the temple Ed Deir in Petra

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.

Explorer in Disguise

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.

The Swiss explorer had to manage his astonishment. A passionate scholar of the Arab world, Burckhardt knew that he had found a mysterious lost city, rumors of which had reached him on his desert travels. He was the first European to have entered Petra for many centuries.

Swathed in Arab robes, Burckhardt had to keep his excitement to himself. His Bedouin guide believed him to be Sheikh Ibrahim ibn Abdallah, an Indian-born student of the Koran, who—Burckhardt explained to the guide in near-flawless Arabic—had come to this remote place to fulfill a pious vow. He had to act with the utmost discretion. Any false move could have blown his cover, putting his mission, and perhaps his life, in danger.

City of Legends

Legends of lost riches had swirled around that very same urn-topped monument Burckhardt had just seen. In Arabic, this building is known as Al Khazneh, the Treasury, because of the stories told by local tribes about a cache of treasure deposited there by thieves, long ago.

Today, historians believe this magnificent structure was the tomb of a first-century sovereign, perhaps the Nabataean king Aretas IV. Inside is a funerary chamber, free of any decorative details, and—so far, at least—free of treasure.

It is possible that, on his travels, Burckhardt had also overheard Bedouin tribesmen telling the story of another Petra wonder: the Qasr al Bint—the Palace of the Pharaoh’s Daughter. Legend says that it belonged to a princess who pledged to marry any man who could channel water to her palace.

In reality, this building, the only example at Petra of a monument not sculpted out of rock, is a large temple. A tetrastyle structure (with four columns in front), scholars speculate it was dedicated to the cult of Nabataean divinities Dushara and Al-’Uzza.

Oasis of the Nabataeans

In the Bible, the area around Petra is called Edom, the land believed to have been settled by descendants of Esau, the elder twin brother of the Israelite patriarch, Jacob. It is likely that Petra was among those settlements occupied by Semitic tribes, who invaded from the area around the Dead Sea, to the northwest, and from the Gulf of Aqaba from the south, in the 13th century B.C. Petra, along with a confederation of other cities, was in constant conflict with the Hebrew tribes to the west.

Much later, a new wave of settlers arrived, whose vast wealth would turn Petra into the Rose City. These were the Nabataeans, descended, according to Jewish-Roman writer Josephus, from the biblical figure of Nebaioth, the son of Ishmael. They are now believed to have originated in Arabia, arriving in Petra as nomadic merchants around the fourth century B.C., drawn by the abundance of freshwater.

There they switched to a settled lifestyle and became experts in water engineering, creating a highly sophisticated system of reservoirs and irrigation channels. Rain and spring water was collected in special deposits, from which it was then distributed across the city.

If the settlement at this time was a lush urban oasis in the middle of the red desert, it is easy to see why, in local tradition, the episode from the biblical Book of Exodus—in which Moses makes water flow by striking a rock from his staff—is set in Petra. According to the local version, the narrow wadi known as the Siq, along which Burckhardt himself had arrived in Petra, was formed by the torrent of water released after Moses struck the rock.

Whatever the origin of this most precious of resources, the inventive Nabataeans used water to grow their city. Petra flourished as spice routes developed that linked India, Persia, and Arabia with the Mediterranean, Egypt, and Phoenicia.

Establishing a monopoly on caravan traffic, the Nabataean capital managed to protect itself from enemies while remaining open to the main flow of trade through the ancient world. For centuries, trains of dromedaries loaded with spices, silk and incense arrived in Petra. Desert weary, they willingly paid their tolls, not only to enjoy the protection of the city, but to stock up with that most precious resource that the Nabataeans could supply: freshwater.

From Hub to Backwater

Many of Petra’s incredible monuments were constructed during the reign of King Aretas IV, between 8 B.C. and A.D. 40. For nearly a century, Petra’s glory shone brightly, until it was outblazed by the greater empire to the west: Rome. In A.D. 106, the emperor Trajan annexed the Nabataean territories, and the area became known as the Roman province of Arabia Petraea.

Overshadowed by Bostra (known today as Busra ash Sham), the capital of the new Roman province, Petra’s political influence waned. Much later, following the breakup of the Roman Empire, Petra became a provincial capital under the Byzantine Empire. But when that in turn fell to Muslim forces in the seventh century, Petra disappeared. In ruins after a series of earthquakes, it came to be known as Wadi Musa—the Valley of Moses.

During the Crusades, the area was better known for the monastery of St. Aaron than for the city itself. The monastery was located on the mountain called, in Arabic, Jebel Haroun—Mount Aaron—said to be the resting place of Moses’ brother. In the 12th century, the sultan Saladin wrested most of the Holy Land from the Crusaders. Jebel Haroun, and the cult of Aaron, became a place of Muslim pilgrimage.

But one group of people maintained loyalty to the ruins of Petra: the Bedouin, who used the city as their stronghold. They kept its location a closely guarded secret for hundreds of years.

In the 19th century, European colonialists were driven by romantic as well as commercial notions of exploring the Middle East. The prospect of finding the ruins of lost civilizations inflamed the imaginations of scholars, among them Johann Ludwig Burckhardt.

Quest for Petra

Born in 1784, Burckhardt traveled to England to further his studies in 1806. He studied Arabic at the University of Cambridge, and became a member of the London-based Association for Promoting the Discovery of the Interior Parts of Africa, which tasked their gifted recruit to find the source of the Niger River. Burckhardt accepted. His expedition was set to embark from Cairo.

Before leaving on such a perilous mission, in 1809 Burckhardt decided to visit Syria to intensify his study of Arabic and Islam. It was there he adopted his pseudonym, Ibrahim ibn Abdallah, for whom he set about creating a backstory. Ibrahim, he decided, was a Muslim from India, whose distant origins would dispel any doubts about his foreign-sounding accent when he spoke Arabic.

After an intensive, four-year period of study and travel within Syria, Burckhardt considered that he was ready, at last, to make for Cairo. The most direct route to Egypt lay along the coast, but Burckhardt chose a more difficult way, through the desert routes near the Dead Sea, an area unfamiliar to Europeans. His motive, as he wrote, was to consolidate his already extensive knowledge of the Arab world, but also, “to gather information regarding the geography of an an area entirely unknown.”

Burckhardt left Damascus on June 18, 1812. Heading south through what is now Jordan, he overheard people talking about a city located near Jebel Haroun, where the tomb of Aaron is believed to be located. Well versed in classical writers and historians such as Diodorus Siculus, Strabo, and Josephus, whose works make reference to the mysterious Petra, he realized, with growing excitement, that he might be near the “lost” city itself. He made up a convincing cover story for his alter ego, Ibrahim: He was now a pious pilgrim who had journeyed from afar to fulfill a vow to make a sacrifice at Aaron’s tomb.

Hiring a local guide, Burckhardt entered Bedouin territory. On August 22, 1812, Burckhardt emerged from the dark, narrow wadi, finally setting eyes on the splendor of the Treasury facade. For all his care and discretion, he could not resist examining the structures, and taking notes. In his later account of the discovery, he wrote of the heart-stopping moment when his guide became suspicious: “I see now clearly that you are an infidel,” the Bedouin said angrily, accusing him of wanting to steal treasure. Burckhardt denied the charge and continued toward Aaron’s tomb.

“There is a valley in the hills of Jebel Shera named Wadi Musa,”he wrote to the Africa association on his arrival in Egypt.“Here are the remains of an ancient city, which I conjecture tobePetra...aplacewhich,asfarasIknow,no European traveler has ever visited.”

Five years later, in Cairo after many wanderings that had taken him to Mecca and Medina, he was finally ready to explore the Niger River. But in a short life already packed with adventure, Burckhardt would never reach it. At the age of 32, he succumbed to dysentery, never realizing his dream to revisit those wonders he had examined under the watchful stare of his Bedouin guide.

Sánchez is an archaeologist and author specializing in the Middle East.

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