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Israel's Negev desert

I HAD ARRIVED IN BEERSHEBA JUST AFTER PASSOVER, IN APRIL, WHEN THE DESERT WAS BLOOMING. Before the hot weather came, I made several excursions--to Avdat, Tel Arad, Masada, and other renowned archaeological sites, to the Dead Sea, and, finally, across the border to Jordan and the remarkable city of Petra, where the caravan journeys along the Nabataean spice trail once began.

On a windy afternoon I ventured into the desert in a beat-up taxicab to see the ruins of the ancient cities of Avdat and Tel Arad. I was able to wander through them almost alone.

Avdat, a major stop on the spice route, was the point at which the roads branched off to other oases and to the Mediterranean. There I explored the remains of a Roman villa, sat in the shadow of a ruined Roman watchtower with a keystone arch, saw what was left of the Nabataean pottery workshop (whosepots were valued for their thinness), and stumbled on the remains of a Byzantine wine press.

But the best thing I did in Avdat occurred only in my imagination, when I was standing on a balcony at the top of an observation tower thatwas erected on the ruins of a Nabataean temple, looking out overwild mountains. With the wind flapping my shirttails and hair, I imagined a caravan of hundreds of swaying but surefooted camels crossing the inhospitable Negev. The camels would have been laden with spices from Arabia, silks from China and India. Gazing across this vast terrain, and feeling chillier than I had ever thought possible in the desert, I understood why the value of the spices, frankincense,and minerals from the Dead Sea often rose dramatically on their journey across the Negev. The desert was tough duty and still is.

From Avdat, I continued in the same battered taxi to the Canaanite city of Tel Arad and its surrounding fortresses, built under Judean rule more than a thousand years after the city itself. Here I could actually see one of the water cisterns that had made the desert habitable, as well as towers and fortifications in use until Hellenistic times. Yet, in this barren, windy, and haunted place, it takes another imaginative leap to see that this was a thriving city thousands of years ago. Like all desert towns, water was the key to Tel Arad's survival. In fact, it could be argued that the politics of water have always determined the history of the Middle East: Jordan and Israel still argue over rights to the river Jordan, and Syria still seeks control of the Golan Heights and access to one of the largest supplies of water in the region--the Sea of Galilee.

WHEN MY GIG AT BEN-GURION WAS OVER, I DECIDED TO GO TO PETRA WITH FRIENDS. We flew to Amman in a chartered single-engine plane, then took a dusty three-hour minivan ride down to the no-longer-lost city. I imagine it's more ravishing to travel to Petra from Aqaba, on the Dead Sea, arrive at sundown, stay in one of the new hotels near the site, and watch the sun rise over the fantastic Siq gorge and cut-rock tombs. My trip didn't work out that way (it was a Muslim holiday and the border was only open at Amman), but I'll do it right next time.

Our Jordanian guide had tried to prepare us for Petra, but nothing can really prepare you for Petra. Petra defies description, so everyone quotes someone else's line: "the rose-red city half as old as time." I thought it was Christopher Marlowe's, but it's actually from a much lesser-known literary figure, Dean Burgon. In any case, the line is inaccurate. It's true that the soaring canyon walls of sandstone are stained pink, salmon, and terra-cotta by the iron-rich waters that have flowed over them. But most of what you see in Petra is the necropolis outside the city, not the city itself--which is represented primarily by its Roman ruins: the Cardo, or main street, and a vast amphitheater which once seated more than 7,000 people.

The soaring caverns (into which invisible waterways are carved), the tombs hewn from the cliffs, and the play of light make Petra unforgettable. What I had hoped for was the silence to contemplate it--to try to imagine Petra as a flourishing city of traders from all over the known world--and I got that, in part because I arrived in Petra during a Muslim holiday.

In its prime, Petra was so powerful that even Moses found it worthy of God's wrath. In Deuteronomy, Moses says of the Petrans, then known as Edomites: "They sacrificed to demons which were no Gods . . . I will heap evils upon them . . . they shall be wasted with hunger and devoured with heat and poisonous pestilence: I will send the teeth of beasts against them, with the venom of crawling things of the dust. . . ."

Such curses are unlikely to follow today's visitors, though flash floods in the Siq gorge are not uncommon. (A few years ago, a group of French tourists drowned there.) My entrance into the city was both less eventful and less spectacular, though the ride from Amman to Petra was beautiful. In April, the desert is alive with poppies and there are bits of green visible in the occasional oasis.

Ancient Petra was a city of slaves as well as freemen, a city where practically everything--from people to jewels--could be bought for a price. It was a city that believed in benevolent gods, watchful ancestors, and malevolent djinni. If I ran into a djinni, I would ask to be transported to Nabataean Petra for just one day and given the gift of language. Like the English writer Rose Macauley, I am less moved by "broken towers and mouldered stones" than by the notion that human life has repeated itself with minor technological differences for thousands of years.

My most durable reason for traveling is to transport myself into other worlds. If I can't be transported back to the Nabataean world by a jinni, perhaps I'll write a novel set in that world and make my own magic. The desert is a time-machine whose lambent light beams you back to ancient days. Like Macauley, "it is less ruin-worship than the worship of a tremendous past" that I'm after.

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