J L Burckhardt aka Sheikh Ibrahim, Nabatean Eye stele
J L Burckhardt aka Sheikh Ibrahim, Nabatean Eye stele from the Temple of the Winged Lions

A new exhibition opens tomorrow at Basel’s AntikenMuseumPetra.  Miracle in the Desert. In the footsteps of J L Burckhardt, alias Sheikh Ibrahim. It celebrates both the bicentenary of the Swiss explorer’s rediscovery of the ancient Nabatean capital of Petra, and recent work there by Swiss archeologists.  The balsamic aroma of frankincense accompanies visitors through the dimly lit space. For me, the Basel exhibition hits all the right notes.

It also prompts me to pull out my photo album for another look. When I visited Jordan some months ago, I found Petra well worth all the hype—it is the country’s number one tourist attraction—and the place left me with indelible memories to boot.

The Siq—a walk back in time

Walking through the Siq

Petra’s Siq wields its magic for visitors today, as it did for the fictional Indiana Jones and the real Burckhardt before him.

Nabatean water channels follow the curve of rock walls, some of them marked with prayer niches. Roman paving stones beneath a sandy floor echo with the clop of horses’ hooves. The cooling dim recesses of the Siq seem very far from the shimmering desert heat you’ve left behind.

Nowadays it is possible to take a horse-drawn calèche through the Siq, but the best way is to go slowly, on foot.


Grandeur and commerce

The Treasury
Entering the city, the power of nature yields to the power of man, just as the Nabateans intended.

No matter how many times you’ve seen the image in a photograph or a Spielberg film, it is impossible to feel anything other than awe—just like long-ago ambassadors arriving for the first time from Rome, Athens, Baghdad or Cairo.

Siq entrance to the city
Tourists are dwarfed by the deep cleft of the Siq

Today, vendors hawk their wares as visitors pour through the Siq entrance in waves. Donkeys bray, a generator throbs and camels snort.  It can be disconcerting in the midst of the cacophony of languages—the vendors try them all, to see which one fits—to stay with first impressions.

Persevere, though, and it can be done! When I visited, my Bedouin tour guide advised me to “Start early. Use your feet. Take your time.” It was good advice. Walk far enough and you’ll leave most of the day-trippers behind.

Varied cultural influences, significant accomplishments

The so-called Great Temple, Petra
The so-called Great Temple in the heart of Petra

From the Byzantine Church on a hill, it is possible to see the influences—Greek, Roman, Egyptian and others—which the Nabateans drew from varied cultural and religious traditions and made their own.

The Monastery

Many visitors don’t climb the 800 steps to the most imposing façade at Petra, al-Deir, popularly known as “the Monastery”, and that is a shame. Beyond, Wadi Araba stretches toward Israel; a café in a cave across from the tomb offers minty lemon juice as a reward for the hour’s climb. Built late in the period of Nabatean power, the high plateau is a wonderful place to contemplate all you’ve seen in the valley below.

Elephant capital, Petra
Elephant capital from the forecourt of the Great Temple, Petra

Burckhardt knew he was onto something big, and recent archeological investigations are his best validation. The Basel exhibition shines a light on the significant cultural, architectural and technological accomplishments of the Nabateans.

Garlands image, Petra
Frieze with Cupids and festoons, from a public building in Petra

Historians and archeologists consider that the Nabateans went from a purely nomadic lifestyle to that of settled traders in a remarkably short time. The exhibition is a one-time opportunity to view a stunning a collection of precious objects brought together, and to Switzerland, from museums across Jordan. It also provides a chance for a look at the Swiss teams’ excavations at ez-Zantur and the Soldier Tomb complex in Wadi Farasa, through video and virtual reality tours.

The exhibition is a joint production of Basel’s AntikenMuseum and The Jordan Museum in Amman. Alas, explanations are all in German and French only. For background in English, and an excellent telling of the exhibition’s backstory, I highly recommend Spiegel Online’s ‘Atlantis in the Sand’: Unlocking the Mysteries of Petra by Matthias Schulz.

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