Over 2000 years ago,the city of Petra was founded as the capital of the Nabataean kingdom. Today, Al Khazneh (Petra’s Treasury) is recognisable all over the world. The ancient city of Petra has become Hollywood’s go-to location for Middle Eastern epics; the imposing sandstone façade famously served as the entrance to the resting place of the Holy Grail in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989).
The mythical status of Petra is nothing new. For centuries it represented the hidden homeland of an extinct civilisation in the Western imagination. That was until the ruins were rediscovered in 1812 by Swiss explorer Johann Burckhardt.
A native French speaker, Burckhardt was born in Lausanne, Switzerland in November 1784. He spent much of his childhood in Germany and moved to England in 1806, wherehe was introduced to Sir Joseph Banks of the Royal Society. Fascinated by exploration and ‘Darkest Africa’,Banks elected to sponsor the young Swiss in a mission to discover the source of the River Niger. In preparation for his expedition,Burckhardt studied Arabic at Cambridge, before continuing his education at Aleppo in Syria. It was on his journey to Aleppo that Burckhardt was first inspired by tales of the lost city of Petra.
After two years in Syria mastering Arabicand studying the Qur’an, Burckhardt assumed the alias of Sheikh Ibrahim Ibn Abdallah in an attempt to disguise himself as a native of the region. He wrote in his journal: ‘I thought it advisable to equip myself in the simplest manner. I assumed the most common Bedouin dress [and] took no baggage with me’.
Inspired by stories of the lost city, Burckhardt travelled south from Nazareth where local tribespeople told him of ruins in a narrow mountain valley near the supposed tomb of Aaron, the brother of Moses. Claiming that he wished to sacrifice a goat to Aaron, Burckhardt convinced a local guide to take him to the ruins. In his journal Burckhardt describes the eighty-foot-high precipices andthe great torrent that lead the way to Petra, and his amazement at finally setting his eyes upon the towering mausoleum ‘cut entirely out of the rock’.
The explorer died of dysentery in 1817 aged just 33. Though he failed in his original aim of locating the source of the Niger, he did succeed in rediscovering the ancient city of Petra. Quite amazingly, he did so in the guise of a Syrian pauper, never having his true identity discovered.