Source: National geographic
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.
BY CRUZ SÁNCHEZ
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.