‘Ibrahim’ Burckhardt: Explorer Extraordinaire

There can’t be many explorers in history who can match the remarkable exploits of Jean Louis Burckhardt. Born in 1784 in Lausanne, Switzerland, he studied Arabic and attended lectures on science and medicine at Cambridge University in the UK before moving to Aleppo (Syria) in 1809. Here, he converted to Islam and took the name Sheikh Ibrahim Bin Abdullah. Over the next two years, he became a master of disguise, adopting local customs and putting his alias to the test among local Bedouin.

In 1812, travelling between Damascus and Cairo, he heard locals tell of fantastic ruins hidden in the mountains of Wadi Musa. Determined to see for himself, he had to think of a ploy to allay the suspicions of his guide and porters and decided to disguise himself as a pilgrim on a mission to pay his respects at the tomb of Haroun. This was an ingenious strategy because the tomb lies at the furthest end of the valley, allowing him cautious glances at the wonders he passed en route.

Although he tried hard to hide his astonishment, his guide wasn’t fooled for long and imagined that the pale Syrian had come hunting for treasure. To avoid occasioning more suspicion, Burckhardt therefore had to confine his curiosity to the briefest examination of the ancient monuments – enough, however, to conclude that this was Petra, a place which he understood no European traveller had ever visited. Despite being a man not given to literary flourishes, his journal, Travels in Syria and the Holy Land, reveals something of the excitement of his discovery and he describes emerging from the subterranean gloom of the Siq in terms that have inspired generations of future travellers.

For many an explorer, this expedition would have been a lifetime’s achievement – but not for Burckhardt. He went on to find the source of the Niger, stumbled on the magnificent Ramses II temple at Abu Simbel in Egypt, and still under disguise explored Mecca and Medina. In 1815 he contracted dysentery in Cairo, which returned with fatal consequences in 1817. He was buried as a Muslim in the Islamic Cemetery in Cairo. He was only 33 years old.

Loving Petra to Death

It seems ironic that after 1000 years of obscurity, if not neglect, Petra owes its current fragility to a renaissance of interest. In a ‘good’ year, half a million people visit, putting a huge strain on the management of one of the world’s best-loved antiquities. The combination of thousands of footprints a day, increased humidity levels from the breath of tourists in tombs, and erosion caused by adventurous travellers clambering over monuments and steep hillsides combine to threaten Petra’s longevity.

Acutely aware of the problems, a number of local, national and international bodies have been cooperating for more than a decade to protect and enhance the 853-sq-km site. For the most part, Petra is now spotlessly clean, thanks to constant maintenance, improved toilet facilities and a shift in attitude from visitors, who largely carry their rubbish back out with them.

Other improvements include the use of an invisible mortar to conserve fragile masonry and replace unsightly cement used in previous restoration attempts; major shoring up of the Siq; and ongoing conservation of tomb facades. Urban expansion in Wadi Musa has also been checked, an infrastructure of drainage and sewerage systems installed, and a moratorium enforced on the building of unsightly hotels that impinge on the sense of seclusion in Petra. Better signage and trail markers are appearing, and there are new plans afoot to remove the Bedouin stalls from the Ancient City to a special tourism complex near Little Petra.

These conservation measures, however, will only save Petra for future generations with the cooperation of visitors. Each visitor can play an important part by sticking to trails, not clambering over the monuments, resisting the temptation to touch crumbling masonry, removing litter and using designated toilet facilities. These things sound obvious, but judging by a piece of graffiti that reads ‘Ahmed & Liza 2017’ on top of one of the High Places, responsible tourism may still be a long time coming.

A Good Read

There is some interesting literature about Petra, together with beautiful souvenir books, available at shops and stalls around Wadi Musa and Petra.

One of the best guidebooks, Petra: A Traveller’s Guide by Rosalyn Maqsood, covers the history and culture of the site and describes several hikes. The pocket-sized Petra: The Rose-Red City by Christian Auge and Jean-Marie Dentzer provides excellent historical context. Jane Taylor’s Petra is another good paperback introduction to the site. Taylor also wrote the authoritative Petra & the Lost Kingdoms of the Nabataeans. There’s a chapter on hiking in Petra in Tony Howard and Di Taylor’s Jordan – Walks, Treks, Climbs & Canyons.

For an engaging account of the Bdoul Bedouin who once lived in the caves surrounding the Petra valley and who now live on the rim of the Ancient City, Married to a Bedouin is a recommended read. The author, Marguerite van Geldermalsen, raised three children among the Bdoul and ran the local health clinic. Since the book’s publication in 2006, Marguerite has become a local celebrity in Jordan, has received the Queen of England and Queen Noor in her cave, and her son now runs tours for those wanting to gain an understanding of Bedouin life in the area. She continues to live in the Bdoul community at Umm Sayoun.

David Roberts: Painting Petra

Stand in certain parts of Petra and Little Petra and it’s almost impossible not to imagine striped-robed Arabs from the 19th century lounging languidly in the foreground. Sit in the cafes and hotel lobbies of Wadi Musa and you’ll see the same characters and landscapes writ large across otherwise vacant walls. And who do we have to thank for this ‘picturesque’ peopling of ancient Petra? The culprit is one David Roberts: artist, Scot and much-beloved topographer of the late Romantic era.

Given the continuing popularity of his images with tourists, it’s safe to say that Roberts (1796–1864) had the common touch. This may have had something to do with his seven-year apprenticeship as a house painter, or perhaps his stint as a scenery painter at the Theatre Royal in Edinburgh. Whatever the reason, his compositions are full of human interest – an unloaded caravan, friends waving across a wadi, a quarrel between traders cast against a backdrop of exaggerated landscape.

Roberts visited the region in 1839 dressed as an Arab, in the tradition of Burckhardt just two decades earlier, and travelled with a caravan of 20 camels and local bodyguards. Petra was the high point of his journey, despite having to cut short his visit because of trouble with local tribes. On his return to Britain, his watercolours, magnificently interpreted in lithograph by the Belgian engraver Louis Haghe, were exhibited in 1840 and won instant critical acclaim.

Roberts’ images have now passed into the visual vocabulary of one of the world’s most treasured sites. For a shoemaker’s son with no formal art training who began life painting houses, that’s a formidable legacy.