Petra: Wonder in the Desert


Few places on earth have captivated humanity as much as the ethereal city of Petra, which is located in present-day Jordan. Constructed by the Nabataeans–ancient traders who dominated the export of frankincense, myrrh, balsam, and spices from Arabia to the Greco-Roman world–Petra was a beautiful desert metropolis of theaters, temples, palaces, and immense markets. ‘Rediscovered’ in 1812 by an eccentric Swiss adventurer, Johan Ludwig Burckhardt, Petra is the focus of a new show at the Antikenmuseum Basel in Basel, Switzerland. Opened last fall by HRH Princess Sumaya bint El Hassan of Jordan, Petra: Wonder in the Desert. In the Footsteps of J. L. Burckhardt alias “Sheikh Ibrahim,” showcases nearly 150 artifacts, demonstrating the power, prestige, and sophistication of one of Antiquity’s most alluring cities.

In this exclusive interview, James Blake Wiener of the Ancient History Encyclopedia converses with Mr. Laurent Gorgerat, a Co-Curator of the exhibition, and learns how a mysterious kingdom of former nomads created a luxurious, urban oasis in an inhospitable climate.


Objekt_05_AdlerJW: Mr. Laurent Gorgerat, welcome to the Ancient History Encyclopedia and thank you for speaking to us about the Antikenmuseum Basel’s latest exhibition, Petra: Splendor in the Desert, which has been extended through May 20, 2013.

For those of us who are not familiar with Basel’s links to Petra, could you share with us why this exhibition was planned and organized by the Antikenmuseum Basel?

LG: Thank you very much for giving me the opportunity to speak about Petra: Wonder of the Desert in Basel, Switzerland. In fact, there are many strong and interesting links between Basel and Petra.

Foremost, there is a historic connection due to the fact that this remarkable city–located deep within the Jordanian desert–was rediscovered in 1812 by a Swiss Explorer, Johan Ludwig Burckhardt (1784-1817), who came from an old and very distinguished Basel family. The second link is a scientific one as archaeologists from Basel University have been involved in the archaeological exploration of Petra for many years; from 1988 until 2002, the University of Basel excavated many Nabataean houses in Petra. Today, many of these archaeologists are still involved in archaeological projects in and around Petra. Our exhibition thus commemorates the bicentenary of the rediscovery of Petra by Burckhardt, while showcasing the results of the most recent archaeological projects in Petra.

Objekt_10_LampeThe planning and organization of an exhibition of this size took us about three years to complete, from the first visit to several Museums in Jordan until the opening in the fall 2012. This exhibition could never have been realized without the constant support from the authorities of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan for which we are deeply grateful!

JW: Petra was a sprawling desert metropolis at the beginning of the first millennium CE. Once the capital of the Nabataeans–Arabian middlemen in the caravan trade of luxury goods–Petra is most famous for its architecture, especially its façades, which were cut directly into red sandstone.

Among the 150 artifacts presented within the exhibition, which in your opinion are the highlights? What do they reveal about this city and the culture of the people who called Petra home?

LG: Well, this is quite a difficult question: every object is unique and shows a particular facet of the Nabataeans and how the Nabataeans created their own material culture in a short period of time. From their sedentarization somewhere in the second century BCE, to their apogee in the first century BCE through the first century CE, they were able to create a distinctive material culture in various fields: architecture, sculpture, pottery, metal works, numismatics, etc.Objekt_12_Augenstele

As a result of their economic exchanges with the different cultures of the Hellenistic Near East, they were inspired by varied styles and forms. Not surprisingly, you can find various traditions in Nabataean art. For example, several of the “eye-idols” or “eye-steles” shown in the exhibition testify to Arabian influence, while the numerous architectural reliefs from the city center of Petra reveal a marked influence from Greco-Roman art. This is, in my opinion, the most spectacular fact concerning the Nabataeans: they were able to combine several artistic influences in the creation of their own art.

JW: How were the Nabataeans able to build and manage such a large city in the middle of the desert? How did they irrigate their crops and allocate natural resources?

Objekt_11_SerapisLG: Without the incense trade from southern Arabia, Petra would never have risen. Trade of incense enabled a flourishing urban and material culture. The Nabataeans had the financial resources to create a city in the middle of nowhere thanks to their enormous earnings. We do not know the exact reasons that led the Nabataeans to build the city where it is–this is still a matter of conjecture and debate among scholars. Originally, it was a place that was periodically inhabited by them when they were still nomads. Once they became sedentary, the Nabataeans chose this place to build their capital. This choice necessitated a tremendous amount of work in matters of infrastructure; first of all, they had to solve severe water problems.

On the one hand you have–according to the topographical situation of the city–the imminent danger of flash floods with the possibility of total destruction. To resolve this problem, the Nabataeans created a very sophisticated system of dams, tunnels, and channels. On the other hand, they also had to contend with the fact that there is no spring in the immediate vicinity of Petra. However, there are springs located a few kilometers (several miles) outside of the zone of habitation. With their engineering skills and creativity, the Nabataeans built an ingenious system of aqueducts, channels, water pipes, and cisterns to supply the city with fresh water during the whole year.

JW: Petra was rediscovered in 1812 by a native son of Basel: Johann Ludwig Burckhardt. An explorer and orientalist, Burckhardt traveled across Syria, Egypt, Arabia, the Holy Land, and Scheich_IbrahimNubia.

How does this exhibition capture the passion and personality of such an intrepid adventurer? What insights can your share about his life and his reaction to having rediscovered one of the ancient world’s most celebrated cities?

Objekt_18_StadtpersonifikationLG: The fact that the Burckhardt family still lives in Basel proved very helpful in illustrating the short but tumultuous life of Johan Ludwig Burckhardt. The Burckhardts, in tandem with the Basel History Museum, provided us with many personal objects, books, and letters.

The most fascinating aspect of Burckhardt is, in my point of view, the interest he had in the culture and people of the Near East at a time in which traveling in such parts of the world was not typical (especially not when you were born into an aristocratic family). Mention should also be made of the fact that Burckhardt did not travel to the Near East to discover ancient cities. This was not his first goal; in truth, his initial mission was to travel to Central Africa to explore the unknown parts of the “dark continent” on behalf of the British African Association.

He has very well prepared while traveling, and he even learned Arabic during his three years in Syria. During his journey from Aleppo to Cairo–from where he should have taken a caravan to Timbuktu–he rediscovered Petra. Due to his profound knowledge of ancient Greek and Latin authors, he was able to identify the ruins he visited as Petra, the ancient capital of the Nabataean kingdom. Unfortunately, he never reached his final destination, Mali, as he died tragically of dysentery in Cairo, Egypt.

Objekt_07_ElephantenkoepfeJW: Mr. Gorgerat, in your estimation, why has Petra continued to intrigue and bedazzle us in the 200 years since its rediscovery? Moreover, what is Petra’s legacy in a modern, globalized world?

LG: I think that the fascination with Petra today lies in a combination of its spectacular landscape–with its rocky, desert terrain–and its extraordinarily beautiful ruins. The fact that an originally nomadic society could establish a city in the middle of a desert, resolving all the major problems of infrastructure and creating an outstanding material culture, should arouse our respect and contemplation.

JW: Thank you so much for sharing your knowledge and opinions with our international audience. We so appreciate your time and consideration, Mr. Gorgerat. We hope to hear from you again with regard to the Antikenmuseum Basel’s next exhibition, How to be a Man: The Strong Sex in Antiquity, opening this fall.

LG: Once again, thank you very much for the opportunity to talk about Petra and our exhibition, James, and I wish all the best to the Ancient History Encyclopedia!

Petra: Wonder in the Desert. In the Footsteps of J. L. Burckhardt alias “Sheikh Ibrahim,” is on show at the Antikenmuseum Basel in Basel, Switzerland until May 20, 2013. This fall, it will be exhibited in Amman, Jordan. The Antikenmuseum Basel, located in the center of the old city of Basel, is the only Swiss museum devoted exclusively to the arts and cultures of the ancient Mediterranean.

Photo Credits:

  1. Petra, Jordan: The rock of Fassade and of “ed-Deir.” Andreas Voegelin, Antikenmuseum Basel.
  2. Petra, Jordan: Terrace with porticoes of the “Great Temple.” Andreas Voegelin, Antikenmuseum Basel.
  3. Architectural relief of an eagle and beam from Petra, Jordan. Limestone, 1st Century CE, (Amman, Archaeological Museum of Jordan).
  4. Lamp with the signs of the zodiac from Petra, Jordan. Clay, Temple of the Winged Lions, 1st Century CE, (Amman, Archaeological Museum of Jordan).
  5. Relief (ex-voto) with inscription, “The Goddess of Haiyan, Son of Nayibat.” from Petra, Jordan. Sandstone, in southern Arabian style, 1st Century CE, (Petra, Archaeological Museum).
  6. Bust of the Egyptian god, Serapis, from Petra, Jordan. Bronze, Temple of the Winged Lions, 1st Century CE, (Petra, Archaeological Museum).
  7. “Scheich Ibrahim,” Johann Ludwig Burckhardt alias “Cheikh Ibrahim” ©Universitätsbibliothek Basel, Switzerland.
  8. A woman wearing a crown in the form of wall, a personification of a city, from Amman, Jordan. Marble, end of the 2nd Century CE (Amman, Citadel Museum).
  9. Capital decorated by the heads of elephants from the “Great Temple” of Petra, Jordan. Limestone, 1st Century CE, (Petra, Archaeological Museum).

LaurentMr. Laurent Gorgerat studied classical archaeology, Egyptology, and ancient history at the University of Basel before joining a Swiss-Liechtensteiner archaeological excavation team from 1998-2002. From 2008 until 2010, Laurent participated in a Franco-German sponsored excavation of Petra and its environs. He was the Co-Director of the International Aslah Project (IAP) in Petra, Jordan from 2010-2012 and is now a Curator in the Ancient Near East Department at the Antikenmuseum Basel.

James Blake Wiener is the Communications Director of the Ancient History Encyclopedia, providing a continuous listing of must-read articles, exciting museum exhibitions, and interviews with experts in the field. Trained as a historian and researcher, and previously a professor of history, James is also a freelance writer who is keenly interested in cross-cultural exchange. Committed to fostering increased awareness of the ancient world, James welcomes you to the Ancient History Encyclopedia, and hopes that you find his news releases and interviews to be “illuminating.”

All images featured in this interview have been attributed to their respective owners. Images lent to the Ancient History Encyclopedia, by Mr. Laurent Gorgerat and the Antikenmuseum Basel, have been done so as a courtesy for the purposes of this interview and are copyrighted. Special thanks is rendered to Mr. Jan van der Crabben for helping arrange this interview. Translation of photo captions from French to English was completed by Mr. James Blake Wiener. The views presented here are not necessarily those of the Ancient History Encyclopedia. All rights reserved. © AHE 2013. Please contact us for rights to republication.

Filed under: Interviews


James Blake Wiener is the Communications Director at Ancient History Encyclopedia. Trained as a historian and researcher, and previously a professor, James is chiefly interested in cross-cultural exchange, world history, and international relations. Aside from his work at AHE, James is an avid Arabist, devotee of romance languages (French, Portuguese, and Spanish), reggaetoñero, and fan of ice hockey.