Petra: Lost City of Stone
A Special Exhibition Review by Gail S. MyhreThis correspondent recently visited the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Gatineau, Quebec to view their installation of the special exhibition Petra: Lost City of Stone. This grand display of objects found at the World Heritage site in Jordan has been organized by The American Museum of Natural History, New York and the Cincinnati Art Museum, under the patronage of Her Majesty Queen Rania Al-Abdullah of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. Some of the objects on view have only recently been excavated and are being shown in North America for the first time. This venue will be the final stop on the exhibition's North American tour.
There are five configurable exhibition halls on the main floor of the museum. As a result any exhibition can be designed to maximize gallery space while maintaining a steady traffic flow, and this has been done to good effect here. The exhibit space is well planned and directs viewers very naturally through its halls. Though the sections are laid out thematically rather than chronologically, these themes do loosely tend to follow the city's cultural chronology from its Aramaic roots through the period of influence and eventual rule by the Romans and into the Byzantine era.
Entering the exhibition hall through a small introductory anteroom, a timeline on the right illustrates the episodic history of Petra and the time period in which it flourished, from its founding by the Nabateans through the Islamic era. On the right is a wall map which situates Petra geographically in Jordan and the surrounding Middle East.
Frederic Edwin Church (American, 1826-1900)
El Khasné, Petra, 1874
Oil on canvas
© Olana State Historic Site, New York State
Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation
Departing the anteroom the next section of the exhibition, titled "Petra Rediscovered," displays a series of 19th-century watercolors, paintings and prints which depict the site at the time of its rediscovery in 1812 by a Swiss explorer named Johann Ludwig Burckhardt (1784–1817). Until his visit, the city had been unseen by outsiders for 500 years. According to the captioning, some contemporary writers at the time of its rediscovery "…identified Petra, wrongly, with Edom, cursed in the Old Testament for having barred Moses and the Israelites."
Following the natural flow of the exhibit into the section titled "The People of Petra," a case to the left contains four stone plaques (two of marble and two of limestone) with Nabatean inscriptions. Continuing clockwise around the hall, the second case contains fragments of four stone heads depicting two young men, a bearded figure, and a fragment of a bearded male. In the center stands a fragment of a Nabatean gravestone containing a stylized face. Although the Nabateans were an Arabic people, their written culture derived from the Aramaic, which was widely used as a trade language throughout the region. All these pieces show clearly the Aramaic origins of the Nabateans' artistic forms.
Inscribed Eye-idol Stela, ca. First Century A.D.
© Department of Antiquities, Amman, Jordan
Continuing through the hall we come to a section marked "Caravans and Commerce," the title indicating the original source of the wealth which caused the Nabateans to settle in one place, give up their nomadic existence, and build their city. Placed to the right are a decorated incense altar and a stand for one, both clearly Hellenistic in influence. In this way we are introduced to the gradual influx of foreign cultural and artistic idiom carried by the trade caravans. To the left, a small map among the captioning indicates the trade routes that converged in Petra. A nearby case contains a Yemeni funerary plaque, a piece of ivory originating in India or Pakistan, and an Egyptian statue of Osiris, all imported to Petra along these trade routes and illustrating the diverse and remote sources of Petra's wealth.
At the back of the area dedicated to "Caravans and Commerce" stands a decorated capital with the heads of Asian elephants, their curled trunks mimicking the decorative spirals of Greek Ionic capitals. This was a typical artistic device of the Nabateans, incorporating into imported Hellenistic designs their own animal or vegetable motifs in place of the simple architectural lines of the original. In this way the blending of the cultures can clearly be seen.
Behind the hall of "Caravans and Commerce" is tucked a small movie theater showing a brief film titled "Petra, Crossroads of the Ancient World," which appears to receive a good amount of traffic. As would be expected of the venues in which this exhibition has been shown, the 9-minute movie concentrates on the natural history of the Petra site, including its building and water management in addition to the earthquake which destroyed the city. The movie provides good context for the objects, and includes a discussion of the natural defenses and expansive trade sources which influenced the Nabatean’s choice of this particular site on which to build their city.
Proceeding away from the theater area into the hall titled "City Of Stone," a garlanded frieze on the wall to the left, found in Petra's primary temple, is clearly Roman in derivation. In fact, the captioning contains a photograph of a similar decorative garland found in Rome with which the object on view is compared. Several Ionic capitals are showcased in the center of the gallery. The scrolls which would have been found on Greek examples of this architectural feature, as with the pediment mentioned above, have been replaced by the Nabateans with animal and vegetable motifs. The increased Greco-Roman influence on the city's arts and architecture as trade goods and new ideas from the Mediterranean basin made their way eastward is apparent.
On the right wall, three screens rotate through a photographic panorama of the central square of Petra, including the Great Temple. Each of these photographs serendipitously includes at least one human figure, helping to give an idea of the monumental scale of these carved façades.
Continuing through the "City of Stone" hall, centered to the left stands a limestone frieze block and pediment. Against the left wall, a case contains clearly Persian-influenced pottery, and next to this, another holds several small artifacts, predominantly jewelry, from the First and Second Centuries AD. The jewelry and incense censers clearly show the increasing influence of Hellenistic art in the designs of the Nabateans as noted above.
Stucco temple decorations from the First and Second Centuries, also clearly Hellenistic, are ranged along the rear wall. At the top of the case is shown dentil pediments; at the bottom, small facial fragments of statues, obviously Roman. The painted stucco continues the vegetable motif that the Nabateans brought to all their designs. These frescoes are compared in their caption with a small photograph of a fresco from the Roman ruins at Pompeii, again showing distinctly the strong influence of Rome upon Petra even before it became part of the Empire through the conquest and annexation of the area.
Monumental Vase with Panther-shaped Handles (detail),
Roman, ca. First Century A.D.
© Department of Antiquities, Amman, Jordan
Following "City of Stone" we come to the section of the exhibition which treats "Daily Life." A gorgeous demonstration of the wealth and prosperity of this city, a large Italian marble vase with exquisite carved panther handles, the only example of its kind ever found, stands at the rear. Created in Rome, this strikingly beautiful piece was made in the Imperial workshops and imported as a luxury item into Petra. It is the very embodiment of the introduction to the city of the great wealth and new artistic sensibilities it was acquiring from its lucrative trade with the Roman Empire.
To the right at the rear of this gallery stands a case with an arrangement of funerary decorations, including a stone fragment depicting a lion’s head, and another showing the head of Medusa, whose image was placed over the entrances of Nabatean buildings to ward off evil. Here she decorates the breastplate of a warrior. As with almost all of the other surviving objects, these are clearly Greco-Roman in their influence.
Relief Sculpture with Head of Medusa, ca. First Century A.D.
© Department of Antiquities, Amman, Jordan
Exiting the "Daily Life" section, a large open exhibit area crowded with free-standing cases is entitled "Icons of the Gods." At the immediate right along the wall, we find images including a Nabatean sun god depicted as the Greek god Helios, a large central pediment depicting the Nabatean god Dushara, and a Nabatean version of the Egyptian goddess Isis. These images lead the visitor in a natural progression from right to left, bringing us past the Hellenistic to more obviously eastern or Parthian representations, ending finally in a somewhat blended depiction of the Nabatean sun god who was, as noted previously, eventually identified with Helios. At the tail of the procession of religious icons is a frieze depicting zodiacal figures, each being crowned with a laurel wreath by the goddess Nike who holds in her left hand a palm branch, symbol of victory. In this manner the exhibition demonstrates quite deliberately that the Nabateans were borrowing not only artistic but also religious ideas from their trade sources.
Here begins the section entitled "Under Roman Rule," which describes the period following Roman annexation of Nabataea by Emperor Trajan in 106 A.D. Again, captioning is excellent and expository, in this case featuring a small map of the extent of Roman political influence at the time and a photo of Petra’s Roman amphitheater. We find here an architectural frieze depicting a Greek Muse, either Melpomene or Thalia. The dramatic arts were an important part of Nabatean cultural life, and this frieze originally decorated the monumental gateway which led into Petra. It is clearly and distinctly Hellenistic, having none of the Aramaic or Parthian influences we have seen in other Nabatean art and architecture.
Relief Sculpture with Bust of Melpomene (Greek Muse of Tragedy)
Holding a Theatrical Mask, ca. First Century A.D.
© Department of Antiquities, Amman, Jordan
At this point, Nabatean deities were completely associated with Greco-Roman gods. This is illustrated by the fragment in the center of the hall, a winged head which identifies a Nabatean sky god with Hermes. Here too is the single surviving bronze from Petra, a statue of Diana or Artemis cast in the Second Century, identifiable as the huntress by her running pose, though in this depiction she lacks her quiver and bow. Intaglio rings depict Nike, and a cornucopia found at the top of a temple pediment features a Nabatean astral goddess in the form of Tyche, the Roman goddess of fortune and prosperity, another example of the full identification of the Nabatean deities with Roman gods.
At the back of this section we see a bust of Aelius Caesar, possibly commissioned by Lucius, dating from approximately 165 A.D., and a bust of an unidentified Roman deity made from imported marble which, most unusually, contains one of his original painted and inlaid eyes, reminiscent of the inlaid eyes of the Statue of Apollo found at Pompeii. This technique was common in eastern Mediterranean statuary depictions of the gods.
The prize of this exhibition, a disc depicting the head of Tyche, goddess of fortune and prosperity surrounded by the twelve symbols of the zodiac and held aloft by Nike, is given all due attention in both the captioning and by docents offering tours. The disc is the property of the Cincinnati Art Museum, and the supporting depiction of Nike belongs to the Department of Antiquities, Jordan. Under the agreement which governed the excavation of the site, objects were divided equally between these two institutions. The exhibition’s curators are justly proud to be able to reunite the two halves of this iconic object for the first time since their excavation.
Statue of Victory Holding Celestial Disk with Head of Tyche,
ca. First Century A.D.
Lower half: © Department of Antiquities, Amman, Jordan
Upper Half: © Cincinnati Art Museum
At the rear of the area titled "Under Roman Rule," we find lastly a classically Roman limestone altar, garlanded in the Roman style but inscribed in Nabatean. According to the captioning, this interesting juxtaposition "embodies the melding of belief systems."
To the left and behind this area begins the section dedicated to the theme of "The Byzantine Era." This portion of the exhibition displays objects showing clear Byzantine architecture and styling, having completely lost the earlier Parthian influences used by the Nabateans. There are no animal images in this section whatever and only two human figures, fragments of glass mosaic dating from approximately the Sixth Century. These display typical Byzantine Roman construction and artistic style, and bear strong similarity to the Sixth Century mosaics from the Monastery of St. Catherine in Sinai. A remarkably complete reconstruction of a Christian pulpit dating from the Sixth Century A.D. was restored especially for this exhibit by the American Center for Oriental Research in Amman. This elegant structure was carved from stone already in architectural use.
Wall Mosaic Fragment
Byzantine, ca. Sixth Century A.D.
© Department of Antiquities, Amman, Jordan
On the left wall of this area is displayed a timeline depicting the dates of earthquakes which struck within a 250-mile radius of Petra. This includes the earthquake of 363 A.D. which destroyed most of the city and undoubtedly began Petra’s slow decline, leading eventually to the abandonment of the city as the Nabatean capital in favor of Bostra to the north.
Completing the long history of this city, the final portion of this exhibition includes a collection of photographs taken by Vivian Ronay between 1986 and 2003 of the Bdoul Bedouin tribe, which lived around the archaeological site of Petra. These people have been removed from the actual city, now a World Heritage Site, and a new Jordanian town called Um Sayhun has been created for them. These evocative photographs record the final disposition of the people of Petra, and this is fittingly the last gallery the viewer encounters before exiting the exhibition.
As art historians, we are lucky in this exhibition. Granted, it has been mounted with natural history in mind, having as its focus the life of the inhabitants of Petra and the city’s growth in response to the confluence of rich trade routes. Still, the very fact of its existence at this crossroads of east and west gives us a remarkably tangible illustration of the dissemination of symbols and ideas from all over the Mediterranean and beyond by the camel caravans that traveled these routes.
The remarkable architecture of the site is a particularly striking and nearly encyclopedic record of the gradual intrusion of Roman influence and wealth into the original religious and artistic ideas of the ancient Nabateans. This slow transition of the city’s art forms from essentially Aramaic and Parthian through Greco-Roman into Byzantine constitute a microcosmic display of the transformation of cultural idiom which was taking place during this period throughout the Roman world.
As stated earlier, the exhibition hall is well laid out and directs foot traffic quite naturally through the thematically arranged spaces. For this venue, captioning has been made available in both English and French. Descriptions of both the objects on display and of the theme of the exhibition itself are thoroughly detailed but never overwhelming. They provide good contextual and visual background, helping the viewer to understand the significance of each piece on display and the specific reasons for its inclusion at a given point in the exhibition.
Individually cased objects are raised to just below eye-level and are well illuminated. Many of the larger pieces, including the single magnificent Roman marble vase, are exhibited in the round. Decorated pediments are elevated to give a more realistic perspective and an idea of scale.
Between two benches placed at the left of the hall of "Caravans and Commerce" stands a low table to which are attached for perusal two of the available books detailing the exhibition. There is no single cohesive catalogue, and of the books on offer at the exhibition shop, the most compact and thoroughly illustrated was, unfortunately, only available in French.
The audio-visual portions of the exhibition are striking, and give a nice sense of history and scale. As we have frequently observed in this type of exhibition, the short film generates a great deal of interest, and for this venue has portions narrated in French with English subtitles and in English with French ones. Its placement in a sheltered corner of the exhibition as mounted in this venue does not impede the flow of visitors through the halls.
Altogether, the exhibition provides a careful and well presented display of the treasures of Petra. We are privileged to have the opportunity to view these fascinating pieces. This opportunity should not be missed, as political conditions in the region and increased interest in the beauty and history of the site threaten its continued existence and its availability to the lay viewer. Excavation and discovery continues; but visitors to this site have increased ten-fold since 1990, and wind and weather too take an inevitable toll. How fortunate to have this exhibit as a showcase for the beauty of this ancient city.
Special thanks to Caroline Eromaguet, Project Manager, Exhibitions and Melissa Hart, Media Relations Officer, the Canadian Museum of Civilization.
For further reading:
Markoe, Glenn (ed.). Petra Rediscovered:
The Lost City of the Nabataean Kingdom.
New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 2003.
"Petra: Lost City of Stone" is on view from April 7, 2006 through January 2, 2007 at the Canadian Museum of Civilization, 100 Laurier Street, Gatineau, Quebec J8X 4H2 (telephone: 819-776-7000; website). Hours of operation are: from July 1 to September 4, open 7 days 9:00 AM-6:00 PM, Thursdays and Fridays, 9:00 AM-9:00 PM; October 10 to April 30, open Tuesday to Sunday, 9:00 AM-5:00 PM, Thursdays 9:00 AM- 9:00 PM; all other dates, open 7 days 9:00 AM-6:00 PM, Thursdays, 9:00 AM- 9:00 PM. Adult admission to the special exhibition is $15.00 and includes museum admission. A complimentary cloakroom is available, including courtesy wheelchairs and strollers. Paid parking is available at the museum's indoor garage.
From your Guide: Gail S. Myhre, Correspondent for Museums and Special Exhibitions, has been studying Roman history and art for twelve years. Her eclectic range of interests includes the surrealism of Dalí and Magritte, the post-modernism of Warhol and Lichtenstein, and the Ukiyo-e prints of Hasui and Toshida, among others. Gail resides in New York City and has a young son.