Petra in the Accounts of Western Travelers: Selected Narratives from the Nineteenth Century

Review by David J Breeze

John William Burgon’s description of Petra as ‘the rose-red city, half as old as time’ dates to 1845, well within the timeframe covered in this book. It remains an apt statement, underlined by the choice of the Treasury in Petra as the location of Indiana Jones’ encounter with a crusader knight. Yet to describe Petra as ‘rediscovered by Westerners’, as is often said, is to ignore the 12th-century crusader castle overlooking the ancient city.

Even so, from that time into the 19th century, the city was lost to Western scholarship, as David Kennedy states in his preface. The aim of the authors is to collect and publish selected 19th-century narratives, from that of Burckhardt in 1812 – he was a mere 27 years of age at the time – to Lowth’s in 1851, and each entry is provided with bibliographical references. These narratives were chosen to ‘reflect the social, political, economic, and environmental situations of the region at that time’. In this, the authors have so achieved their aims that this reviewer was almost more taken with these elements of the narratives than the accounts of the archaeological remains. This is in part due to the contrast the narratives provide between the attitude of the local inhabitants to travellers in the 19th century and the welcome accorded to visitors today.

What is impressive about these earlier travellers is that they did their homework, reading the accounts of their predecessors. Some, unsurprisingly, were keen to relate the scenes before them to biblical accounts, and the names they ascribed to certain sites, such as Aaron’s Tomb and Wadi Musa (that is, Moses), survive, as do many of the names they gave to the tombs. They can be infuriating in their lack of detailed descriptions despite the florid language used, not least by Lord Castlereagh, visiting in 1842. Many described their awe at seeing the temple (as the Treasury was then known) exactly as today’s visitors. This did not stop several from leaving their names carved into the back wall of the building.

The paintings by Laborde in 1828, here reproduced in black and white, not only offer buildings and views recognisable today, but also direct our attention to the amount of restoration/conservation that has been undertaken since, in particular to Qasr al-Bint.

One traveller noted that his predecessor produced a map but with no north point. This leads to my only complaint: there is no map in this book. This reader would certainly welcome help with locating the sites described in the wadi and further afield. That aside, the authors have brought into the orbit of today’s scholarship narratives otherwise lost in dusty archives and libraries, and for that everyone interested in Petra is grateful.

Petra in the Accounts of Western Travelers: selected narratives from the nineteenth century
Fawzi Abudanah and Saad Twaissi
Privately published
$20 ISBN 978-9957676490