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

Two centuries later, a new exhibition brings together some 150 artifacts.

ByMatthias Schulz, SPIEGEL
October 19, 2012, 2:40 PM

Oct. 21, 2012— -- The ruins of the ancient city of Petra lay hidden until 1812, when a Swiss explorer stumbled upon them in modern-day Jordan. Two centuries later, a new exhibition in Basel brings together some 150 artifacts that shed light on how this mysterious culture of spice traders carved a luxurious oasis into the rocks of the desert.

In the stifling heat, the intruder squeezed his way through the Siq, a narrow gorge flanked by steep rock walls. The man walked through the dark gorge for 1.2 kilometers (0.75 miles). Suddenly, he laid eyes on a magnificent scene.

The discovery of the ancient desert city of Petra by Swiss explorer and Orientalist Johann Ludwig Burckhardt in 1812 is considered a great moment in history. Far away from all settlements, surrounded by dust and shimmering air, he had discovered what Lawrence of Arabia would later describe as the "most beautiful place on Earth." Today, Petra is a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Burckhardt had infiltrated the Levant disguised as a Muslim. He learned Arabic, wore a turban and a robe, and converted to Islam. His plan was to secretly find a path to the land of gold beyond Timbuktu.

He never made it that far, and "Sheikh Ibrahim," as he called himself, took great risks to reach the enchanted cliffs of Petra because his behavior was too conspicuous. His guide saw him as "a sorcerer looking for treasure," Burckhardt wrote in his diary.

Luxury in the Desert

Two centuries after Burckhardt's discovery of the rock-cut city in Jordan, the Basel Museum of Ancient Art is exhibiting the latest archaeological finds from the "Atlantis of the Desert." Four teams of scientists -- from France, Germany, Switzerland and the United States -- are currently working at the site.

"Back in the 1970s, we still believed that Petra was purely a city of priests and the dead," explains archaeologist Laurent Gorgerat. More than 500 magnificent facades are chiseled into the cliffs, with burial chambers behind them. A puzzling account by the Ancient Greek geographer Strabo, that the Nabataeans "have the same regard for the dead as for dung," led many to conclude that Petra was the site of some strange cult of the dead.

As archaeologists have been uncovering the true nature of the structures cut into the cliffs, such misconceptions have been dispelled. In truth, Petra was once an oasis with irrigated gardens and streets lined with temples and luxurious homes. There were camel troughs and storage vats for frankincense, myrrh and Indian spices.

The settlement in the valley covered an area of two square kilometers (0.77 square miles). Archaeologists have found wine amphorae from the Mediterranean island of Rhodes, marble from Turkey and the remains of edible fish from the Red Sea. A shrine decorated with elephant heads stood at the center of the settlement.

Stephan Schmid, an archaeologist from Berlin's Humboldt University, is also making intriguing discoveries at his dig on the Umm al-Biyara rock massif, 330 meters (1,080 feet) above the settlement, where a king's residence once stood. It had bathtubs, a latrine with a flushing mechanism and rooms that could be heated. Firewood had to be dragged up to the palace along a narrow path.

The Arab rulers who lived there wore crimson clothing. According to Schmid, the palace was the scene of an "almost obscene display of money and power."

A Culture Shrouded in Mystery

Some 150 artifacts will be on display in Basel, starting Oct. 23, in an exhibition entitled "Petra -- Miracle in the Desert." It's a show filled with mysteries.

For example, archaeologists have determined that the Nabataeans ate pigs. But where did they keep the animals? They were unusually pious, and yet nothing is known about their priests. And why did Petra have such good jugglers? Some of them even performed for the emperor of China.

The speed with which these nomads became sedentary is also a conundrum. Analyses show that a sudden construction boom began around 100 B.C. Costly villas and temples were built throughout the valley.

It is clear that the money came from the frankincense trade. Around 400 B.C., the Nabataeans established a trade network stretching from southern Arabia to today's Gaza Strip. Thousands of camels carried loads of the aromatic resin all the way to the Mediterranean.

The Nabataeans had a system for guarding the caravan route, established rest areas in the wilderness, and supplied water and food for the more than 3,000-kilometer journey through the desert.

In the process, they made a handsome profit. The Persians alone used about 27 metric tons of frankincense in a single year. The entire ancient world was anxious to get its hands on the heavenly incense made from the resin of the Boswellia tree. Up to 50 percent of the proceeds went to the Nabataeans.

They also had their thumbs on other precious goods. They sold cinnamon and pepper from India, and they traded in gold, balsam and bitumen from the Dead Sea, the latter being an important material in the preservation of mummies.

Petra apparently served as a central warehouse for these valuable goods, a sort of safe that could be protected very effectively. The narrow gorge that provides access to the city is less than three meters wide in places. Thus, all it took was a few soldiers to stop entire armies.Controlling Water in the DesertStill, a lot of hard work went into establishing this luxurious oasis in the desert. To make the mountain valley habitable in the first place, the Nabataeans had to block off the Siq with a dam because heavy winter rains could create floods that would inundate the valley. In 1963, a group of more than 20 French tourists died in one of these flash floods.

In fact, the Nabataeans built a massive system of dams, cisterns and water conduits to control the water supply. Next to the main dam, archaeologists found the oldest dateable inscription in the city, written in 96 B.C.

That was when the work began, with local residents and stone masons from Alexandria chiseling away at the rock. The builders cut niches and steps into the rock, leveled off plateaus at the tops of the cliffs and built magnificent private homes with columns and inner courtyards.

In the center of the city, archaeologist Bernhard Kolb stumbled upon a villa with gold-plated cornices and mosaics. The banquet hall was once six meters high, and the walls were decorated with lines, bands and floral patterns, often in bright orange and blue. The wall paintings remind Kolb of "precursors of Islamic art."

This mixture of Western and Arab influence is also typical of the religion of ancient desert dwellers. Some of their temples contained statues of Dionysus and Isis. At the same time, they worshipped a strange "fish goddess" who wore dolphins in her hair.

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

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events