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In 1812, Swiss scholar John Lewis Burckhardt arrives in Hama, Syria disguised as a Damascus native named Sheik Ibraham to begin his Royal Society of England commission to explore ancient sites named in the Bible and Roman literature. Despite studying the Koran and Arabic language culture, Burckhardt has concerns about his voyage through the "forbidden desert," knowing that foreigners are considered threatening infidels. With guide Abdel Karim, Burckhardt sets off across the desolate Syrian desert for the ancient city of Palmyra. During four days of journeying, Burckhardt dumps cigar ashes onto the desert floor, prompting a suspicious Karim to warn him that the breach is punishable by beating. Reaching Palmyra, Burckhardt walks in awe through the remains of the Roman Empire trading city. As Burckhardt takes notes in his journal about the inscriptions on the amphitheatre, mausoleum and other ruins, he hides the journal from Karim, who, as an Arab, will believe his writing is an attempt to steal the sacred site. In his notes, Burckhardt recounts the history of Palmyra: Queen Zenobia dared to confront Roman Emperor Aurelian, despite her small armies. Although Palmyra fell to Rome, the city is still littered with monuments to Zenobia's courageous attempt. That evening, Burckhardt finds an ancient coin bearing Zenobia's portrait. As they continue their journey, Burckhardt's journal falls to the ground, causing villagers to accuse him of trying to steal the treasures of Palmyra. Burckhardt and Karim leave immediately for Damascus, where Burckhardt has an audience with the pasha, who promises secrecy and assistance for Burckhardt's mission. After joining a caravan traveling south on horseback to Gerasa, Burckhardt and Karim are ambushed by robbers. Most of the caravan are shot and killed; however, Burckhardt escapes to a nearby village where strangers protect him. In the village, men are judged by how well they entertain visitors and thus vie to show their hospitality to the stranger with gifts of lamb and coffee. Burckhardt and his new guide, Yussuf, then head west towards Baalbek, one of oldest sites in the world. The colossal architecture is made from stones quarried in Egypt and the city's walls are built with stones over 14 feet high, 11 feet thick and 60 feet in long. Although Burckhardt hides his compass, an instrument that natives would consider magic, Burckhardt's guides accuse him of stealing treasure when they reach Gerasa. Desperate to make a record of the site, Burckhardt holds the natives off with his gun while he investigates the city's forum. Soon after, Burckhardt flees to a Bedouin camp where the chief greets him warmly and invites him to signal the start of their camel race. With the help of two Bedouin guides, Burckhardt continues his expedition, but is ambushed by robbers brandishing knives. The three escape serious harm and continue on to Wadi Musa, the Valley of Moses, where villagers tell of a lost city under the spell of demons. Deciding to investigate further, Burckhardt takes a guide and discovers magnificent buildings carved in the sandstone of a deep canyon. The city of rock, or Petra, was the dwelling place of the early Nabateaans, an Arab tribe who made the city their capital and a center for spice trade. Burckhardt wanders in the ruins of tombs, temples and the amphitheatre, which are also carved from the rock. Ambushed again by robbers, Burckhardt is taken hostage and his guide is killed. Determined to share his discoveries with the world, Burckhardt escapes on horseback at nightfall and eludes his capturors during the ensuing chase. Deciding he must escape the territory and return home with his findings, Burckhardt sets out for Egypt to begin his trip home.