Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Goat “Azeeza” takes on Petra

A goat takes on one of the world’s wonders? Well yes!

But let’s rewind to the 6th Century BC, when an industrious people called the Nabataeans built a trading center in the south of Jordan that is known for its rock cut architecture and water conduits system. Much of the city, called Petra, was carved out of red sandstone canyons. The giant red mountains and vast mausoleums of this departed race are Jordan’s most valuable treasure and greatest tourist attraction.

Petra, now one of the Seven Wonders of the World, is brought into children’s lives by Karen Asfour and an anzeh (Arabic for goat) in a book published in Amman last month.

Anzeh al-Azeeza Cleans Up Petra, is written, self-published and self-distributed by Karen with sponsored printing by Nadine Toukan. Karen tells the story of Azeeza the anzeh and her family who live “rent-free” in Petra and roam the ancient “forgotten city.”

Karen Asfour at the book-signing in Amman 
Karen Asfour is a founding member and secretary of The Petra National Trust (PNT), which will receive some the book profits. The book is superbly illustrated by Natalie Hijazi, -- a freelance art director, product designer, jeweler and illustrator -- using both digital and traditional media.

The PNT, formed in 1989, is a nongovernmental organization that “seeks a rational balance between the needs of tourism and Petra’s fragile and unique archaeological and natural environment.” Among its aims is to promote responsible tourism in the travel industry and among travelers building on the idea of sustainable tourism. This is simply explained to children in Karen’s book.

Anzeh al-Azeeza Cleans Up Petra is brought into rhyme in Arabic by Karen’s husband Mohammed. And the author says her greatest fans are her grandchildren.

The morale of the tale fits in with the aim of preserving Petra, whether by local visitors or tourists, for after Azeeza eats trash littered at the site and getting into trouble with her mother, she and “her family have a new job to do: instead of eating trash, they will clean it up with you!”

The more than 2000-year-old area gets very little rainfall, but the Nabataeans learned to save every drop of water by building elaborate water collecting systems. From Petra, they used camel caravans to transport goods. Trading made them wealthy and they built elaborate temples, palaces, and tombs. It was an important junction for silk, spice and other trade routes that linked China, India and southern Arabia with Egypt, Syria, Greece and Rome. Eventually, the trade networks moved to other routes. Petra declined and was abandoned. Much of it was covered with rubble and windblown sand and forgotten.

In 1812, Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt, disguised as an Arab, persuaded his guide to take him to this “forgotten city.” Through his rediscovery, Petra was revealed to the Western world for the first time since the Crusades. The Crusaders had built a fort there in the 12th century, but soon withdrew.

In 1985, Petra was listed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. World Heritage Sites are places with outstanding characteristics that are important to all humankind and therefore need to be preserved for future generations. In 2007, in a worldwide vote, Petra was named as one of the Seven Wonders of the World. In sixth place, it joins Chichen Itza (Yucatan, Mexico); Christ the Redeemer (Rio de Janeiro, Brazil); the Coliseum (Rome, Italy); the Great Wall of China (The People’s Republic of China); Machu Picchu (Cuzco Region, Peru); and the Taj Mahal (Agra, India).

Petra is accessed through the Siq, a narrow gorge over one-kilometer long -- where Azeeza’s siblings like to play -- that is flanked on either side by breathtaking and soaring 80-meter high cliffs. At the end of the Siq, one gets a first glimpse of the Khazneh, or Treasury -- Azeeza’s favorite playground.
Petra, El DeirAd-Deir Monastery -- image via Wikipedia

Petra’s natural beauty and outstanding architectural achievements are overwhelming. There are hundreds of elaborate rock-cut tombs with intricate carvings; a Nabataean-built Roman theater; obelisks, temples, sacrificial alters and colonnaded streets. Overlooking the valley, there is the impressive Ad-Deir Monastery that is reached by a flight of 800 rock-cut steps.

Anzeh al-Azeeza Cleans Up Petra is an important message to children, yet told in a simple and amusing way. It could be a template for various other adventures Azeeza could embark on, and not only in Jordan. I hope the book will be distributed in other countries before long.

Although I did visit Petra once, I was too young to remember its beauty, and a second trip to this amazing “wonder” is on my agenda.

(This post appears simultaneously at The Cube, a new blog where a group of Lebanese with a passion for books and reading, of which I am part, review the books we read. You can follow us on Twitter at @TheCubeLB and The Cube, Lebanon on Facebook.)