200 years and counting…

Our guest blogger visits the Rose City of Petra on a very special day…

It was cold, at the top of the mountain. Not quite sunset, but getting that way. A whirlpool wind was slicing around the crags, sucking at the withered, clinging trees. This was a place of the spirit, where people took their chisels and levelled the summit to a platform, shaping the rock to form a sacrificial dais gazing out over an infinite view of mist and jagged horizons. I stayed for a while, wedging myself into a crack to stop the grinning wind easing me into the abyss, remembering stories and histories of the people who used to live here, in Petra.

Then, on the way down, Tooba appeared from behind a crag, twinkle-eyed, wiry, heading home after her day on the mountain, playing on a tin whistle to please herself. She saw me and stopped; I urged her to continue. We walked down the mountain together.

Today is a special day. It was exactly 200 years ago, on August 22nd 1812, that Jean Louis Burckhardt became the first outsider to see Petra since the Crusades.

Burckhardt, a Swiss adventurer, was on his way to Cairo, hired by British financiers to reach Timbuktu and find the source of the River Niger. After toughening himself up by sleeping on the ground and eating only vegetables, he departed England in 1809 at the age of 24, spending two years in Aleppo perfecting his Arabic under the pseudonym “Sheikh Ibrahim”.By August 1812 he was passing through the wild country south of the great Crusader fortress at Karak, when he detoured to investigate rumours of fabulous antiquities. He arrived at the camp of the Liyathneh tribe, and requested permission to fulfil a vow of sacrifice at the shrine of the Prophet Haroun – Aaron, brother of Moses – which lay nearby. The tribesmen let the stranger pass, and Burckhardt walked with his guide down the hill and into the narrow Siq gorge, scribbling notes and sketches of the monuments as he went.

They reached the foot of Mount Aaron as dusk was falling, made the sacrifice and turned back. As Burckhardt later wrote: “It appears very probable that the ruins are of ancient Petra… a place which no European traveller has ever visited.” The explorer made it to Cairo, but in 1817, shortly before he was due to depart for the Sahara, Burckhardt contracted dysentery and died. He was forty days short of his 33rd birthday. Throughout his travels Burckhardt had managed to send his diaries back to London – and they were published in 1822 to wild acclaim, sparking a worldwide resurgence of interest in Petra which continues to this day.

But for the bedouin, of course, the lost city of Petra was never lost. They have known it for a thousand years or more.

The Liyathneh today control Petra’s hotel and restaurant trade. Ask your hotel manager to tell you more about the tribal history. At Little Petra, the Ammarin tribe have built a campsite and small museum, to showcase their culture. Stay there if you can: it is one of Petra’s most atmospheric corners.

Royal Tombs of Petra, Jordan
Royal Tombs of Petra, Jordan

But their neighbours the Bdul, one of Jordan’s poorest tribes, tell another story of loss. In 1968 a US government-sponsored master plan recommended they be moved out of Petra’s caves and tombs, ostensibly to protect the site from damage. Despite considerable resistance, by the 1980s they had all gone, the change in community life recounted touchingly in Married To A Bedouin by Marguerite van Geldermalsen, a beautiful evocation of a life spent in Petra. Today the Bdul work within Petra but commute each evening – like Tooba, who piped for me so beautifully – back to their purpose-built village overlooking the site. Burckhardt’s adventure exactly 200 years ago helped the outside world to rediscover Petra – but it also helped the Bdul, at least, to lose it. Today is a great PR day for Jordan. But apologies to the tourist board, and to Mr Burckhardt: without the Bdul, Petra would be just another dead site, all its meaning and resonance imposed from outside by archaeologists and historians.

Instead, Petra is alive. The Bdul make the place special. Today is dedicated to them.

Matthew Teller is a freelance journalist and travel writer, specialising in the Middle East. He’s always been a writer: travel came later. His first big adventure was a family holiday to Jerusalem aged 11 – even today, the smell of cumin takes him straight back there. That was when he saw the desert for the first time. Since then, he’s lived and worked around the Middle East, had dinner with the Queen, been thrown off a train on the Polish-German border for having no shoes, lived in a self-built shack on the beach at Tel Aviv, sampled warm milk fresh from the camel in Saudi Arabia, driven across the US, hitch-hiked from Morocco to Paris in 22 hours straight, been blessed while sitting on a holy shaking wall in the Punjab and had many other adventures of the kind travel writers always boast about. He lives in the UK and tries to keep his website matthewteller.com and his blog quitealone.com reasonably up to date.

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