Unveiling the secrets of Petra
In spite of being in a constant state of excavation since 1920, Petra still impresses thousands of visitors each day. (Mark Read)
Vast stacks of sandstone loom over the arid valley of Wadi Musa like giant handfuls of sun-baked clay. But even in this parched landscape, there are places where the sun casts no light. Walls 200 metres high keep the Siq permanently cast in shadow – it’s as though the long, narrow canyon passes through the dark heart of the mountain itself. Utterly silent at dawn, there is not even a bird’s chirrup to accompany solitary footsteps along its patchwork floor of rock and sand. Soon, the senses adjust to their deprivation – the plodding becomes rhythmic, the soundlessness ordinary. Occasionally there’s a clue of what’s to come: a lone fig tree, fragments of ceramic pipes which once channelled water, a relief carving of a camel caravan – so weathered that only hooves and feet remain.
After half an hour, through a lightning-bolt shaped opening, Petra announces itself with deliberate drama. The vast façade of the Treasury, precisely carved into the soft sandstone, towers over the young Bedouin men, camels and stray cats that congregate at its base. ‘[Its] situation and beauty… are calculated to make an extraordinary impression on the traveller, after having traversed… such a gloomy and almost subterranean passage,’ the Swiss explorer Jean Louis Burckhardt wrote in his diary in 1812. ‘It is one of the most elegant remains of antiquity existing.’
When Burckhardt crossed Petra’s threshold, he was the first outsider to do so for over 600 years – hidden by its natural fortifications, the city had remained obscure to the West since the time of the Crusades. Though known to local Bedouin tribes, they were reluctant to reveal its existence, justifiably fearing an influx of treasure hunters. In Petra’s heyday, around the time of Christ, the city had been anything but anonymous. Home to some 30,000 people, whose survival in this desert landscape was maintained by a complex system of water management, it was the centre of a kingdom four times the size of modern Jordan. At its helm were the Nabataeans, a oncenomadic Arab tribe who had used their knowledge of the desert to amass vast wealth in the caravan trade, most lucratively that of frankincense and myrrh.
The Treasury’s grand edifice was a statement of their wealth, sending a powerful message to weary traders emerging through the Siq, but was essentially an empty shell. Built as a tomb for a Nabataean king, its misnomer ‘the Treasury’ came from the belief that the urn carved into the centre of the second tier contained hidden gold. The vessel is pockmarked with bullet holes, evidence of past attempts to uncover the mythical bounty. ‘The idea of treasures being hidden in ancient edifices is strongly rooted in the minds of Arabs and Turks,’ wrote Burckhardt in his diary. ‘They believe that it is sufficient for a true magician to have seen and observed the spot where treasures are hidden in order to be able afterwards... to set the whole before him.’ An Arabic expression meaning ‘He has indications of treasure within him’ was something he became sick and tired of hearing.
The treasure Burckhardt sought was intellectual rather than mercenary, and his visit to Petra was the result of years of careful academic preparation. In 1809, as part of his work with a British association hoping to discover the source of Africa’s Niger River, he moved to Aleppo in Syria. He mastered Arabic, converted to Islam and took the name Sheikh Ibrahim bin Abdullah. A deep tan and full beard further obscured the 27-year-old’s ethnicity, and he became a master of disguise, adopting local customs and testing his alias among the Bedouin. When, travelling south to Cairo, he heard rumour of ruins hidden among the mountains of Wadi Musa, he was quick to devise a ruse: ‘I pretended to have made a vow to have slaughtered a goat in honour of Haroun (Aaron), whose tomb I knew was situated in the extremity of the valley,’ he wrote, ‘and by this stratagem I thought that I should have the means of seeing the valley on the way to the tomb.’