Published: October 28, 2003
“Petra: Lost City of Stone,” the most comprehensive exhibition ever presented on the ancient city of Petra and its creators the Nabataeans, is open at the American Museum of Natural History through July 6, 2004.
It offers North American audiences the opportunity to learn about the ancient metropolis of Petra, which was literally carved from the red sandstone in the harsh desert cliffs of southern Jordan. From Second Century BC to Second Century AD, Petra stood at a nexus of international silk and spice trade routes linking China, India and Southern Arabia with markets of Greece, Rome, Egypt and Syria and was governed by the Nabataeans who were renowned for their great skills in trade, agriculture, engineering and architecture.
The exhibit features approximately 200 objects on loan from collections in Jordan and Europe, many on view for the first time in the United States, and from collections in the United States. Stone sculptures and reliefs, ceramics, metalwork, stuccowork, ancient inscriptions and a selection of some 25 Nineteenth Century paintings, drawings and prints are displayed alongside architectural sections from several of Petra’s famous monuments.
Among the highlights are several pieces recently discovered by archaeologists working in Jordan such as an elephant-headed capital from Petra and a monumental frieze from a Nabataean temple at Khirbet Dharih.
Located in the Jordan Rift Valley at the crossroads of international trade routes, Petra was one of the most influential and prosperous commercial centers in antiquity. The forbidding desert was transformed by the Nabataeans into a bustling metropolis with monumental tombs carved directly into the red sandstone hills and hundreds of other structures including burial chambers, funerary banquet halls, residences, theaters, bath complexes, arched gates and a complex system of water channels and reservoirs. The Nabataeans were skilled engineers and developed and maintained an elaborate system of damming, terracing and irrigation that allowed them to maximize the agricultural potential of the surrounding Petra plateau.
The development of Nabataean writing coincided with and facilitated urbanization and the rich cultural life of the city reflected a confluence of Eastern and Western styles and traditions. From Second Century BC through Third Century AD, Petra prospered. A massive earthquake in 363 AD destroyed much of the city and, although partially revived after that, Petra was no longer the economic powerhouse it had been.
From its rediscovery by Swiss explorer Johann Lud-wig Burckhardt in 1812, Petra, with its savage beauty, desolate setting, the mystery and splendor of its rock-carved architectural ruins and the variegated color of its cliff faces has been a source of deep fascination for Westerners. It became a major pilgrimage site for Nineteenth Century European and Ameri-can artists and other travelers and it continues to enthrall. It was even used as a location for the popular 1989 feature film Indian Jones and the Last Crusade.
Among the highlights are several important architectural pieces, such as a sculpted garland frieze from a major temple at Petra, a sculptured window frame from a private villa, a portion of a monumental temple façade featuring figures from the zodiac and a limestone pulpit from a Byzantine church (Sixth Century AD). Key masterworks include a monumental limestone head of a Nabataean male deity, a seated sandstone cult statue of a storm god, a life-size cast bronze statue of the goddess Artemis and a marble head of a Roman emperor.
The theme of European rediscovery of the ancient site is explored through paintings, drawings and prints by David Roberts, William Bartlett, Edward Lear and Frederic Church, including Church’s large-scale oil painting of the famous Treasury (1874). Small-scale luxury rdf_Descriptions, including a selection of fine-painted ceramics and delicate interior stucco work, are shown.
The museum is at Central Park West at 79th Street. For information, 212-769-5800 or www.amnh.org.
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