Mysterious Petra Rediscovered

by Djinna Gochis and Christine Michaels

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In 1812 a young Swiss man, rather poorly disguised as an Arab pilgrim, convinced a local guide in Jordan to lead him into an area where few had visited in many centuries. At first the guide was reluctant and later suspicious, so the intrepid explorer, named John Lewis Burkhardt, explained that he had made a holy vow to sacrifice at the tomb of Aaron.

Satisfied with this explanation, at least for the time being, the Arab guide led the Swiss man into rugged sandstone mountains. Burkhardt’s visit was a short one since the guide’s suspicion grew stronger. The explorer made his sacrifice, and upon threats from the guide, he fled the area in haste. Yet there had been enough time for him to rediscover Petra.

Petra is a place of enduring mystery. Perhaps it is the way the Siq frames the magnificent Treasury building, or the aspect of the gaunt hills cut by deep wadis or rivers… Perhaps it is the twinkling lights from tourist tents in the blackness of the valley’s nights… Or it could be the very history of the celebrated ghost town which adds to Petra’s aura. There is just something about the city that draws all who see it like a magnet.

In Biblical times Petra, then known as Selah, was a hidden valley city, a natural fortress set in the awesome mountains of southern Jordan, east of the Dead Sea. This area – then known as Edom – was wrested from its original inhabitants by Esau, the son of Isaac, who was tricked out of his rightful inheritance by his twin brother, Jacob.

In the 8th century B.C., the Nabateans took over the caravan route of the King’s Highway through Edom, raiding the passing caravans and then retreating into the surrounding mountains to stash their loot in the hidden valley. Making Petra their capital, the Nabateans had such a successful robber policy that in the three centuries before Christ’s birth and the two following, they built up one of the greatest trading kingdoms in the Middle East.

During the first half of the first century B.C., Petra was ruled by King Aretas III, the “Philhellene.” The king’s love for Greek culture was reflected in the city’s appearance. At this time, Petra began to take on the aspect of a Hellenistic city.

The wealth and beauty of the kingdom ruled from Petra inevitably inspired the greed of the Roman Empire, and after many unsuccessful attempts, the Romans finally incorporated the Nabatean lands into their Province of Arabia.

From this point on, Petra was a typical Roman town, having a colonnaded street, a theater, a fine road system, temples and baths. Virtually all of these structures remain in Petra today.

In the third century when the Roman Empire was beset by economic and political troubles, Petra shared in its tragic fate, and eventually sank into obscurity.

And so, Petra lay forgotten for twelve centuries, until Burkhardt’s rediscovery in 1812. Slowly, Petra became known throughout the world as a strange, fascinating, magnificent place.

The entrance to the lost city is a crack in the mountains called the Siq. Through this opening the magnificent Khasneh, or Treasury comes into view. Once in the city itself, it becomes apparent why Petra never again will be forgotten.

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Tags: Jordan Architecture Historical site/city