The "Royal Tombs" by David Roberts

Two of the earliest Western visitors to Petra after its discovery by Burckhardt were Léon de Laborde and Louis Linant de Bellefonds in 1828. It was they and particularly Laborde who published his journal of their expedition, and the many sketches they had made. They were followed by several others visitors, but the next artist was David Roberts in March of 1839. He was a Scottish painter who - unlike Laborde and Linant - was making a "commercial trip" to the Middle East. He calculated (correctly) that detailed drawings of Egypt and of the Holy Land would be popular in Britain - do not forget that photography did not yet exist, and the only way people had of appreciating these "far-off" places was to look at the engravings offered.

Here are Roberts' version of the Monastery ("el Deir") together with Laborde's, compared to a modern photo. Neither is perfectly accurate, and both regularly added in people where none had been present. The figures added by Laborde to the painting are too big, which threw it out of scale. Roberts, more dramatically, "removed" a shoulder of rock to show the Royal Tombs in the valley behind, and pushed the mountain back to allow the top of the monument to stand out. You notice that the level of the ground has changed since Laborde was there, and the steps shown in his drawing can no longer be seen. Both Laborde and Roberts "dramatized" the scene, and the monastery appears much more imposing than it seems today.

Roberts did this regularly; the cliffs shown in all of his drawings of Petra are properly steep and impressive, rather more so than in the reality.

All three men were highly impressed with what they discovered. Roberts wrote in his diary on the 7th March 1839 :

"I am more and more astonished and bewildered with this extraordinary city, which must be 5 or 6 miles each way in extent; and every ravine has been inhabited, even to the tops of the mountain. The style of the architecture varies from all that I have ever seen... and I have often thrown my pencil away in despair of ever being able to convey any idea of this extraordinary place..

The valley has been filled with temples, public buildings, triumphal arches and bridges, all of which have been laid prostrate, with the exception of one arch and one temple, and of this temple the portico has fallen. The stream still flows through it as heretofore; the shrubs and wildflowers flourish luxuriantly; every crevice of the rock is filled with them, and the air is perfumed with the most delicious fragrance."

One can dream of seeing Petra for the first time in such conditions - with not a living soul to be seen except one's guide....

Laborde and Linant had a smaller entourage than did Roberts, and for safety's sake they remained together when they worked, drawing the same scenes from slightly different viewpoints.

For the same reason, Roberts always took a couple of his escort with him when he wandered around to do his painting.

In fact although from all of the drawings one has the impression that the site was regularly filled with people, this was not the case. Both Laborde and Roberts mention how completely deserted it was, and when a local was seen they were noticeably disturbed and worried. Both parties left it to their guides to deal with these visitors.

The two paintings of Roberts shown above depict the stream running through the centre of the valley. This stream is practically non-existant today except after very heavy rain, the low rainfall compared to that of the nineteenth century and also the demands of the villagers on the water that does flow, mean that the streambed is almost always dry.

On the left, the Siq entrance by Laborde, in the centre as it is today (the Arch has fallen) and on the right the drawing by David Roberts

Both parties penetrated the Siq up as far as the entrance. This was apparently enough for Roberts: Laborde and Linant went a little further to the north of the Obelisk Tomb where they saw cultivated terraces. They were spotted by some villagers and hastily retreated, but the villagers do not appear to have followed them, since they took their time examining the arch over the entrance and drawing it. Laborde concluded that there was no sign of its having been an aqueduct in the past - although some guides today will tell you that it was.

Roberts has some interesting notes : "Explored the grand entrance to Petra which may be about a mile in length... In spite of the torrents which rush through it, a large caravan consisting of forty camels passed yesterday on their way to Ma'an on the line of the Mecca and Damascus road. The stream in this defile had originally been covered  over, but the force of the torrent has torn up the pavement and the luxuriant foliage of the trees and shrubs almost chokes up the passage... The mountains at one time must have been cultivated to their very summits. The meadows are covered with wildflowers, the groves filled with singing birds. Partridges and wild pigeons are plentiful, and on the high rocks are seen large white eagles."

Following the passage of the camels, Roberts had an easier time in the Siq than the two Frenchmen, who report that it was choked with laurel bushes and that a stream rushed through it, making the narrow canyon very difficult to penetrate. Possibly the caravans had been avoiding Wadi Mousa because of the plague there.

Painting by Laborde Painting by David Roberts Painting by David Roberts Painting by Laborde

All of the visitors were suitably impressed by the Khazneh. They all made several drawings of it and its surroundings from different angles.

Tomb with a Greek inscription Bedouin shooting at the urn on the top of the Khazneh

Laborde and Linant also sketched the "Outer Siq". Laborde shows on the left the "Tomb with a Greek inscription. This tomb fell down in 1847, leaving the lower part on the right hand side, and the only record we have of its appearance and the inscription is this drawing by Laborde. It was presumably the tomb of a young man whose epitaph read "My name is Arrianos, and holy Petra gave me life.... I was the eldest of a loving family, and I was carried off by an illness in my twenty-seventh year. I bitterly regret that I left my old mother to her eternal grief".

Linant's drawing on the right is interesting also: it shows two Bedouin shooting at the urn on the top of the Khazneh. We know that this was a fairly universal practice, the Bedouin being convinced that this urn contained the Pharaoh's treasure. Whether he sketched it from real life, whether he persuaded the Bedouin to "pose" or whether he imagined the scene is something we can only guess!

Both parties installed their quarters in the centre of the "downtown area" : Laborde and Linant in a "commodious tomb" near to the Qasr el Bint; Roberts in his tent (presumably the "gay one" he refers to in his letter to his daughter - see the page on David Roberts in the Holy Land) closer to the Urn Tomb. From there they were able to explore the huge site. The Frenchmen started by sketching the more distant monuments, the entrance to Petra and the Khazneh, the next day in the other direction to the Monastery.  Roberts began with the places closer to his camp, and drew the centre of the town and the Royal Tombs in great detail.

At this time all travellers to Petra entered from the south, avoiding Wadi Mousa (at that time the name given to the whole valley, and not to the village) and the villagers there for as long as possible. When discovered, everybody was hustled away by their guides before any trouble could break out.  They were all disappointed at this, having been promised that they might remain for as long as they wished. Both parties brandished the menace of possibly contact with plague to discourage contact : in fact when Laborde and Linant were there plague was already raging in the village, more than 70 people having died out of a population of 500.

Linant : Qasr el Bint Laborde : Qasr el Bint

View of the paved road and the Qasr el Bint

Laborde : "Uneishu's tomb"

The first sights that they saw were therefore in the lower part of the city : the Qasr el Bint (the "one temple" mentioned by Roberts) attracted a good deal of attention as did the fallen columns of the paved road and the remains of buildings near to the stream.

The Roman soldier's tomb - Laborde's drawing and today The Garden tomb : drawing by Laborde and today

Laborde and Linant were there for longer than Roberts and were able to climb the stairway to the High Place,  drawing the tombs of the Roman Soldier and the Garden Tomb on the way back again. The drawings above are by Laborde. Notice how the Roman soldier's tomb has been rendered more imposing in the painting than in reality.

The Urn Tomb and the Royal Tombs by Linant The theatre drawn from the Outer Siq by Laborde

Linant de Bellefonds spent some time drawing the centre of the town and notably chose different points of view from that of Laborde. The drawing on the left above is by him.

On the 10th March 1839, Roberts tells us that heavy rain fell on the ruins, but that he managed to work in spite of it. This was fortunate, since the next day, their guides insisted that they departed after only five days there. "At eight the camels were loaded and I repeatedly turned back to look at the deserted city. Its strength must have scorned all human means of destruction ... yet its history is almost unknown."

An incident recounted by David Roberts is interesting as is the drawing that he made. He inserted the background of the "Urn Tomb" but we have no special reason to think that this was where it took place.

"One of the fellahin was charged with having stolen an ass, and the three sheikhs were called upon to give judgement in the case. The whole party now seated themselves on the ground and old Abed "opened the court" with great gravity by reciting a part of the introductory chapter of the Koran and what seemed to be some of the Bedouin laws as well; all of which was listened to in silence and with great attention. While speaking he held a drawn sword in his hand. When he concluded, the sword was taken by another speaker, and another, and so on, none attempting to interrupt the holder of the sword. When the decision was given, the fellaheen suddenly and quietly disappeared among the rocks."

Laborde and Linant were also obliged to leave sooner and by a different route from their plans. Instead of visiting Ma'an they contented themselves with a quick trip to Mount Hor (today known as "Jebel Haroun") and they did manage to draw a few places on their way south through Wadi Sabra.

Incidentally later nineteenth century travellers to Petra report that on the back wall of the Khazneh could be seen the signatures of Laborde and Linant - and also of David Roberts. In some ways it is almost a pity that all of these "autographs" have been cleaned away....


This page which I admit is a "mongrel" one was written because it was impossible to show all of the drawings made by the three men on the pages which are "officially" devoted to them, and it seemed such a pity to omit them. Even now, I have only shown about half of them. This is why the commentary on their visits is given very briefly - if you are interested in the background to their travels you can read more in the other pages, through the links given below. I have given there my principal sources for the information on this page.

These men were not of course the only travellers to Petra during the nineteenth century, far from it. I have read more than half a dozen "trip reports" without having tried to read all of them. One might wonder at just how many people were willing to spend a great deal of money to visit a site, which however magnificent and romantic in itself, need a dangerous journey to reach it. The numbers of people today who are determined to visit magnificent, romantic and dangerous sites shows that this attitude still exists! (Backpackers are vying with each other to visit Iraq and Afghanistan among other places.)

Today it is possible to visit Petra in comfort and safety; there is no problem in remaining for a week or more if people wish it. Thousands upon thousands have appreciated the monuments and the setting that Roberts described so lyrically. It is fitting that they should continue to do so.

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List of Narratives of journeys to Petra between 1812 and 1914 by Norman N. Lewis

© Ruth Caswell 204