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Natural History Museum Displays Artifacts of Ancient City Petra - 2003-10-16

Hundreds of stone-carved artifacts from Petra, famous as "the Jordanian rose-red city half as old as time," are part of a major exhibition that opens on Saturday at the American Museum of Natural History.

On exhibit are sections of colossal tombs and temples once carved into the harsh, red sandstone cliffs of southern Jordan, three hours south of modern Amman. These architectural achievements likely hold the secrets of the ancient metropolis of Petra and its creators, the Nabataeans.

Glenn Markoe is one of the show's curators. He says the Nabataeans were a nomadic tribe who settled in the area and became renowned for their skills in engineering, architecture and trade.

"It's a very amazing story of a people that really began as nomads, we think as early as 300 B.C., and were still moving around without permanent habitation," he said. "And then in a period of just a few hundred years, by actually harnessing all the revenues from trade that came from southern Arabia, they developed this great royal empire, and the city of Petra, was of course, its tool."

It is difficult to capture the enormity of Petra's 2000-year-old architecture inside a museum.

But organizers of the exhibit, the American Museum of Natural History and the Cincinnati Art Museum, try hard with a profusion of huge movie screens, in which a camera pans across Petra's desert cliffs and mammoth ancient buildings.

Mr. Markoe marvels at the Nabataeans' handiwork as he gestures toward the bust of their chief deity, Dushara, named for his celestial powers.

"This big bust, which is 2,100 pounds of stone, was carved and stood probably over the gate to the city," he explained. "It's a wonderful piece because it shows the melding of different influences that moved through Petra as a commercial center, and we're looking at the Nabataean deity in the form of the Greek and Roman god Zeus."

The influence of Greek mythology on the Nabataeans is clear. Their stone work features winged sphinxes and griffins, and even the famed gorgon, Medusa, whose glance was believed to turn onlookers to stone.

Yet Mr. Markoe says that relatively little is known about the Nabataeans, mainly because their papyrus-written scrolls did not survive the ravages of time and climate.

He says historians do know that the construction of an irrigation system brought water to the desert and transformed the city of Petra.

"They were incredible engineers in two ways. One was by moving water into the city that allowed the city to flourish, but they were really terrific engineers carving rock, carving monumental pieces of tombs in the rock face to resemble built temples. As you look at them from the outside, you think they are built, but they are just monumental pieces of sculpture just carved into the rock face," he said.

From the second century B.C. to the second century A.D., the city was a trading hub for silk, spices and other goods, linking India and Southern Arabia with the markets of Syria, Egypt, Greece and Rome. But when trade patterns shifted and a powerful earthquake destroyed half the city in 363, Petra as a metropolis, began to disappear.

Petra: Lost City of Stone runs through July 6, 2004 in New York City and then moves on to the Cincinnati Art Museum next September.