MAY 2005

Petra, Syria - now Jordan
Excerpt from the travels of lOUIS bURCKHARDT 1812

Until that day, August 22, 1812, when he arrived at Ain Musa, Petra had been lost to the western world for over six centuries: from the time of the Crusades, in about 1200, until this summer when Louis Burckhardt came south in the blazing heat with his lean goat from Shobak, and his honest Bedoouin, to the copious spring of Moses rising crystal fresh among the fig trees at the head of the hidden wadi.

From near the spring there is a distant view of the white dome of Aaron's tomb on the mountain top. Hamid pressed him to slaughter the goat here, and have done with it, in view of the tomb as was often the custom. But Louis pretended to have vowed to sacrifice it at the tomb itself.

Beyond in the little fly-blow village of Elji, he hired a guid at the cost of a pair of old horseshoes, which he had in his scanty baggage, to escort him into the barrier of rocky cliffs to the tomb.

The guide carried the goat, and handed Louis a water-skin to shoulder since he knew that the secret wadi below was dry.They followed the rivulet down westwards to where the valley narrows and the way appears to vanish completely in a sudden tumbled mass of pale sandstone rocks and cliffs, the stern bastions concealing Wadi Musa's fastness.

And here is is that the antiquities....begin. Of these I regret that I am not able to give a very complete account: but I know well the character of the people around me; I was without protection in the midst of a desert where no traveller had ever before been seen; and a close examination of the works of the infidels, as they are called, would have excited suspicions that I was a magician in search of treasure.

Had he lingered he would have been detained, prevented from reaching Egypt, probably stripped of what little money he possessed and of what was infinitely more valuable to him - his notebook. To future travellers under protection, he foretold, in his usual reserved manner, Wadi Musa would "be found to rank among the most curious remains of ancient art."

Long after Louis had given the world news of his discovery, this so elusive site remained difficult ofaccess - it has only been since about 1925 that any but the most intrepid and wealthy explorers were able to visit Petra. The inhabitants even massacred the members of the first Arab Legion police post established at Elji to protect visitors.

Petra is the ancient Sela in the wilderness: the Greek name, a rock or stone, which in Arabic means a cleft rock. Jeremiah, prophet of doom, foresaw disaster for the dwellers in the clefts of the rocks who held the heights: "Edom shall be a desolation: and everyone that goeth thereby shall be astonished..." the Nabatseans who drove out the Edomites, according to Diodorus Siculus appear to have occupied Petra from the 3rd Century B.C. and remained there for atleast five Centuries. Recent excavations have revealed traces of very much earlier inhabitantsof the Upper Paleolithic Period - probably 10,000 B.C.

Descending into the narrow chasm called el Siq, Louis heard the lonely voice of the wind sighing through cleft and fissure. then as the cliff walls narrowed, there was the wound of their own footsteps on the dry torrent bed echoing under the rocky overhang, and again the eternally sighing moan of that wind that for thousands of years has chiselled strange shaoes in Petra's soft sandstone, in the labyrinth of cave and carving where sometimes man's work has become confused with that of nature.

As the massive walls of the Siq close in, dwarfing human figures in their depths. a traveller is enveloped, silenced by the wonder of the place.

Now more than ever Louis must strive to appear the illiterate disinterested peasant, curbing his natural amazement at the breath-taking wonders he saw, while recalling ancient history, going back in time while living in the present as two people.... They had gone about fifty yards into the Siq when Louis saw a bridge span high above their heads. It has now fallen, but this arch across the chasm was in place for about eighty years after Louis' visit. He wanted to climb up to it, but his guide assured him that no one had ever succeeded in doing so, and therefore it had been decided that it was the work of a djinn.

The Siq is one and a quarter miles long but seems interminable. Louis took twenty five minutes to traverse it. Then as the rock-walls twisted and parted revealing the first hint of rosy beauty. a carved facade ahead, he paused in stunned amazement: el Kazneh glowed i the towering sunlit cliff above a sea of red oleanders, so close it seemed that he could not see it atall...He emerged from the Siq and stood gazing up:

the situation and beauty of which are calculated to make and extraordinary impression upon the traveller, after having transversed.... such a gloomy and almost subterranean passage - it is one of the most elegant remains of antiquity existing in Syria.

...el Kazneh unlike the rest of Petra is "rose red" and hewn from the sheer rock its beauty seems to smile forth like an exquisite face whispering from a dark frame. As they continued on into Petra, past the theatre cut by the Romans www.didaweb.netfrom among ancient cliff tombs, and on to where the valley opened out in the sunbaked core of the stone city, Louis was further tantalised by the sight of the magnificent facades of the great tombs on the eastern cliff face. They were too far off the track for him to explore but he did, much to his guide's unease, enter some of the smaller tombs and dwellings that lie within the valley. All these are bare, unadorned but many-coloured, since by carving into the living rock Nabataean tools revealed the extraordinary range of its natural colours. Veins and waves of swirling colour gleam like watered silk in smoothly chisselled ceilings, cobalt, tan, terracotta, rose.

........Steeling himself to patience he marched on up the southern valley that skirts below Umm el Biyara - the Mother of Cisterns - from which sheer height captive Edomites were thrown to their death by the King of Judah ( and they complain about the hollow frame that makes them the world's victims today, these Jews? JB, editor) and so on towards Mount Hor and the little white domed still distant tomb of Aaron. Pale vultures circled high above the savage peaks, soaring effortlessly in the hot afternoon sky. ... but when at last they arrive on the Terrace of Aaron, at the foot of the steep mount where the tomb stands the sun had set, it was too late to ascend.

...I was excessively fatigued, I therefore hastened to kill the goat in sight of the tomb, at a spot where I found a number of heaps of stones; .. in token of as many sacrifices in honour of the saint. While I was in the act of slaying the animal, my guide exclaimed aloud, O Harun protect us and forgive us. O Harun be content with our good intentions, for it is but a lean goat. O Harun smooth our paths; praise be to the Lord of all creatures."

From A Biography, by Katherine Sim of Jean Louis Burckhardt.

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