[Although Petra is actually located across the border, in Jordan, it is not uncommon for tourists to Israel put Petra on their itineraries. And no wonder! As you will soon find out, Petra is a must for any visitor to Israel.]
Built around the sixth century BCE by the ancient Nabataeans, Petra soon became part of the Nabataean Empire, which stretched all the way to Syria. The city is a stirring example of ancient architecture. A visitor to Petra will, no doubt, be intrigued by the sculptures and palaces that appear to be part of the natural walls of mountains but were actually carved by human hands. Johann Burkhardt, one of the first outsiders to see Petra in modern times (1812) was so moved by the sight that he had to record his thoughts and sketch the monuments.
Although the Seleucid King Antigonus, Emperor Pompey of Rome, and Herod the Great all attempted to conquer Petra, the city remained under Nabataean control until approximately 100 CE, when it was finally conquered by the Romans. Petras last pre-modern contact with the outside world occurred in the twelfth century, when the Crusaders built a fort there. Thereafter, the citys location was known only to a few hundred members of a local Bedouin tribe.
Finally, in the nineteenth century, Burkhardt, a Swiss exporer, overheard Bedouins speaking of a "lost city," while he was traveling through the region. Guessing that the "city" in question was the legendary Petra, Burkhardt tried to find a guide to take him there. He was unsuccessful, however, as the locals had no desire to divulge the location of the ancient city, their secret treasure, to outsiders. Finally, posing as a Christian pilgrim, Burkhardt managed to find a guide. On August 22, 1812, Burkhardt entered Petras siq (the mile-long rift that was the only means of reaching Petra), thus becoming one of the first outsiders to reach Petra in several centuries. Not long afterward, Burkhardt publicized his discovery, and Petra has, ever since, been a major tourist attraction. It was even used as a set for the movie Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Prior to the establishment of diplomatic relations between Jordan and Israel, the lure of Petra was so strong that many Israelis were caught trying to secretly cross the border in an attempt to reach Petra. This, of course, is no longer an issue.