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

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

ByABC News
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