Poetry

01.03.13

Petra

MARWAN NAAMANI/AFP/GettyImages ()

My erudite mother-in-law Yvonne Worthington quoted to me a line I'd never heard about the city of Petra: "a rose-red city half as old as time."

I looked it up and found it comes from a 19th century poem.

It seems no work of Man's creative hand,
by labour wrought as wavering fancy planned;
But from the rock as if by magic grown,
eternal, silent, beautiful, alone!
Not virgin-white like that old Doric shrine,
where erst Athena held her rites divine;
Not saintly-grey, like many a minster fane,
that crowns the hill and consecrates the plain;
But rose-red as if the blush of dawn,
that first beheld them were not yet withdrawn;
The hues of youth upon a brow of woe,
which Man deemed old two thousand years ago,
match me such marvel save in Eastern clime,
a rose-red city half as old as time.

The last line derives extra force when you look up the story of the poem's author, an Anglican clergyman (ultimately dean of Chichester cathedral) named John William Burgon. Burgon was a believer in Biblical inerrancy, or what we'd call a fundamentalist. Which means that when he said the nearly 2,000 year old Petra was "half as old as time," he meant it, since by his way of thinking time itself was only about 8,000 years old.