Expat Eyes

This blog contains the photographs, observations and reflections of Rena Diana, an educator and writer, during extended stays in the Arabian Gulf, China, and Mongolia.

Archive for the category “Desert”

“Rose-Red City Half As Old As Time”: Petra


“…to lose oneself in mystery and wonder while, like a wave lifting us into new seas, the history of the world develops around us.” 

         Freya Stark, The Valleys of the Assassins

The title of this post comes from a poem by John Burgon in 1845 describing the legendary lost city of Petra, nestled in a canyon, an immense desert wadi, in southern Jordan. It is one of the most enchanting places I have ever been, a glorious cross-section of ancient and natural history, archaeology, anthropology, geology, and architecture. Words will simply not capture it, so take a couple minutes to watch the slide show below after this brief overview.

“Petra” means stone in Greek. The entire city is carved out of multi-colored sandstone, marbleized with ripples and waves of endless shades of lavender, mauve, lilac, sage, topaz, ochre, sienna, salmon, bone, brown, and charcoal. I was mesmerized by the magical, shimmering beauty of this stone. Nature’s palette.


“…from the rock as if by magic grown,

eternal, silent, beautiful, alone!”- Burgon

The most common way to enter Petra is along a “siq” (shaft), a narrow corridor carved out between towering rock cliffs.  At the end of the siq, through a mere sliver of an opening, the spectacular façade of a monumental building appears. This is The Treasury, so called because it is thought that the urn at the top holds the riches of the Pharaoh at the time of the Exodus. As you wander through the valley, you see multiple levels of cave dwellings, temples and tombs chiseled into the mountains. Votive niches, water channels, cisterns, sanctuaries, storerooms, burial chambers, obelisks, pediments, facades, columns, bas-relief sculpture, inscriptions, pilasters, friezes, Ionic capitals, and terracotta pipes. There are the remains of a spectacular 5000-plus-seat theater and a temple along a colonnaded boulevard. The massive “Ed Deir” or “monastery”, a pilgrimage site and gathering place for Christian monks, sits at the top of 800 rock steps cut right into the mountain.  Well worth the climb! Petra contains a synthesis of decorative elements, a mixture of influences, from both east and west, as seen in the architecture. One wonder leads to another. It is breathtaking.

Nowadays Petra is primarily a tourist destination. Only a few Bedouin reside there. It is easy to time travel beyond the ruins, into the distant past, imagining the artisans and laborers who built this place and the families who lived and worked here. The city’s roots can be traced back to the Neolithic era, 7000 years BCE.  As an important agriculture center and trade route, it has been home to Edomites, Nabateans, Gulf Arabs, Greeks, Romans, Jews, and Palestinians. It was destroyed by earthquakes during Byzantine times, essentially deserted in the 14th century, and never restored.  An intrepid Swiss traveler, Johann Ludwig Burckhardt, rediscovered it in 1812.

The more recent world of Petra is vividly described in the book Married to a Bedouin by Marguerite van Geldermalsen, which I highly recommend.  This is the true account of the New Zealand author’s life with Mohammad Manaja, whom she met in Petra in 1978 and later married- their three children and extended family, their daily routines, the challenges they faced, the joys they shared. A life of austerity and grace, sacrifice and celebration, reverence and nobility.


“In the morning we use the star water to bathe the baby in.”    van Geldermalsen


“Where poverty is borne with so much dignity that its existence is scarce noticed: where manners are so gentle that the slave and the chieftain are spoken to with equal courtesy….the immaterial alone is essential.”

 – Freya Stark, Baghdad Sketches

Enjoy the slide show below!     Next Post: Jerash

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Sand Sifter

“This is my first journey across the desert; I have no useful knowledge.”

Freya Stark, Baghdad Sketches, 1932

On first glance, the sands of the Arabian Desert are a flat expanse of bleached beige. But as the sunrays and shadows shift, and you venture deeper and deeper, countless colors and contours reveal themselves.  A palette of muted hues evoking the spices of the East: curry, saffron, and cardamom.  The dazzle of gems and minerals embedded within the earth’s core: quartz, amber, and copper. And what begins as an even surface, a simple spread, twists and folds into an elegant fabric of pleated satin and suede, sliding up and down dunes of dizzying heights.

The desert, with its fusion of tints and shapes, bold yet subtle and surprising, mirrors the complexity of the Arab world. Both are multi-layered and multi-textured, defying boundaries, constantly shifting, simmering with a sturdy life force- a coarse brutality softened by wind song, moon shine, and star light.

It is not my purpose in this blog to discuss the conflicts that seethe in the Middle East. Here is where I landed for a little while, at a historical moment in time. I am an outsider, which is humbling, for it challenges me to see with new eyes and a sense of wonder, without judgment or agenda. There is something to learn every single day, no matter the setting. It is liberating and energizing to be an anonymous observer. I am curious about the unique customs of different countries. Even more, I am interested in the lives of ordinary people, the similarities among us…for, ultimately, we are all like the desert dwellers, the Bedouins, charting our course from day to day.

“Every Bedouin, every traveler, must become a philosopher.”

Toni Briegel, Soul of Sand, 2002

Next Post: Back to the Future!

Traveling Inside Out

“No man can live this life and emerge unchanged. He will carry, however faint, the imprint of the desert, the brand that marks the nomad…This cruel land can cast a spell which no temperate clime can match.”  

T.E. Lawrence, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, 1935


I begin a journey
across oceans and deserts,
to modern cities
in ancient lands,
into the world of  caliphs and jinns…
mega-malls and hyper-markets,

a journey
among bedouins and sheikhs, souqs and dhows,
minarets, chedis, abayas and dishdasha,
moving to the cadence of the muezzin call to prayer
and the aroma of cardamom, coriander, and cumin.

a journey
to the birthplace of civilization,
a crossroads,
a trade route,
a collision point,
a war zone.

I begin a journey                                            
across continents and cultures
into the past and the future,
beyond distant horizons
into my soul.

Next Post: Sand Sifter

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