Andersen: They built the ancient world |

Andersen: They built the ancient world

Paul Andersen

At Petra, Jordan, we stood transfixed by temples carved from sandstone-cliff faces. Here, where “Indiana Jones” was filmed, the artisans of deep history made their mark on an archaeological site that rivals the Great Pyramids.

I was there two weeks ago as the culmination of a month-long bicycle tour in Israel. My good friend Graeme and I rode from the northern border with Lebanon and Syria to the southern border with Egypt and Jordan on the Red Sea.

Our tour was of our own design. We slept on the ground, cooked pita and hummus sandwiches over a camp stove and connected the dots to historic sites, of which there is a plentitude in the Holy Land.

I will write a more detailed account later, but one thing that startled me again and again was realizing the incredible human labor that went into these Old World cities and castles.

At Nimrod’s Fortress in the far north, under the shadow of Mount Hermon, the highest point in Israel at 9,232 feet, we wandered an expansive and well-preserved monument to stone masons whose work has endured the centuries.

Quarried and fitted expertly, the stone used in walls, arches and parapets showed the chisel marks of the Middle Ages when the fortress served as a castle and guard post on the trade route to Damascus.

As with most large sites, Nimrod’s was built in layers by the shifting regimes that held power here — Salah a-Din, a war chief who battled the Crusaders in the 1200s, Sultan el-Kamal, of Egypt, and al-Moatis, of Damascus.

While these names are attached to Nimrod’s by historians, it was not they who built the fortress. The cutting of stone and moving of material, the preparation of the hilltop site, the placing of stone upon stone — these were achieved by an enormous workforce comprised of names we will never know.

It was these unnamed, unrecognized workers who built the ancient world, many, if not most of them, slaves. There were clearly artisans among them whose skillful engineering and eye for design gave the fortress lasting strength and aesthetic beauty, but they, too, are lost to time as incidental compared to the powerful men who ruled over them.

I was struck by this fact even more so at Masada, an enormous castle standing 1,500 feet above the Dead Sea on the top of a sheer-walled desert butte. Built by King Herod as an impregnable and luxurious stronghold, Masada’s history is enshrined because of the mass suicide of over 900 Jewish zealots who took refuge here from the Romans 2,000 years ago.

In their assault of Masada, the Romans built an enormous siege ramp to the protective walls, 1,400 feet above, where they eventually battered a hole in the ramparts. The zealots, knowing they were about to be overrun, murdered their own families, then each other by drawing lots to see who would be the last to take his own life.

Human travail speaks in every stone in the walls, every rock stacked on the Roman ramp, and especially in the deep and awe-inspiring water cisterns cut into solid rock as reservoirs in this hot and dry desert.

It wasn’t the nobility who did this work; it was slaves, many of them captive Jews who were forced by unimaginable threats to bear rocks for the ramp that eventually would enable the empire to slaughter their besieged brethren.

At Timna, south of the Dead Sea, I crawled on my belly through sandstone tunnels carved by copper miners in the earliest mining venture known to man — starting in 7,000 B.C. Egyptian pharaohs enjoyed the shiny metal, but it was slaves who did the work.

No site speaks to this more than Petra, where a desert canyon was carved for the wonder of posterity. The ghosts of this city are the Nabateans, Greeks, Romans and others who peopled this site.

The haunting voices that echo here are of those who toiled and suffered for what visitors now gaze at with wonder. One can only imagine what these long-suffering souls endured for the glory of the ancient world.

Paul Andersen’s column appears on Monday. He can be reached by email at:

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