to make sense. Lately it’s getting hard to see any benefit. That’s why Britain voted to leave the European Union. It’s why so many Americans are drawn to Donald Trump.
But in the long run — and even the not-so-long run — we lose when we hide behind our walls. If you doubt it, take a look at Petra, the ancient wonder that’s now a lifeless ruin.
Contact J.J. Goldberg at email@example.com
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).