Petra lost and found

In the early 1800s, a Swiss explorer tricked his way into Petra, the ancient oasis whose location had been a closely guarded secret for centuries.

Known as Ed Deir—the Monastery—this building was a temple for the worship of the deified King Obodas I. It was used as a church in the Byzantine period.
Photograph by Ritterbach/Fototeca

Deep within Jordan’s desolate desert canyons and rugged mountains lies an ancient treasure, the stone city of Petra. A UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the new seven wonders of the world, Petra is a giant metropolis of tombs, monuments, and other elaborate religious structures directly carved into sandstone cliffs. Believed to have been settled as early as 9000 B.C., Petra developed into the thriving capital of the Nabataean kingdom. This little-understood Middle Eastern culture ruled much of modern-day Jordan from the third century B.C. until the first century A.D., when it yielded to the rising power of Rome.

After the Roman conquest and the shifting of trade routes, the city declined in importance until it was abandoned. Europeans did not set eyes upon it's rose-colored walls for centuries, until the early 19th century when a traveler dressed himself in Bedouin costume and infiltrated the mysterious locale.

In 1812, Swiss scholar Johann Ludwig Burckhardt found himself standing at the entrance to a wadi, a dry-river valley, where his Bedouin guide had led him. Picking his way over the rocky canyon floor, he noted how the cavernous walls towered so high that they almost obscured the sky. But an extraordinary sight awaited Burckhardt as he emerged into the open air on the other side: a fantastic building, sculpted out of solid rock and topped with a magnificent urn soaring nearly 150 feet above him.

Read This Next

These ants can shrink and regrow their brains

How to stop discarded face masks from polluting the planet

‘Tiger King’ stars’ face scrutiny in court

Go Further

Subscriber Exclusive Content

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet