Petra wasn't exactly a lost city. But by the early 1800s only the Bedouin herdsmen of the desert in what is now Jordan visited this ancient capital of the Nabataeans. To the world at large, its location was a mystery. The fabled city was said to lie concealed in a gorge somewhere between the Dead Sea and the Gulf of Aqaba -- but maps were as hazy as the blowing sands.
Then in 1812, Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt disguised himself as "Ibrahim ibn Abd Allah," a bearded, turban-wearing, Arabic-speaking pilgrim. So convincing was his masquerade that no one stopped him from entering Petra, the "city in the rock," which no outsider had seen since the 12th century.
The tombs and temples of Petra, carved
out of the cliffs themselves, appear
suddenly from a red-rock mountain.
See more pictures of famous landmarks.
He found a city whose golden age had begun in the second century B.C., its prosperity stemming from expansive trade. Commerce brought cross-pollination from many other cultures and influenced Petra's architecture, which blended Arabic traditions with Hellenistic and Egyptian styles to create astonishing tombs, temples, and theaters -- all carved into cliffs of Nubian sandstone.
In the first century A.D., Rome took control of Petra, and the Nabataeans' territory soon yielded much of the Empire's profits. Six centuries later, earthquakes hit the city, and it was eventually abandoned.
The city is approached through a snaking mountain fissure, varying from 16 to 650 feet deep. After nearly a mile, the passage suddenly opens to reveal one of the world's most dramatic sights, al-Khazneh, the Treasury, thought to have been the tomb of a Nabataean king. Its facade -- some 100 feet wide and 140 feet high -- is embellished with soaring columns and statues of gods, mythological figures, and animals. Carved into the soft rock, the building takes on an otherworldly appearance when the sun strikes it, a rose glow that seems to come from within the rock itself.
The route into Petra next opens on a broad canyon where the Nabataeans built the bulk of their hidden city. The city includes a 7,000-seat theater, temples, and more royal tombs, all carved in rose-colored rock. Over everything hangs a hush, the silence of a lost world.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Jerry Camarillo Dunn, Jr., has worked with the National Geographic Society for more than 20 years, starting as a staff editor, writer, and columnist at Traveler magazine, then writing travel guides. His latest work is National Geographic Traveler: San Francisco. Dunn’s Smithsonian Guide to Historic America: The Rocky Mountain States has sold more than 100,000 copies. His travel pieces appear in newspapers such as the Chicago Tribune and The Boston Globe. Jerry Dunn's stories have won three Lowell Thomas Awards from the Society of American Travel Writers -- the highest honor in the field. He also wrote and hosted a pilot episode for a travel show produced by WGBH, Boston's public television station.