By Amara Thornton
Petra had captured the public's imagination for over a century before the Petra expedition of 1929. The man widely credited with first describing Petra for Western readers was the Swiss traveller and explorer Johann Ludwig
Burckhardt, whose journeys (in disguise) around the Middle East were funded by Joseph Banks. Burckhardt's journey to Petra was included in his 1822 book Travels in Syria and the Holy Land.
Artist David Roberts went to Petra in the 1830s, creating afterwards stunning depictions of the site which were published in the three volume work The Holy Land, Syria, Idumea, Arabia. Influenced by Roberts' vision, English poet John William Burgon wrote "Petra" in 1845; its memorable line "a rose red city, half as old as time" is usually quoted or referenced in popular coverage of the site.
Author and reformer Harriet Martineau also went to Petra in the 1840s; her visit to the site became part of local folklore, which was shared with Tawfiq Canaan during his conversations with Petra's locals in 1929. Her account of the journey there, and the time spent at Petra, was published in her book Eastern Life, Past and Present in 1848. Edward Lear, a popular artist and humour writer, also went to Petra in the 1850s. His pictures of the site have recently been published, but a description of his journey there was posthumously printed in Macmillan's Magazine in 1897.
Petra was a tourist destination from the mid-19th century onward, and many travellers who went there (despite the difficulties of the journey), wrote about it. Companies such as Thomas Cook conducted Western travellers to Petra, and the site featured in English-language guidebooks issued by Cooks, John Murray and Baedeker. Those who went often gave public lectures about their travels, accounts of which were frequently published in local newspapers.
During the First World War a joint German-Turkish military unit, the Deutsch-Turkishes Denkmalshutzkommando, led by archaeologist-turned-officer Theodor Wiegand and a company of architects, archaeologists and orientalists, was based for a few weeks at Petra in December 1916. The fruits of their efforts were published in German in 1921. By spring 1918, Thomas Edward Lawrence ("Lawrence of Arabia") an archaeologist who had worked in wartime military intelligence, was part of military movements in the area, participating in the destruction of parts of the Hejaz Railway, which ran through Ma'an, close to Petra.
One of the British soldiers commanding Egyptian Army Camel Corps in Southern Palestine during this time was Colonel Frederick Gerard Peake (later to be of much help to Agnes Conway and George Horsfield); he took the opportunity to visit Petra while stationed in the area. His biographer later recorded he remembered this trip
…not only because it was the first of so many he made afterwards, but more particularly because of the wonderful peace and quietness of the long-deserted city in a world torn with war and the noise of battle."
'Lawrence of Arabia''s subsequent notoriety and celebrity, fuelled by Lowell Thomas's cinematic travelogue "With Allenby in Palestine and Lawrence in Arabia", drew attention to the site. Thomas's film featured Petra; it was screened across the UK in the early 1920s and reviewed widely in newspapers.
Alexander Kennedy's sojourn at Petra in 1924 and 1925 had made the headlines too. Through the offices of British Resident in Transjordan Harry St John Philby, Kennedy had obtained official permission from Transjordan's Emir Abdullah to stay on site (Abdullah had established a camp at Petra). Philby contributed the first contextual chapter to Kennedy's Petra, which would, having been published by Country Life, presumably have been marketed to readers of Country Life's noted magazine.
Birmingham-born artist David Bomberg travelled to Petra during this period too; his paintings of the site were exhibited in the UK on his return. Bomberg participated in a BBC radio broadcast on his experiences at Petra with writer and traveller Beatrice Erskine (Mrs Steuart Erskine, nee Strong), whose book Vanished Cities of Arabia featuring Petra, was published in 1925, with illustrations by another artist (and archaeologist), George Henry Benton Fletcher. Erskine's Trans-Jordan also recorded her sojourn in Petra. Bomberg's patrons included the Mond family (one of whom, Henry Mond, provided the funding for the 1929 Petra expedition). Agnes Conway went to see an exhibition of Bomberg's work before departing for Petra.
Cavendish, R. 2012. The Discovery of Petra. History Today 62 (8). 8 August.
Erskine, B [Mrs Steuart Erskine]. 1924. Trans-jordan: some impressions. London: Ernest Benn Ltd.
Erskine, B. [Mrs Steuart Erskine] 1925. The Vanished Cities of Arabia. London: Hutchinson & Co.
Jarvis, C. S. 1942. Arab Command: The Biography of Colonel F. G. Peake Pasha. London: Hutchinson & Co.
Kennedy, A. 1925. Petra: Its History and Monuments. London: Country Life.
BBC Genome. Mr David Bomberg and Mrs Steuart Erskine: The Ancient City of Petra.