Lightning Strikes Twice: Jean-Louis Burckhardt

Within the space of two weeks I’ve seen two UNESCO World Heritage sites, both of which had been lost to the world for over 500 years until being “rediscovered”: the giant tombs of Ramses II at Abu Simbel in southern Egypt and the exquisite carved sandstone city of Petra in southern Jordan. Both are amazing places but what is more amazing is that that both were stumbled upon by the same European. Jean-Louis Burckhardt, a Swiss explorer rediscovered Petra and Abu Simbel, in 1812 and 1813 respectively, while on a long quest to find the source of the Niger River. Talk about lightning striking twice. That’s like Hiram Bingham, a year after climbing up to Machu Picchu in 1911, finding himself at Chichen Itza in Mexico’s Yucatan or clearing the Mayan jungle to find Guatemala’s Tikal.

I visited Petra on a day trip from Dahab while my kids were getting their diving certification and my wife was exploring Sinai's famous "Blue Hole" dive site. Petra was the ancient city of the Nabateans, Arabs who controlled the frankincense trade routes around the time of Christ. The city was carved into the rosy, reddish sandstone sometime in the 6th century B.C and is reknown for its rock cut architecture and water conduit system. In 2007 Petra was chosen as one of the New Seven Wonders of the World (along with Rome’s Coliseum, Peru’s Machu Picchu, India's Taj Mahal, Rio de Janiero’s Christ the Redeemer, Mexico’s Chichen Itza and China’s Great Wall) and it has been a World Heritage Site since 1985. Petra was also chosen by the BBC as one of “the 40 places you have to see before you die.” For me, arriving at the amazing "Treasury" edifice after walking a narrow gorge for two kilometers was a moment straight out of the movie "Planet of the Apes." Like finding the New York Stock Exchange buried under 2,000 years of hardened sand.

Just under two weeks ago all of us took the three hour police convoy from Aswan to Abu Simbel in southern Egypt near the Sudanese border. The Abu Simbel temples are two massive cut rock temples in Nubia on the western bank of Lake Nasser. The temples were carved out of a mountainside in the 13th century BC by Ramses II as lasting monuments to himself and his queen Nefertari as well as to commemorate his victory at the Battle of Kadesh. In the mid 1960’s, the temples were moved when authorities realized that the construction of the new Aswan High Dam would completely submerge them. In an amazing feat of engineering and with much financial assistance from nations around the world, the temple was cut into giant blocks and moved, one at a time, 65 meters higher and 200 meters back from the Nile river. We looked closely and could see the places where the rock was cut along with the numbers that aided their re-positioning. Abu Simbel remains one of the top tourist sites in Egypt, along with the Sphinx and Great Pyramids at Giza and Luxor’s Temple of Karnak. It has been a World heritage site since 1979 .

Jean-LouisBurckhardt was born in Lausanne, Switzerland in 1874 and studied in Germany and England before the African Association asked him to launch an expedition to find the source of the Niger River. Believing that this cause would be facilitated by speaking Arabic and understanding Islamic law, he planned to spend two years in the Middle East prior to striking out in northern Africa. While living in Syria, he changed his name to Sheikh Ibrahim ibn Abdallah to facilitate his cover as a devout Muslim.

Setting out for Egypt in 1812, Burckhardt was robbed many times in the desert and had to ask his London employers to send money several times. While in what is now southern Jordan, Burckhardt was lured by the tales of a lost city in that region known only to the local Arabs. He hired a guide and, under the pretenses of sacrificing a goat at the nearby tomb of Aaron, was led into the lost city via the two-kilometer long, extremely narrow gorge known as the siq. Burckhardt wrote in his diary, "The precipices…are about eighty feet in height; in many places the opening between them at the top is less than at the bottom and the sky is not visible from below." Finally they emerged into the sunlight and through dazzled eyes Burckhardt stared with amazement at what lay before him: a towering mausoleum some 90 feet high carved into the face of an enormous sandstone cliff. Not wanting to arouse suspicions from his guide, he moved on to the tomb of Aaron and performed the goat sacrifice.

Unconcerned with the notoriety gained from his rediscovery of Petra, he continued on to Egypt, still intent on finding the source of the Niger River. While in Nubia the following year, he was distracted again by stories of nearby temples that had been around since antiquity. While heading up the Nile, he discovered the top frieze of the temple of Abu Simbel, the great majority of it covered by sand. He mentioned this to an Italian explorer named Giovanni Belzoni, who later returned to excavate the temple. By this time Burckhardt was ailing and had to return to Cairo, not before making a pilgrimage to Mecca disguised as a beggar. Clearly, his understanding of Arabic and Islamic culture helped him find things that other westerners could not. He died of dysentery in Cairo in 1817 at the age of 33. He never even got close to the Niger River.

Inspired by Burckhardt’s rediscovery of Petra, John William Burgon wrote a poem entitled Petra, which won the Newdigate Prize in 1845:

It seems no work of Man's creative hand,
by labour wrought as wavering fancy planned;
But from the rock as if by magic grown,
eternal, silent, beautiful, alone!
Not virgin-white like that old Doric shrine,
where erst Athena held her rites divine;
Not saintly-grey, like many a minster fane,
that crowns the hill and consecrates the plain;
But rose-red as if the blush of dawn,
that first beheld them were not yet withdrawn;
The hues of youth upon a brow of woe,
which Man deemed old two thousand years ago,
match me such marvel save in Eastern clime,
a rose-red city half as old as time.

1 comment:

  1. The Middle East is one of my fave parts of the world. So full of amazing finds (and people) - even today.