May 18, 2009

Petra: Rediscovery, Paintings and Repair
Umm Sayhun, Jordan

The first of the modern cartographers was the self-proclaimed rediscoverer of Petra, Swiss adventurer-scholar Johann Ludwig Burckhardt. On August 22, 1812, Burckhardt, traveling in disguise as a religious pilgrim, persuaded the Bedouin inhabitants of the small settlement of El-Ji (now Wadi Musa) to guide him through the Siq and into the ancient site.

His guides became suspicious and Burckhardt hurriedly left the area, but observed enough around him to produce a map—and the notation in his journal that he'd rediscovered Petra (although his official report on it was not published in London until 1822, five years after his death from dysentery in Egypt).

In reality, Petra was never actually lost, although it had been somewhat misplaced since the days of the early Islamic geographers and its appearance on the famous Tabula Peutingeriana.

The Tabula Peutingeriana is the only known surviving map of the Roman road network. It covers Europe, parts of Asia (Persia, India) and North Africa. The original is a unique copy that was last revised in the fourth or early fifth century.

The news of the site's existence quickly circulated in informed circles, and adventurous European travelers began seeking it out as early as the 1820s and 30s.

The iconic drawings and watercolor paintings produced by Scottish painter David Roberts can be found for sale everywhere in and around Petra. The artist set sail for Egypt in August 1838 with the intent to produce drawings that he could later use as the basis for the paintings and lithographs to sell to the public. Egypt was very much in vogue at this time, and travelers, collectors and lovers of antiquities were keen to buy works inspired by the East or depicting the great monuments of ancient Egypt.

Roberts made a long tour in Egypt, Nubia, the Sinai, the Holy Land, Jordan, and Lebanon. And in March of 1839, he sketched Petra.

During this period all travelers to Petra entered it avoiding Wadi Musa (at that time the name given to the whole valley, and not to the village) and the Bedouin villagers there for as long as possible. When discovered, everybody was hustled away by their guides before any trouble could break out.

Petra's Treasury, David Roberts 1839

For a long time I thought that Roberts' lithographs of Petra's Treasury were overly stylized—particularly the fallen pillar of the fa├žade and broken fragments on the ground. But what I didn't realize until I started researching deeper into his illustrations was that these sketches were much more accurate than I had imagined.

Unbeknownst to the vast majority of today's visitors, the pillars of Petra's treasury—particularly the third column from the left—were restored in the 1960s! And that yes, when Western visitors arrived in the 19th century a stream did in fact run from the Siq across the plaza. It has since been diverted for the safety and convenience of tourists and preservation of the site.

Note: For an excellent sampling of 19th-century sketches and watercolor works from the area, look here: Early Views of Petra

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