Petra - Lost City of Stone:
Museums Connect With Jordan

by Karen Misuraca

While today's headlines portray the Middle East as a battleground, North American museums have recently forged a cultural liaison with the country of Jordan, a peaceable kingdom among its fractious neighbors.

The Cincinnati Art Museum and the American Museum of Natural History in New York followed by museums in Calgary and Ottawa leapt at the chance to bring together, for the first time since their discovery, an extensive collection of artifacts from Petra, one of the wondrous, and still existing, sites of the ancient world. In its magnificence, mystery and classical beauty, Petra: Lost City of Stone, is a major exhibition of treasures that transcend time and todays political uproars.

The Rose-Red City
A UNESCO World Heritage site, often called the rose-red city, Petra is a vast complex of temples, tombs, and Greco-Roman-inspired architecture carved into the red sandstone of the remote al-Sharah Mountains in southern Jordan. A natural fortress on camel caravan routes, Petra was settled by the Nabateans in about 300 B.C. As traders of frankincense and myrrh, perfumes and spices; African ivory, Chinese silk and semi-precious stones, for about four hundred years they dominated the caravan routes, from Damascus in the north to Red Sea ports, through the Negev desert and into the Sinai to the west, as far as the western edge of the Nile delta. As seen in the museum exhibit and in the huge city,itself, the Nabateans prospered greatly. At the height of their civilization, Petra was home to a population of 30,000 people, who sheltered and supplied caravans of up to 2,500 camels and their drivers.

Borrowing architectural style from Hellenistic and Roman cultures, the Nabatu, as they were called in antiquity, rock-cut into the vibrantly-colored mountainsides an astonishing array of columns, arches, obelisks, niches and altars, and whole mountainsides of palaces. Forcibly drawn into the Roman Empire by the Emperor Trajan, they filled their city with sumptuous Greco-Roman style decorations. The remains of the triumphal, triple-arched Temenos Gate leads to a marble-slabbed street lined by Roman columns and a partially excavated marketplace. Emerging from the bedrock, a 6,000-seat amphitheater is ringed with sepulchers and heralded by a quartet of columns. Standing in the flood of history like a ghost is a huge Byzantine church with mosaic floors, just across the pathway from the ruined Gates of the Winged Lions, which once guarded a temple dedicated to the Nabatean god, Dushara.

Carved into million-year-old oceans of sandstone rippling with shell-pink and apricot ribbons, the elaborate facades appear to pulse in striations of ochre and canary yellow, and veins of blood-red. Some of the many-hued architectural forms are as sharply defined today as when they were carved, while others are slowly melting back into the mountains, mellowed by the rains of centuries. Visitors are irresistibly drawn to touch the glowing walls and the worn, aging doorways and ledges where funereal urns and statuary once stoodpriceless pieces that are now in the museum exhibition.

Major Exhibition
Among the more than 200 objects in the exhibition are depictions of Atargatis, the Nabatu goddess of fertility. Topped by an eagle and adorned by flowers in one sculpture, and surrounded by signs of the Zodiac in another, like many of the other likenesses discovered, the goddess sports a long, voluptuous head of curly hair. A 22-inch-tall, winged head of Hermes-Mercury; a limestone bust of the sun god Helios from a Doric frieze; and a languid, grape leaf-garlanded, head of Dushara-Dionysus are voluptuously rendered with full lips, large eyes and streaming hair. From the Temple of the Winged Lions, on view are a rare bronze bust of Dushara, and a nearly life-size bronze statue of Artemis who once stood on the public square during the Roman era.

Much remains of the massive Great Temple, both at Petra and in the exhibit. Unearthed from the site in 1993, sculpted masks and bronze plaques recall the wealth and the highly-evolved artistry of the Nabatu and their bent toward architectural borrowings from the classical world. Attesting to lively trade with Asia and India, dramatic highlights of the artifacts on view are elephant heads from the top of the temples columns.

Reunited for the first time in more than 1,500 years are two halves of a statue of Nike, or Winged Victory, who carries atop her head a disk with the bust of the goddess Tyche.

Beyond the statuary, the friezes, ceramics, metalwork and architectural fragments, museum visitors will enjoy a multi-faceted experience of Petra. An interactive Surround video projected across three large screens shows panoramic views of the showplace that is the city. And, the entrance to the exhibition is through a re-creation of the Siqthe labyrinthine, narrow passageway that leads to the valley of Petra. Today, in Jordan, as in caravans of old, travelers must navigate over a mile on foot or in horse-drawn carts through the Siq to reach Petra.

Movie-goers will recall that in the movie, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Indy, Henry, and Sallah rode on horseback through the meandering canyon of the Siq. They emerged at the foot of the Treasurythe mighty Khaznehthe flame-red, fourteen-story-tall edifice that was the resting place for the grail. A hundred feet across, with Corinthian columns, bas-reliefs and niches inhabited by mythic figures, with larger-than-life horses rampant on the walls and the Pharaohs urn at the topsaid to have once been filled with goldthe Treasury remains the most famous, and most breathtaking, image of Petra.

A huge earthquake in 363 A.D, and the subjugation of the Romans in later centuries led to the abandonment of the city for hundreds of years. Lost in the sands and the mists of time, and inhabited by Bedouins whose fierce defenses kept travelers away, Petra lay undiscovered until 1812 when a Swiss adventurer, Johann Ludwig Burckhardt, arrived, lured by rumors of a vanished metropolis. Dressed as a Syrian Arab, he explored the ruins for only one day. He wrote, I was without protection in the midst of a desert where no traveler had ever before been seen, (exciting) suspicions that I was a magician in search of treasures. His guide finally warned him off, declaring, I see clearly now that you are an infidel . . . we shall not suffer you to take out a single para of all the treasures hidden therein.

Burckhardts wide-eyed reports of the spectacular hidden city lured a parade of Western travelers and artists in the 19th century. Most notably, Scotlands David Roberts, Englands Edward Lear, and Americas Frederic Church made sketches and paintings, some of which are in the exhibition. In Churchs oil painting of the Treasury is bathed in the pink blush of early morning light and framed by the dark cliffs of the Siq. He recalled, It is wonderful to see so lovely and luminous a color blazing out of black stern frightful rocks, to behold the beautiful temple rich in sculptured ornament shining as if by its own internal light.

First excavated by archeologists in 1924, 75% of Petra remains hidden under wind-blown sands, although multi-national digs and restorations are ongoing. The Cincinnati Art Museum launched a major excavation in 1937 and now owns the largest holding of Nabatean artwork outside of Jordan.

Visiting Jordan
Although North American travelers in Jordan are few, at this time, the popularity of the exhibit, seen by over 200,000 people in New York so far, is fueling an interest in that country. Europeans and Japanese travelers, and American religious groups on Holy Land tours, continue to flock to Petra and to the other attractions in the country-the ancient Roman cities of Jerash and Pella; Crusader castles; the magnificent desert area of Wadi Rum; and Biblical sites. For the adventurous, Jordans neutrality and historic reputation as a peacemaking nation puts minds at ease, and they have the rare chance to see Petra in near solitude. The mysterious Siq echoes with the occasional clip-clop of a horse-pulled wooden cart, and the rose-tinted Treasury and the palaces in the mountains are guaranteed to astonish as they have for two millennia.

In the meantime, for the next three years, armchair travelers will slake their thirst for the ancient world by immersing themselves in the glorious museum exhibition, Petra: Lost City of Stone. Introducing the exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History earlier this year, the Queen of Jordan, Rania Al-Abdullah, said that, like the Nabateans of Petra, Jordanians of today carved out a special and unique role as a bridge between diverse regions and cultures, and like them, are a peaceful culture.

If You Go:
American Museum of Natural History through July 6, 2004. (212) 769-5200 http://www.amnh.org
Cincinnati Art Museum, Sept 14, 2004 to Jan 30, 2005. (513) 639-2995; (877) 4CAM; http://www.cincinnatiartmuseum.org
Glenbow Museum, Calgary, Oct 29, 2005-Feb 20, 2006. (403) 268-4100, http://www.glenbow.org
Canadian Museum of Civilization, Ottawa, April 10-Sept 3, 2006. 800-555-5621 http://www.civilization.ca
Jordan Tourism Board, http://www.see-jordan.com; email jtb@nets.com.jo

©Karen Misuraca; all rights reserved.