Petra Rediscovered

Part of the Petra exhibition.

Frederic Church painting

Ruined cities in remote places have always stirred the human imagination. Petra drew the attention of early 19th-century European travelers through the remarkable published accounts of a Swiss explorer named Burckhardt. The city was unmarked on modern maps and--until Burckhardt's visit--had been unseen by outsiders for more than 500 years. Early visitors arrived on camelback and foot to marvel at Petra's grandeur and wonder about its past. Their accounts and images fueled immense curiosity about the city and its origins.

Petra exhibition
© AMNH Photo Studio

Petra's location in the Holy Land of Arabs, Christians, and Jews added enormously to its allure. Some writers identified Petra--wrongly--with ancient Edom, cursed in the Old Testament for having barred Moses and the Israelites. In long-abandoned Petra, many visitors saw powerful confirmation of the prophet Jeremiah's words: "Edom shall be a desolation: every one that goeth by it shall be astonished." Others found the city's enigmatic past and the startling beauty of its natural landscape attraction enough.