On a day off here in Amman we hit the streets and took an Uber to nearby Ayn Ghazal. This is one of the oldest human settlements, though counting these things can get a little odd. Where does Trinquet Island fit in? But check out these hilarious Wikipedia pages:
Populated places established in the 9th millennium BC
Populated places established in the 8th millennium BC
The 9th millennium is the first such page, and it goes on like that up until present. But the pages do start to get crowded. Ayn Ghazal is on the 8th millennium page. There is some question about the oldest continuously inhabited place. I’ve heard Damascus and Jericho. Amman would have Damascus beat by a millennium but I guess they took a break?
So yeah, we took an Uber to a place established over 10,000 years ago. When we arrived we found that the village site is basically a median in a highway interchange. They found those cool statues during road construction by driving a bulldozer through one of mankind’s oldest basements, tearing a box of mankind’s oldest tchotchkes in half.
You have to really encourage the Uber driver to let you out at Ayn Ghazal because they don’t trust the GPS, and anyway why would anyone want to get out here? As we walked around the site we felt strange. Different emotions: awe at the age of humanity, despair at how poorly maintained, hell not even noticed the site is. Maybe lonely even, because if this can be overlooked anything can be overlooked. The statues in the basement had been gathering dust for over 6,000 years when the oldest thing that resembles the Jewish faith was getting started. Around the year 4000AD, Judaism will finally be half as old as these statues. Assuming either makes it that long that is. I expect a lot will happen in the next 2,000 years.
The statues from Ayn Ghazal are now on display downtown at the “Citadel”, so we caught another Uber there. The Citadel hill stands prominently in town. It’s sprawling plateau was settled by Ammonites roughly 3500 years ago, and then successively built on by Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, and Muslims. The grand citadel built by Muslims gives the hill it’s name. There is also a museum up there, amongst the ruins. The museum’s cramped space featured exhibits from the stone age to the 19th century. Here we found the Ayn Ghazal statues pictured above. We admired fragments of some ancient Aramaic/Canaanite writing embedded in a substrate to preserve their relationship to the missing greater whole. I remarked that the writing was just like that of the famous Dead Sea Scrolls. Kristin pointed to a sign saying that the scrolls had been stored right behind me but were now moved to another location in Amman. The sign must have been put up before the new exhibit was opened, because the paper sign taped to the wall used white out on the “n’t” in “hasn’t” when the new exhibit opened.
It was a bewildering museum. Stuffed to the gills with interesting stuff, important stuff, it nonetheless appears to have been installed by distracted people with the loosest grasp of English. Why the lack of attention, investment, and talent to oversee the treasures of Amman? People here are soaking in old things. Every day they look up at the Citadel hill to the ruins of the Temple of Hercules. And most people here were born to people who were born to people who lived in this area, etc… There isn’t a sudden break from the past like we have in America. “Ayn Ghazal is old? So what, lots of things are old”.
But as humans I suppose none of us can claim to have a history truly older than any other human. I don’t think biologists would mind if I characterize the history of life as a relay race, the baton being living genetic material that jumped out of your parent’s bodies and became you. Those genes have been jumping from the start - changing a bit of course as time goes on - but jumping from the start. We may be a recent manner of organization of it, but our DNA has been part of an unbroken chain of a wet living process for over 4 billion years. Take that Ayn Ghazal. We are the oldest possible antiques!
Our weekend tour of antiquities was awesome, but later we had more than a weekend. It was Eid, and Kristin had a whole week off for the religious holiday. So we went to the city of Aqaba on the Red Sea, far to the south. When we got off the bus we were stunned by the blast of hot air and quickly moved to get away from what we assumed was bus engine exhaust. But that was just the air in Aqaba. It smelled more sweet when we moved, but even the wind felt like the first blast of air when you open the oven to check on the bird. We rushed inside before our goose was cooked. It was 43c when we were there (don’t do the math, you don’t want to know), so we spent most of our time in the air conditioned hotel room, the pool, or the sea.
Right next to the hotel, literally alongside the row of pools that led down to the sea was the ruins of the ancient port village of Ayla. It is thought to be the first Muslim village site outside of the Arabian peninsula. A fence meant we’d have to walk the long way in the heat to get into the exhibit, so we didn’t bother. Plus, it’s only like 1,300 years old. When we returned to Amman I discovered that 1 block from the hotel in the other direction from Ayla was the oldest Christian church on earth. Slightly older churches exist in repurposed buildings, but this structure is the oldest existing purpose built church. I feel kinda bad that I missed that one.
After a week of daytime temperatures in the 40s, Amman’s 32c suddenly felt cool. We’d been told that Amman was lush and green, especially our neighborhood, but scoffed. You want green? Come see Washington state sometime. With our new perspective Amman seemed as cool and lush as back home. In a week’s time I had gone from a wide eyed sweating tourist of archeology to a cool jaded local.
On the drive back from Aqaba I had a fun moment. The trip is 5 hours and passes through stunning desert scenery. After a while, Kristin and I retreated into our phones. I was watching Archer on Netflix. The LTE here is fast and omnipresent. I took a break and looked out the window and the reality of my situation hit me: touring a fantastic landscape in a fantastic country and surrounded by fantastic people. I whispered to Kristin that we were on an adventure and we both giggled. I’ve heard it said that expectations are the source of unhappiness. Maybe this comes from Buddhism? The idea being that if you do not expect any particular thing to happen, you can’t be disappointed. Perhaps that moment on the bus can be thought of as an expression of naive awareness. “Whoa! Where am I?”. Expectations can mislead also. Like if you think you know how something is you may not notice the way that it really is, blindly trusting your expectations. So instead for greater happiness and awareness we are told to greet the world by force of will with as much naïveté as we can. I see the wisdom of this but I don’t think it is right. I mean, what if my taxi driver was in this naive state? They’d take one look at the remarkable ruins of the Temple of Hercules on the hill and probably crash in their distraction.
What is more, I am glad for my newfound comfort in Amman, glad that what was once too hot is now comfortable because I have experienced Aqaba’s oven. If I were naive then 32c would always feel the same. I am happy now because I know it could be so much worse. I think this can also explain the joyful moment on the bus. Sure we were stuck in those seats for 5 hours, but think of how much more boring the trip would be going down I-5.
Maybe instead of willful naïveté, we just need willful awareness of how much worse it could be? Then maybe I could recognize the temperate beauty of Amman without first spending a week in broiling Aqaba? And surely every moment of our lives is an adventure compared to the great stillness of the grave that awaits us. It could be worse, we could be forgotten in a box for 10,000 years…