'Atlantis in the Sand': Unlocking the Mysteries of Petra

But their supreme god, Dushara, had no human features at all. His likeness was a black, cubical stone somewhat like the Kaaba, the massive, cube-shaped religious structure in Mecca.

These spice traders also enjoyed a wealth of culture. They had a theater with about 5,000 seats. But since the Nabataeans have left behind almost no written accounts, no one can say what was performed there.

However, archaeologists have been able to figure out how the Nabataeans' water system worked. Six long-distance pipelines brought fresh water in from the surrounding mountains several kilometers away, and clay pipes were installed in the city itself.

The residents diverted a river, and there were also hundreds of cisterns to capture rainwater. The largest had a capacity of up to 300 cubic meters of water. Defeat, Decline, Rediscovery

In this oasis lined with fountains and marble statues of boys pouring water, the clans came together regularly for funeral feasts.

The digs show that there were once buildings, courtyards and dining rooms in front of the large cliff tombs. This was where the families held their funeral feasts. The wine, says Gorgerat, flowed "in streams."

Not surprisingly, there were those who envied the Nabataeans. The Persians and the Greeks tried to put a stop to their profiteering, and the Romans dispatched a force to Petra in 63 B.C. But the Nabataeans cunningly defended their freedom.

When the Roman Empire hatched a plan, in 25 B.C., to advance into the land where frankincense came from, hoping to control the incense trade at its source, they experienced a setback. A Roman legion made it as far as Marib, in the legendary land of the Queen of Sheba and modern-day Yemen. But after more than eight months, the exhausted Roman soldiers turned around and headed home. Their Nabataean guide had deliberately taken them along a circuitous route.

It wasn't until 130 years later that the Nabataeans were finally defeated, and Rome incorporated its territory into its Arabia Petraea province. After that, Petra fell into a deep slumber. The temples decayed, and goatherds used the tombs as stalls for their animals.

When Burckhardt, who had been educated in the German cities of Göttingen and Leipzig, finally arrived, he found nothing but ruins. To him, though, even those ruins were "the most exquisite of remains from antiquity." Still, the adventurer would never make it back to Europe. He died of dysentery in Cairo, at the age of 32.

The exhibit " Petra -- Miracle in the Desert" will run from Oct. 23, 2012 to March 17, 2013 at the Basel Museum of Ancient Art .

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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