Johann Ludwig Burckhardt and the discovery of Petra

Facade of Al Khazneh, Petra, Jordan
Image: Bernard Gagnon

On August 22, 1812, Swiss traveller and orientalist Johann Ludwig Burckhardt, in the disguise of an arab traveller discovered the ruins of the ancient city of Petra, one of the most compelling archaeological sites in existence, in today’s Jordan.

Petra is located east of the Arabah, half way between the Gulf of Aqaba and the Dead Sea. Its location caused several religious rumors, fact is only that many caravans came to Petra in order to exchange luxury goods and medicine. Its history is highly connected with the Empire of the Nabateans, the first Arabic Empire in history. From 9000 BC, the city is known to be permanently settled and during the 4th century BC, the Nabateans have become so wealthy through trades that they managed to avoid several conquest attempts. Stable housing followed in the century after along with the most flourishing period of the city. Rabell II was the last King of the Nabateans and was defeated by Tajan in 106. Petra’s influence rapidly decreased and during the 12th century, two castles were built in the city. They were supposed to be defended against Saladin, but it was hopeless.

Since the period of the crusades, no European set foot on Petra again and it was forgotten. In 1812, the Swiss scientist Jean Louis Burckhardt rediscovered the interest for the legendary city. He discovered Petra in the same year while originally looking for the source of the Niger River. To prepare his travels, Burckhardt even studied Arabic so he would act like a Muslim. When he heard of a Dr Seetzen who intended to find the city, but was murdered, Burckhardt’s interest grew and he made his way through Syria, the Lebanon and Palestine. Eventually, he found the city but traveled there secretely, “intending” to sacrifice a goat. Therefore he could not unmask himself and left again in search of the Niger, which he never found.

Johann Ludwig Burckhardt

Further scientists then came to the city, describing it in detail and after 1900, scientific research began. Afred von Domaszewski for instance managed to draw the first map of Petra and it was found that the city’s magnitude was a lot greater than previously assumed. The first serious archeological excavations took place in 1929 and in the 1950’s the British School of Archaeology started excavating the city center.

Today, Petra belongs to the most impressive and most visited tourist attractions in the Near East. Hotels were built next to and even directly in the city at first. Starting in the 1960’s Beduins were forced to resettle so the government was able to make a better profit out of the city. More tourists came after Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

To the most famous excavated buildings belongs Al Khazneh, a temple carved out of a sandstone rock face that was originally built as a mausoleum. It holds a lengend in which pirates would hide their good there, wherefore its also called the House of Treasury. The Roman Theater right in the near of Al Khazneh had room for over 10000 visitors and it even contained a back then enormously modern drainage system.

At yovisto, you may enjoy a Yale video lecture by Professor Diana Kleiner on Baroque Extravaganzas: Rock Tombs, Fountains, and Sanctuaries in Jordan, Lebanon, and Libya.

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