Dispatch from Turkey and Jordan: Water management and farming techniques

June 22, 2007

In a series of dispatches produced by Research/Penn State magazine, Josh Ambrose, a recent Penn State graduate from the Department of English in the College of Liberal Arts, writes from the Middle East while exploring soils of ancient and modern civilizations. Ambrose and five classmates will spend four weeks traveling Turkey and Jordan with Kate Butler, senior lecturer in soil science. In this final dispatch, Ambrose concludes his discovery and description of the relationship between soils and society.

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Dispatch 5: Wadi Rum, Petra and the Jordan Valley

The rumors were true. My nose curled as I bounced up and down from my perch high above the sand. There was no way around it. Camels smelled! We were on our way back from camping in Wadi Rum, the largest desert preserve in Jordan and home to the natural rock formations described by Lawrence of Arabia as the Seven Pillars of Wisdom. Ahead of Jess and me, Amy and Sandy followed along behind our tour guide, Ra'ed, trying to meet the pace set by Adam and the limber mount he had already named "Speedy." Behind, Zach was a little less thrilled with his camel as the two exchanged baleful stares over a slow plod of a pace. I squinted against the desert sun reflecting off the different hues of sand. The night before, the stars had been the clearest I had ever seen them, without any light pollution clouding our nighttime vision. Awe filled our entire group as we lay on the ground once trod by Moses and the other ancients and now traversed by nomadic Bedouin tribes, and looked up at the stars.

Two days previously, we had explored one of the most anticipated spots on our tour -- Petra. Hidden in rocky desert canyons a good 120 kilometers from Wadi Rum, the city has long taken on near-mythic status, thanks in no small part to its prominent spotlight in the media. Lost from the public eye for centuries, the ancient Nabatean city carved into sandstone was "rediscovered" by western explorers in 1812 and has been Jordan's biggest tourist attraction ever since. Petra, along with the rest of the Nabatean trade-driven kingdom, enjoyed its highest level of prosperity during the time of Christ. It was around this same era that the majority of its grandiose rock-carved edifices were hollowed out of the canyon rock. Like the ruins of Egypt, it is hypothesized, most of these structures were religious and funerary in nature and were erected and maintained by a symbiotic relationship between the royalty and their priesthood.

Prudent and innovative water management was absolutely essential to the growth of the desert enclave of Petra. As we walked down the narrow canyon road to the main city, I noted with interest the waist-high water channels carved into both rock walls. Throughout the tombs and in the inner city, cisterns were carved into the walls as well, with long winding passages connecting them to catch basins for rain located at seemingly random locations on the top of the red-toned cliffs. Ultimately, however, no amount of ingenuity was enough to foster the sustainability of long-term population growth. After losing its independence to the extensive reach of the Roman Empire around 100 A.D., the city and the Nabatean trade network that fueled it gradually declined over the next two centuries until Petra was eventually abandoned in favor of land with more fertile soil and more abundant water resources.

Another significant stop during our last few days in Jordan was for a meeting with a key member of the Ministry of Agriculture, Dr. Nimer K. Hadadan. In charge of his department's public relations, Dr. Hadadan was the epitome of hospitality and an exemplary source of information. Taking us to the several land holdings of his extended family, he walked us through fields and orchards on a gentle mountain overlooking the Jordan Valley. In the distance, we could see the Dead Sea, the lowest point on earth, where the day before we had floated on its briny, mineral-rich water.

Descendants of a land-rich sheik of several generations prior, the cousins of the Hadadan family now own about 40 acres each. In animated conversation with our group, Dr. Hadadan and his cousins noted that one of the unexpected blessings to the rancor of the Six Day War was a new gleaning of agricultural knowledge from their Israeli neighbors. This helped to solidify practices such as drip irrigation and other very prudent water conservation strategies that simultaneously allowed for innovation in fertilizer use. The fields we visited also displayed a number of other resourceful strategies, such as double -- and in some cases, even triple -- crop-planting. With pride, one of Dr. Hadadan's cousins told us of a new grafting technique he helped to perfect, using an electric drill to form a perfectly shaped host hole for the new branch to be grafted onto the tree. He gave us chickpeas to munch on as we walked over the dirt he had analyzed himself for pH and other nutritive properties before deciding what to plant and how much of the local sheep manure to use as fertilizer.

By the time we were back on our plane and heading out of Jordan and back to Turkey, our bodies were quite tired and our minds full from all that we had seen. Dirty cities and green olive groves, sputtering motorcycles and slowly plodding draft horses, throngs of tourists and farmers with quiet eyes and worn hands -- a multitude of sights. At each stop, there was a new, intriguing development. Ruins of ancient civilizations gave us a tantalizing glimpse into the history lesson of past land practices and environmental resources. Current farming techniques had given us both cause for concern and pause for deep appreciation. Throughout it all, a continual exposure to all sorts of cultural traditions different from our own had expanded our own worldview and given us much to consider. In addition, we had come as classmates and were now leaving as friends. It had been a good 24 days.

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See additional photos and previous dispatches at http://www.rps.psu.edu/undergrad/ambroseintro.html online.

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  • IMAGE: Josh Ambrose

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