Celebrating Petra’s storied past

The Monastery in the ancient city of Petra. (Tim Barker/LPI/Getty)

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.

Burckhardt was the Indiana Jones of his day – learning Arabic and adopting the name Sheikh Ibrahim Ibn Abdallah, he spent much of his life traveling 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.

Passing through 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 amphitheater.

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 realized that it was easier to carve facades 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 practiced 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 and Tintin.

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 1980s.

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  bbc and Lonely Planet Traveller.

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