Did you know that a full-grown cedar tree can weigh as much as a 747 loaded with passengers and fueled for take-off? Somehow, the Phoenicians figured out how to move them around once they’d chopped them down. Patricia Bekai, an archeologist at the American Center for Oriental Research here in Amman thinks that these underrated ancient inhabitants of modern Lebanon taught the Egyptians how to move big blocks of stone along the Nile. It was perhaps an instance of early Pan-Arab cooperation—before there was an Arab empire. The tree trade was certainly lucrative: In those days, the best roofing in the region was cedar, and the size of an edifice was largely regulated by the size of the cedar logs. Who ruined the market? The Romans, of course. They started making seaworthy craft out of the cedars, which abetted the advance of their empire.
I’m tempted to ruminate about empire, especially since yesterday I saw the amazingly not-so-ruined remains of the beautiful once Roman, later Arab, city of Jerash, about 2 hours from Amman. But I think there’s been too much speculation about empire of late, and it usually comes back to Americans knowing naught of history’s improbable path, so I’d rather stick to something Americans are supposed to know, like material facts.
Yesterday I also visited Ajiloun, a medieval Islamic castle built by Saladin’s nephew, Azzedine Osama. The difference between Islamic castles and Crusader castles is that the latter were offensive, built as outposts to penetrate further into the lands of Islam, and the former were defensive, meant to protect territory. I saw the grooves used to pour boiling oil on attackers, and I thought of three things:
First, I thought of the second installment of Lord of the Rings trilogy and how, when the humans were confronted with ladders and siege towers, they didn’t use boiling oil, the classic defense against sieges. So, what, besides Orlando Bloom and his semiautomatic bow and arrow, did they use to win the day? Did they win because, as humans, they were morally fine and their opponents were not?
Next, I thought of Israel. I’d been to Umm Qays earlier in the day to see yet more astoundingly cool Roman ruins, situated high in the hills of North Jordan, a little southwest of the Syrian border. Though the Golan Heights are about 10 miles away, overlooking Lake Tiberias, they seemed so close in the bright midday winter light that I imagined I could have landed a Frisbee up there. But that would’ve been unwise. The Israelis are very sensitive about defending the Golan, territory Syria has wanted to reclaim ever since they lost it in the ‘67 war. Many in the region, like Arab officials, often talk about Israel in terms of a Crusaderlike outpost that has no right to the lands of Islam—an analogy that a Phoenician, or even a Roman, might find a little dull-minded. Israel, of course, sees the Golan as its Islamic castle, a defensive position protecting its territory. And no one gives up an Islamic castle.
Finally, I thought of T.E. Lawrence, who wrote a small book on the architecture of Crusader castles. I remember reading somewhere that it was Lawrence’s detailed knowledge of the region that made him a superb military strategist. Lawrence, as far as I can tell, made two main contributions to the Arab revolt that helped defeat the Turks in WWI: He took the port of Aqaba after a long trip through a desert he’d never crossed before, and he blew up rail lines. But looking at the castle, I realized there was no relationship between Lawrence’s demonstrable knowledge of the region and his successful campaigns. The battlegrounds were totally different from those he had described. And yet it seems generally true to me that the explanation for much of history is probably found in physical details, like how to move trees the size of jumbo jets.
Last night I spoke with Samer Mejali, the CEO of Royal Jordanian Airlines, the only carrier currently flying into Baghdad. As RJ has received direct threats from Baathist remnants, he, unlike most critics of the Coalition Provisional Authority, has a particular idea of what needs to be done to ensure the successful reconstruction of Iraq. “Secure the airport. Put men on the ground, the whole U.S. Armed Forces if necessary,” he told me. “Iraq is virtually a continent. It has 25 million people. The country’s been occupied and what do you think is going to happen? Things are going to get blown up. In the big picture, this is nothing major. The CPA has to look past that.”
If the airport is secured, the investors needed for reconstruction will actually be able to enter the country safely. Securing the airport would also signal to the world and to Iraqis that the country is on its way back. In addition, Iraq needs its own carrier. “We’ve talked to the CPA and the Iraqis,” says Mejali. “We’re ready to help any way possible and would even like a joint venture, but they have no blueprints. It would be good for the Americans, too, to show that the kind of Pan-Arab cooperation they’ve been promoting is working. Look, Arabs can work together. And a national carrier is a big deal in the Arab world. It’s a sign of national pride. It’s more important than an embassy, which is an inert thing. Planes going in and out of airports around the world mean access to the community of nations.”