Exactly 200 years ago this month, 27-year-old Swiss explorer Jean Louis Burckhardt became the first Western tourist of modern times to visit the ancient city of Petra – the three-millennia-old capital of the Nabataeans.
the Indiana Jones of his day – learning Arabic and adopting the name Sheikh
Ibrahim Ibn Abdallah, he spent much of his life travelling around the Middle
East in disguise, visiting ancient sites and scribbling down notes as he went.
Hearing stories about a ruined city hidden in the canyons at Wadi Musa,
Burckhardt hired a local guide and said that he wanted to pay a visit to the
tomb of the prophet Aaron, conveniently located on the far side of the city.
Petra, Burckhardt pretended he had little interest in the heathen monuments
around him – but his guides caught him admiring the ruins and, suspecting that
he was a treasure robber, hastened their journey. As a result, Burckhardt
probably spent less time in the site than the average tourist today.
Who were the Nabataeans?
Boring though it may sound, Petra made its name as
a tax collection point. The city’s residents, the Nabataeans, were originally a
nomadic people from Arabia, who settled in Petra around the sixth century BC –
they made their money controlling trade routes and levying tolls on passing
caravans. Petra’s wealth allowed the building of tombs, temples and this large
The royal tombs
There are more tombs than any other kind of
structure in Petra – previous visitors to the city even believed it was a
necropolis. The grandest row of tombs on the site are the so-called Royal
Tombs, including the Urn Tomb. The Nabataeans were pragmatic architects – they
realised that it was easier to carve façades into the cliff face than build
freestanding structures prone to collapsing because of earthquakes.
The Siq and approach to the Treasury
Perhaps the most famous view in Petra is of the Treasury seen from the Siq. A
three-quarter-mile-long gorge, the Siq not only makes for a dramatic approach
to the city, it also served a defensive purpose and became a focal point for
religious processions. Meanwhile, the Treasury takes its name from the legend
that a Pharaoh hid his treasure in the urn near the top – bullet marks show
where visitors had a go at releasing the loot.
The High Place: Human sacrifice at Petra?
The eeriest spot in Petra is the High Place of
Sacrifice – a sacred mountaintop altar where livestock were slaughtered to
appease the gods. There’s no evidence that humans were sacrificed, but an
inscription at a Nabataean site in Saudi Arabia suggests that it was practised
elsewhere in their territory.
Petra at the movies
Petra features in the 1989 film Indiana Jones and
the Last Crusade – in it, Indy charges into the Treasury to undergo a series of
hair-raising trials in his quest for the Holy Grail. In reality he wouldn’t
have got very far – inside are just a few small, square rooms, where grails are
conspicuously absent. Other fictional visitors to Petra include Sonic the Hedgehog
Living among the ruins
The Nabataeans weren’t the last people to live at
Petra. The Romans made their own tweaks to the city, followed by the
Byzantines, who turned Nabataean structures into churches – their mosaics can
still be seen in Petra Church, at the far edge of the site. The last residents
of Petra were Bedouins, who camped among Petra’s caves and tombs until the
Make it happen
Petra is by the town of Wadi Musa. Daily buses depart for Wadi Musa from Amman’s
Abdali bus station. EasyJet flies from
Gatwick to Queen Alia International airport in the Jordanian capital Amman.
This article was
published in partnership with Lonely