Ancient Nabataean Arab city of Petra, a lost city of stone rediscovered

Posted by Lia Chang on Thursday, 15 January 2004.

Kick the New Year with a visit to a local museum. I did and loved it. The ancient Nabataean Arab city of Petra is revealed in an elegant multi-media art exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History.

The American Museum of Natural History's Petra: Lost City of Stone exhibit is a fascinating view of the culture and art of the Nabataeans, creators of an ancient metropolis in southern Jordan, that flourished between the fourth century B.C. and the sixth century A.D.

A place that truly stirs the imagination, the magnificent ruins and the rose-colored cliffs of Petra served as muse for such 19th century painters as England's Edward Lear, Scotlands David Roberts, and Americas Frederic Edwin Church. Their enchantment with the mysteries of Petra is on display in the first gallery, including Church's luminous large-scale oil painting El Khasne, Petra (1874) . This breathtaking view of the Khazneh (the Treasury) visible through the Siq (the narrow gorge that led traders on camelback into Petra) is also captured in a photo at the exhibit entrance. The Greek Hellenistic royal tomb should be familiar to fans of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade . The 1989 film was shot on location there.

"Petra is the story of the transformation of the Nabataeans, who evolved from nomads to city dwellers in a short period of time, and who built---literally carved from the rock--one of the great urban complexes of the ancient world," said Glenn Markoe, Curator of Classical and Near Eastern Art and Art of Africa and the Americas, Cincinnati Art Museum. "It is also a story of the rediscovery of this lost civilization through physical exploration in the early 19th century, and then through scientific, ecological and archaeological research, which now makes it possible to relate the history of the Nabataeans."

Co-curated by the Cincinnati Art Museum and under the patronage of Her Majesty Queen Rania Al-Abdullah of Jordan, Petra is the first major cultural collaboration between Jordan and the United States. Artifacts and architectural elements culled from excavations at the site of Khirbet et-Tannur in 1937 which are part of the collections of the Jordan Archaeological Museum in Amman and the Cincinnati Art Museum, and recent finds by archaeologists working in southern Jordan, are on display in the main gallery. One wall of the gallery features a 26-foot-wide montage of panoramic views of the magnificent ruins of Petra projected onto three six foot-high screens.

The Nabataeans, Arabian nomads who began settling in Petra in the third century B.C., acquired control of the incense and spice trade through the Arabian Peninsula by the first century B.C. Until the second century A.D., the near Eastern crossroads of Petra linked India and southern Arabia with the markets of Syria, Egypt, Greece and Rome. A.D. 50 was considered the height of Petra, with over 20,000 in residence.

Renowned for their skills in trade, agriculture, engineering, and architectural stone carving, the Nabataeans cut into the rose-colored sandstone cliffs of southern Jordan, building a spectacular city of elaborately carved freestanding temples, tombs, dwellings, banquet halls, altars, and niches. Petra fell to the Romans in 106 A.D. and when a massive earthquake in 363 A.D. toppled the grandeur of Petra, it caused considerable damage to the city's infrastructure, from which it never recovered. During the fifth and sixth centuries A.D., Petra became an important center of Christianity during the Byzantine Realm, but eventually faded into obscurity.

Unseen by outsiders for more than 500 years, Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt put Petra back on the map in 1812, inspiring 19th century artist/travelers to trek to southern Jordan and document their experiences in written accounts and capture the rock carved architectural ruins on canvas.

Prior to entering the main gallery, the short film, Petra: Crossroads of the Ancient World , provides a brief cultural history of the city and examines how the tombs honoring Nabataean ancestors were cut into the rock. It highlights the remarkable hydraulic system used by the Nabataeans to turn their desert kingdom into a lush oasis. An elaborate aqueduct system delivered nearly 12 million gallons of fresh spring water daily, providing an impressive system of public waterworks to maintain fertile crops, lush gardens, pools and reservoirs, capable of sustaining a present day community of more than 100,000.

Signaling a new direction for the American Museum of Natural History, Petra is the most art-driven installation at the museum and it is exquisite. Highlights include an elaborately carved Roman marble vase, or cantharus, with panther-shaped handles; bracelets and earrings of gold and silver; a terracotta plaque with musicians depicting both ancient instruments and the music makers themselves; a selection of interior decorative stuccowork from temples and private residences, and a collection of finely painted Nabataean ceramics. David Harvey, AMNH's vice president of exhibitions, adds his signature touch to the modern, yet minimalist displays of the treasures of Petra.

Recent discoveries include the centerpiece of the show, a monumental 2,100-pound sandstone bust of Petra's primary male deity, the Nabataean god Dushara, on public display outside Jordan for the first time, an elephant-headed capital from Petra, and a sculpted frieze from a Nabataean temple at Khirbet ed-Dharih.

In 1985, the archaeological site of Petra in Jordan was named a world heritage site and today, sedentary Bedouin tribes have made it their home.

After a walk through the ancient ruins of Petra, treat your tastebuds to the variety of traditional Middle Eastern delights being served up in the Petra Cafe. The national dish of Jordan, mansaf , a delicious Bedouin celebratory dish of lamb cooked in yogurt and aromatic herbs is not to be missed. The Caf is open from 11 A.M. to 4:45 P.M.

Petra is on view at the American Museum of Natural History through July 2004. Call 212-769-5200 or visit for more information. The museum is located in Manhattan, at Central Park West and 81st Street.