About

Inhabited since 7000 BC, Petra, which in the Biblical story was the land of Edom, saw the flowering of the civilization of the Nabateans, a nomadic people who first established camp there in the 7th century BC and exploited the strategic position of the site, a crossroads on the caravan routes along which were carried such goods as spices, silk and incense from China, India and Arabia. The Romans conquered Petra in 106 AD; the Arabs in the 7th century; the Christian Crusaders built a fortress in their turn. But the city was by that time already on the road to decline and its very existence was completely forgotten by the Europeans shortly afterwards. It was not until 1812 that the young Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt “discovered” Petra. On his travels through Jordan toward Cairo, Burckhardt, who knew the Arab language to perfection and even successfully masqueraded as a Muslim, from India, heard many Arab legends about a hidden city in the impenetrable mountains, populated by Bedouins who were extremely distrustful of strangers. In order to gain access to the city without arousing undue diffidence, he expressed to his guide his desire to make a sacrifice at the tomb of the prophet Aaron – but upon his return to Europe he did not hesitate to make public his discovery of what has been called the rose-colored city of the desert.  —Enrico Nistri