El Khasne

Selections from the Nasher Museum of Art
August 1, 2009

El Khasne, 1842-44, by David Roberts, Scotland. Color lithograph. 23½ x 17 inches.

The Middle East is often described as the Holy Land, being the birthplace of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. It features many of the revered sites from religious scriptural traditions—Sinai, Nazareth, Jericho, Bethlehem, and Jerusalem—that have become an integral part of modern religious, cultural, and political identities.

David Roberts (1796-1864) of Scotland was one of the first major European artists to go to the region after it had been made accessible to Europeans following Napoleon's expeditions. Roberts traveled in 1838-39 from Egypt to Sinai, then went on to what is now Jordan and Galilee, Jerusalem, and other Christian sites. He completed his journey among the ancient Roman ruins in Lebanon.

Enduring the rigors of the land and the climate, Roberts recorded the historical sites along his route, producing hundreds of drawings with notes on light, color, local customs, and dress. After he returned to London, his sketches, now mostly lost, became the basis for 125 color lithographs by the printmaker Louis Haghe. They were published from 1842 to 1844 as The Holy Land, Syria, Idumea, Arabia, Egypt, and Nubia, giving the general public its first glimpse of the biblical landscape and monuments previously known only by verbal descriptions. The publication enjoyed immense popularity in Europe and the U.S.

The ancient site of Petra, in modern-day Jordan, had only been rediscovered in 1812 and was one of the first sites visited by Roberts. In antiquity, Petra was at the juncture of the spice-trade routes that connected the various cities of Syria with the Red Sea and sites between the Mediterranean and Gaza. At its height under the ancient Nabateans, an Arab tribe, Petra had 30,000 residents.

The embedded, rock-cut structure commonly known as El Khasne (the treasury), with its richly ornate façade (seen here), was built as a royal tomb in the first century CE. The Nabateans were conquered by the Roman emperor Trajan in 106 CE, and Petra was absorbed into the Roman Empire.

Under Roman rule, trade routes shifted elsewhere, and the city declined. It was almost completely abandoned after an earthquake in 551, although it was a Crusader outpost in the twelfth century. Recently it was popularized in the film Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Last Crusade.

An exhibition of the complete lithographs after Roberts' images of the Middle East, "David Roberts and the Holy Land," is on view at the Nasher through November 29.

The Nasher Museum of Art acknowledges the support of Anita and John A. Schwarz III '56, Mr. and Mrs. Andrew Major, Bobbie and Michael Wilsey, and The Mary Duke Biddle Foundation in the acquisition of the David Roberts prints, in 1996.