The Rediscovery of Petra By a Masquerading Explorer

WORLD HISTORY | February 16, 2019

View of Al Khazneh, the Treasury, Petra, Jordan, engraving by Lemaitre from Arabie, by Noel Desvergers, Freres, Paris, 1847. Source: (gettyimages.com)

Chances are, your first introduction to the ancient city of Petra was when it was featured in the movie, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. The incredible city carved out of the face of a sheer cliff wall inside a slot canyon, may have looked like a movie set designed just for that action movie, but Petra is, in fact, a very real place. Built eons ago, Petra was once a thriving city along trade routes, but it was abandoned and forgotten until its rediscovery in 1812 by a Swiss adventurer who was traveling in disguise. Here is the incredible story of the uniquely beautiful ancient city of Petra and how it was found again by an undercover explorer. 

Source: (intrepidtravel.com)

No One Knows When Petra Was Built

Located south of the capital city of Amman in Jordan, Petra is a very old archaeological site that has become Jordan’s number one tourist attraction. Yet no one knows for sure when the ancient city was built. There are existing records that have shown that the city was a thriving stop on the spice trade routes and the capital of the Nabataean Empire by the first century BC. The Romans took control of the city and included mentions of it in their writings. But Petra failed to fully bounce back from an earthquake in 363 AD that caused widespread destruction. Changes in the trade routes meant that visitors were no longer flooding into the city. By the middle of the 7th century AD, the city was abandoned and largely forgotten. Only the nomadic Bedouins occasionally stopped at the ruins. 

Johann Ludwig Burckhardt. Source: (cam.ac.uk)

Enter Johann Ludwig Burckhardt

Swiss explorer and adventurer, Johann Ludwig Burckhardt, born in 1784, was a wealthy, educated, well-connected young man who had the time, money, and ambition to explore the world. He decided he wanted to find the source of the Niger River. Sir John Banks, the president of the Royal Society of England, encouraged Burckhardt. In fact, he encouraged many European adventurers to explore the vast, unknown parts of the African continent. Burckhardt made plans to travel from Cairo across the Sahara Desert. 

Cambridge University in the early 1800s. Source: (repository.cam.ac.uk)

Burckhardt Studied Arabic

As preparation for his journey, Johann Burckhardt enrolled in Cambridge University to study Arabic. Learning the language, he was sure, would help him traverse the African continent, but he had another plan in mind. Burckhardt knew that many of the people of North Africa and the Middle East were leery of Europeans who were coming to their land and taking ancient artifacts. They were distrustful of Europeans so they did not openly share information with them. Burckhardt thought he could discover more information by passing himself off as one of them. 

Dr. Ulrich Seetzen was murdered while trying to find ancient Petra. Source: (blogs.uni-bremen.de)

Burckhardt had a Change of Plans

When Johann Burckhardt arrived in Cairo, he fully intended to seek out the source of the Niger River, but he got distracted by another quest. He learned that Dr. Ulrich Seetzen, a German explorer, had been seeking the ruins of a fabled ancient city carved into a canyon face. But Seetzen was murdered by his guides in 1811. That got Burckhardt curious. Did such a city really exist? Was Seetzen murdered to prevent him from finding it? Burckhardt abruptly changed his plans. He traveled to Aleppo in Syria, bought a house, and hired a Christian Arab to tutor him in the local dialect, as well as in Muslim law and the Koran.   

Bedouin nomads in the early 1800s. Source: (etsy.com)

Burckhardt Disguised Himself as an Arab

When he felt he had learned enough, Burckhardt dressed in the local attire and introduced himself as Sheikh Ibrahim Ibn Abdallah as he traveled around Syria and Lebanon and into Jordan. He infiltrated groups of local travelers and gleaned information from them. He was able to move through the land without being stopped and questioned. His disguise was working. 

Source: (archeolog.pl)

The Rediscovery of Petra

He joined a group of herders and traders who were traveling to Cairo when he overheard the goat herders talking about how close they were to the ruins of an ancient city that was hidden in a narrow mountain valley. Local legend claimed that the tomb of Aaron, the brother of Moses, was located at this site. Burckhardt told his companions that he wanted to sacrifice a goat to Aaron, and paid a guide to show him the ruined city. He, the guide, and the unfortunate goat entered the slot canyon and emerged to see the breathtaking ruins. Burckhardt was in wonder and longed to fully explore the ruins, but he didn’t want the guide to discover that he was a European infidel. The guide would have thought he was a treasure hunter and killed him. So Burckhardt could only make quick observations about Petra before he sacrificed the goat and returned with the guide. But he wrote about what he found in his journal. 

Petra is accessible through a slot canyon. Source: (mnn.com)

Burckhardt’s Journal Contained a Wealth of Information

Burckhardt devoted 12 pages of his journal to his observations in Petra. Although he did not name the city, his description of the carved city made it clear that he had rediscovered Petra. He was not able to spend much time at the ruins, but he noted details about the dimensions of the buildings, the state of disrepair they were in, and the carvings that he saw. He even described the now-famous building called the Treasury. 

Temple of Ramses the Great at Abu Simbel. Source: (ancient-egypt-online.com)

Burckhardt Did More Exploring But Never Found the Source of the Niger

Back in Cairo, Burckhardt joined a caravan that was traveling up the Nile River. He discovered the temple of Ramses the Great at Abu Simbel and wrote about the massive stone statues there. He also explored Mecca and Medina but never got around to completing his original goal of finding the source of the Niger River. In 1817, Burckhardt fell ill and died in Cairo. He was only 32 years old. His precious journal, filled with his discoveries, was sent back to Cambridge. 

Tags: Cairo, explorer, Petra, city, Jordan, Johann Ludwig Burckhardt, 1700s

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Karen Harris


Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.