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Calvin to Host Petra: Lost City of Stone
October 15, 2004
Petra photo by Bert de Vries, professor of history and director of the Calvin archaeology minor
Petra: Lost City of Stone is the most comprehensive exhibition ever presented on the ancient, Middle Eastern city of Petra and its creators - the Nabataeans. And it's coming to Grand Rapids.

The exhibit will be at Calvin College in its Prince Conference Center from April 4 to August 15, 2005.

Petra opened in New York City in October 2003 for a nine-month showing and then traveled to Cincinnati for a September 2004 to January 2005 run. The exhibit is the first major cultural collaboration between Jordan and the United States. It is organized by Cincinnati Art Museum and American Museum of Natural History, New York under the patronage of Her Majesty Queen Rania Al-Abdullah of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. Air transportation has been generously provided by Royal Jordanian.

Calvin President Gaylen Byker, who serves as co-chair for Petra: Lost City of Stone, has been a frequent visitor to the Middle East, including several trips to Petra. So when Calvin had the chance to host the exhibit (becoming one of only five North American venues), he jumped at the offer.

"The Petra exhibit," he says, "is a great fit with Calvin's educational mission and with Calvin's fast-expanding international involvement. The city of Petra is one of the very best archaeological sites in the world for experiencing what life was like in the Middle East at the time of Christ. What's exciting for me is how the exhibit allows people to experience Petra - its history, its art, its architecture, its engineering prowess and its importance in the Middle East, a region of the world that we all need to better understand. For us to have the opportunity to bring this to West Michigan is too good to pass up."

June Hamersma, Director of Calvin's January Series and the other Petra exhibit co-chair, says simply: "The exhibit represents a true gift to this community and a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to experience one of the greatest archaeological complexes in world history."

Hamersma notes too that Petra: Lost City of Stone was almost a decade in the making, having first been conceived in 1994 by the Cincinnati Art Museum, which then joined forces with the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in New York City in a monumental effort to gather the 200 exceptional objects that comprise the traveling exhibit.

Items on display include stone sculptures and reliefs, ceramics, metalwork, architectural elements, terracotta or ancient water pipes, artworks in various media and other fascinating artifacts. All are on loan from collections in Jordan and throughout Europe and the United States. Many are on display in the United States for the first time.

All told the exhibit will be spread out across 7,000 square feet at Calvin's Prince Conference Center, which will undergo significant modifications to host Petra: Lost City of Stone.

Among the highlights of the exhibition are several pieces recently discovered by archaeologists working in Jordan, as well as a monumental bust of Dushara, on public display outside Jordan for the first time. The bust is almost four feet tall and weighs some 2,100 pounds!

Another highlight at the exhibit was actually unearthed by a graduate of the college: Grand Rapids based archaeologist, teacher and photographer Neal Bierling, who has worked on Petra and helped excavate a marble Byzantine church pulpit that will be on display at Calvin.

Bierling, who originally approached his alma mater about bringing Petra to Calvin, says one of the interesting things about Petra's history is its position as a center for the rise of Christianity.

"There was an earthquake in Petra in 363 AD," Bierling says, "that many historians say destroyed Petra and its place as a thriving Middle Eastern city. In fact, after the earthquake Petra became a hotbed for the growth of Christianity. Interestingly the Christians in Petra took the pagan temples that had been destroyed and used the materials to build churches and chapels. That's been kind of an untold part of the Petra story."

Calvin plans to tell the entire Petra story through a series of events connected to the exhibit including outreach efforts to local schools and lots of youth programming, a lecture series for adults, a special Calvin history course (open to all), textile displays and more.

Byker notes that bringing Petra: Lost City of Stone to Calvin's campus will not be a small undertaking for the college. Renovations to the Prince Conference Center (which is just two years old) alone will cost several hundred thousand dollars. Calvin will be building new walls, painting and carpeting, developing and installing temperature and humidity controls, adding lighting and putting in extensive security and alarm systems to protect and enhance the display of the 200 ancient artifacts.

The effort, Byker says, will be worth it.

"This is a world-class exhibit," he says, "and the opportunity to present it to people in Grand Rapids and beyond was one we felt we had to take. It's a singular opportunity for the community."

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Tickets for the exhibit go on sale December 1 via the Petra Box Office (526-7800 or 800-PETRA05) and website (www.calvin.edu/petra). Petra: Lost City of Stone will travel to Calgary (October 2005-February 2006 at the Glenbow Museum) and Ottawa (April-September 2006 at the Canadian Museum of Civilization) after Grand Rapids.