Petra: Cliffs of the Sik, by Harry Fenn, 1881

Rose colored sandstone
carved into an ancient city

Petra, (Petraea), in south west Jordan, is the legendary Mosera,
location of the tomb of Aaron, brother of Moses, and of Mount Hor.
The ancient city was reached through a narrow, hidden passage.

The protected location was used to advantage since early times,
but Petra became important around 300 BC
as a trading center of the Nabatean culture,
a largely nomadic Arab people.
Some of the inhabitants carved their tombs
into the beautiful sandstone, the results are stunning.

(left) Petra: Cliffs of the Sik, by Harry Fenn, 1881

The narrow entrance to Petra,
by David Roberts, 1839.

Johann Burckhardt (Switzerland) was the first European to visit Petra, in 1812. He was a professional explorer, paid by an English foundation, who presented himself as a Moslem to gain access to many places forbidden to foreigners. He knew from Roman texts that Petra was near the Tomb of Aaron so he pretended a wish to sacrifice a goat at the tomb, a well known ritual, to cover his real purpose.

Excerpted from:
Travels in Syria and the Holy Land
by Johann Burckhardt
I hired a guide at Eldjy, to conduct me to Aaron's tomb, and paid him with a pair of old horse-shoes. He carried the goat, and gave me a skin of water to carry, as he knew that there was no water in the Wady below.

Soon the valley they traveled began to narrow, the rocks changed from limestone to sandstone, and dark rectangles began to appear in the hillsides above them - tombs.

Entrance to Petra today - the Siq (Sik).
Photograph by Emilio, CreativeCommons.

About three hundred paces along the valley, which is in this part about one hundred and fifty feet in breadth, is a spot where the valley seemed to be entirely closed by high rocks. Upon a nearer approach, I perceived a chasm about fifteen or twenty feet in breadth, through which the rivulet flows westwards. The precipices on either side are about eighty feet in height, in many places the opening between them at top is less than at bottom, and the sky is not visible from below.

The arch at the entrance,
by David Roberts, 1839.

About fifty paces below the entrance a bridge of one arch thrown over the top of the chasm is still entire. Some remains of antiquities might perhaps be found on the top of the rocks near the bridge, but my guide assured me that nobody had ever been able to climb up the rocks to the bridge, which was therefore unanimously declared to be the work of genii.

I saw in several places small niches cut in the rock, some of which were single, in other places there were three or four together, without any regularity. Some are mere holes, others have short pilasters on both sides, they vary in size from ten inches to four or five feet in height, and in some of them the bases of statues are still visible. We passed several chasms between perpendicular rocks, by which some tributary streams from the south side of the Syk empty themselves into the river. I did not enter any of them, but I saw that they were thickly overgrown with Defle trees. My guide told me that no antiquities existed in these valleys. The bottom of the Syk itself is at present covered with large stones, brought down by the torrent, and it appears to be several feet higher than its ancient level, at least towards its western end.

El Khasne, first sight of Petra,
(left) by John Woodward, 1881,
(right) by David Roberts, 1839.

We came to a place where the passage opens, and where the bed of another stream coming from the south joins the Syk. On the side of the perpendicular rock, directly opposite to the issue of the trail, an excavated mausoleum came in view, the situation and beauty of which are calculated to make an extraordinary impression upon the traveler, after having traversed for nearly half an hour such a gloomy and almost subterraneous passage as I have described. It is one of the most elegant remains of antiquity, and on a closer examination I found it to be a work of immense labor.

Petra, by David Roberts, 1839.

Royal tombs at Petra.

The Urn Tomb

Tomb known as the Monastery.
by David Roberts, 1839.

Petra - SandStone tombs
Photograph by Etan J. Tal, CreativeCommons

The theater at Petra, by Laborde.

Here to the left is a theatre cut entirely out of the rock, with all its benches. It may be capable of containing about three thousand spectators. Its' area is now filled up with gravel, which the winter storms bring down.

The Qasr el Bint Palace.

In my way I had entered several sepulchers, to the surprise of my guide, but when he saw me turn out of the footpath towards the Kaszr (Qasr), he exclaimed: "I see now clearly that you are an infidel, who has some particular business among the ruins of the city of your forefathers. Depend upon it that we shall not suffer you to take out a single para of all the treasures hidden there, for they are in our territory, and belong to us."

I replied that it was mere curiosity which prompted me to look at the ancient works, and that I had no other view in coming here than to sacrifice to Aaron.

He was not easily persuaded. The Arabs believe that it is sufficient for a true magician to have seen and observed the spot where treasures are hidden in order to be able afterwards, at his ease, to order it to follow him through the air to whatever place he pleases, and to command the guardian of the treasure to set the whole before him.

I did not think it prudent to irritate my guide by too close an inspection of the palace as it might have led him to declare, on our return, his belief that I had found treasures. That might have led to the detection of my journal, which would most certainly have been taken from me as a book of magic. "Maou delayl" (He has indications of treasure with him) is an expression I have heard a hundred times.

The Khazneh (Khasne), a large building
near the Siq entrance, painting by Linant.

Great must have been the opulence of a city which could dedicate such monuments to the memory of its rulers. The antiquities of Petra will be found to rank among the most curious remains of ancient art.
Excerpted from:
Travels in Syria and the Holy Land
by Johann Ludwig (Louis) Burckhardt
Published by the Association for promoting the
discovery of the interior parts of Africa, 1822.
etext from Project Gutenberg.

Petra was abandoned soon after 200 AD. Perhaps the city was attacked,
perhaps the water source dried for a time, or perhaps caravan routes shifted -
the sudden end of Petra has never been explained.
And so it sat, crumbling in the sun over the centuries.
Petra's location was lost to the outside world
until Johann Burckhardt published his account.

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