The story of finding the lost city of Petra is as strange as its conception and ultimate construction.
In the early nineteenth century, Johann Ludwig Burckhardt, a Swiss traveler, geographer, and orientalist, disguised as a local overheard a conversation between Bedouins about ancient ruins in a narrow valley near the supposed biblical tomb of Aaron, the brother of Moses. The Bedouins have been living there for centuries but kept the knowledge to themselves for 1200 years.
Johann made up a story that he was a Bedouin himself and wanted to bury his dead father’s remains in Petra as per his wishes. He was allowed to visit the place and in his own words…
An excavated mausoleum came in view, the situation and beauty of which are calculated to make an extraordinary impression upon the traveller, after having traversed for nearly half an hour such a gloomy and almost subterraneous passage as I have described. The natives call this monument Kaszr Faraoun, or Pharaoh’s castle; and pretend that it was the residence of a prince. But it was rather the sepulchre of a prince, and great must have been the opulence of a city, which could dedicate such monuments to the memory of its rulers…Wikipedia
He could not remain long at the ruins or take detailed notes due to his fears of being unmasked as a treasure-seeking infidel. Seeing no evidence of the name of the ruins, he could only speculate that they were the ruins of Petra.
For nine years he kept the knowledge to himself. At age 32, around 1817, realizing that he was dying due to illness, he wrote a paper about his find to let the world know of the lost city.
The conception of Petra was equally dramatic. Roughly around third century BC, Nabataeans, one amongst several nomadic Bedouin tribes that roamed the Arabian Desert, controlled much of the trade routes of the region, amassing large wealth. Having lost their lucrative trade route to Roman’s alternate routes which were quicker and cheaper, in desperation to attract caravan’s they decided to build the city of Petra in the beautiful setting of mountains with more entertainment than the Roman alternative.
There was only one problem. The site they chose was a graveyard. A burial ground with several caves and tombs. So desperate was their need to get the caravans back they masked the tombs by erected facades and carved out gigantic pillars and monuments. Because of the local knowledge about the frequent earthquakes in the region, they carved the caves out of the sandstone mountains which withstand the shocks much better than the man-made structures.
So complete was their knowledge of the desert that they devised techniques for water collection and flash-flood management which are still serving the area. In 1963, twenty-two French tourists and a local guide were killed in the canyons by flash floods because a tunnel that Nabataeans’ dug to carry the water away from the canyons was found blocked with sand.
One cannot come out of Petra without being marveled at the ingenious imagination of the generations that passed before us. The whole city, which is massive and is dug out of mountains with two simple tools – hammers and chisels.
It took Nabataeans 40 years to build the city, and they managed to get the caravans back to the Spice road but only for a little while. But with the discovery of the monsoon winds caused the shift of trade routes from land to sea. In 106, after the death of the Nabatean king, the entire kingdom passed peacefully into Roman hands.
An earthquake in 363 AD leveled half of Petra. By the time of seventh-century Islamic invasion, Petra was more or less deserted and the earthquake of 749 AD forced the final stragglers to depart the crumbling city.
Around that time Bedouins from the south discovered the deserted city and started moving in the empty caves. They kept it as their secret for 1200 years successful guiding any caravans away from it until it was discovered by Swiss traveler Johann Ludwig Burckhardt.
In 1839, a British artist, David Roberts, did a number of drawings of Petra at that time which is an authentic source of information on the condition of the buildings and the life of Bedouins.
Another account of Bedouins’ life in caves of Petra was written by Marguerite van Geldermalsen, a NewZealand nurse who visited Petra in 1978 and fell in love with a Bedouins. She married him, lived in the cave with him for seven years and had three children there. She wrote her story and her book is available from her stall inside Petra.
I bought the book from her son Rammi who looks very much like his father.
Close to Peter is Little Petra, considered as a suburb of Petra. It is believed to be a hideout for the rich travelers who were able to enjoy all the luxuries money can buy, including women and wine (there were many exhibits of wineries and wine houses in the vicinity to prove that claim).
We spent two days in Petra and barely scratched the surface. We walked up the monastery climbing about 900 stairs and uneven rocks but didn’t have enough time to climb to the High Place of Sacrifice or visit Aaron’s Mountain where Moses’ brother Aaron is believed to be buried. One can easily spend three to four days exploring the mountains which has a lot to offer along with a good dose of history.