Khaznat al-Faroun at Petra, Jordan. Photo taken by Calvin College professor Bert DeVries

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Experience Experience
Return to the PETRA homepage April 4, 2005 - August 15, 2005
Lost City of Stone

About Petra


Men on Camels
Men on Camels
© Vivian Ronay Photography

The ancient city of Petra was literally carved from the sandstone cliffs of southern Jordan. There the Nabataeans built temples and tombs, houses and halls, altars and aquaducts. And they built a civilization that stood at the crossroads of the ancient Near East, a center for commerce as the spice routes and trading trails of the time all flowed through Petra.

At its peak the city of Petra was home to some 20,000 Nabataeans who, in the midst of the desert, built an ingenious system of waterways to provide their city with the precious liquid.

Since the early 1800s, when it was "rediscovered," clues to daily life in this "lost city of stone" are being unearthed and today we are beginning to see once again what Petra looked like 2,000 years ago.

Petra ReDiscovered

Petra means "rock" in Greek, fitting for a town literally carved out of sandstone desert cliffs. It is located about three hours south of Amman, the capital of Jordan, and was founded by a nomadic Arab tribe known as the Nabataeans several centuries before Christ's birth. The Nabataeans were renowned for their great skills in trade, agriculture, engineering, and architectural stone-carving.

Petra: Lost City of Stone first was conceived in 1994 by the Cincinnati Art Museum, which joined forces with the American Museum of Natural History in New York City in a decade-long effort to gather the 200 exceptional objects that comprise the exhibit. Items on display will include stone sculptures and reliefs, ceramics, metalwork, artworks in various media and other priceless artifacts. All are on loan from collections in Jordan and throughout Europe, and many are on display in the United States for the first time in history.

The country of Jordan is located in the Middle East, northwest of Saudi Arabia and south of Syria.

Stone sculptures and reliefs, ceramics, metalwork, stuccowork, ancient inscriptions, and a selection of 19th-century paintings, drawings and prints will be displayed alongside architectural groupings from several well-known Nabataean monuments (the Nabataeans settled Petra and created its awe-inspiring monuments, engineering marvels and more).

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. Also for the first time since its first-century creation, the limestone likeness of Nike the Greek goddess of Victory owned by the Cincinnati Art Museum and her wheel of the zodiac surrounding the bust of Tyche, the goddess of prosperity, owned by the Jordanian museum, have been brought together as originally intended.

Petra was discovered by archaeologists in the early 1800s and has since become one of the premier tourist sites in the Middle East, especially after its use as a location for the popular 1989 feature film Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

Petra: Lost City of Stone 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 generously provided by Royal Jordanian.

Facts about the Upcoming Exhibit

Petra: Lost City of Stone will have 12 exhibition sections. They are:

  1. The Introduction offers visitors a breathtaking view of the Treasury seen through the Siq, the narrow gorge that led traders into Petra, conveyed by a re-creation of the Siq and a stunning 10-foot-high color image of the spectacular facade of the Treasury, or the Khazneh, the Greek Hellenistic royal tomb that is Petra's most famous monument.

  2. Petra Rediscovered illustrates the city's "rediscovery" in the 1800s (and subsequently by European and American travelers) through a selection of 19th-century paintings, drawings, and prints.

  3. SteleThe People of Petra examines the origins of the Nabataeans, a group of Arabian nomads who began settling in Petra sometime in the third century B.C. and who had acquired control of the ancient incense and spice trade throughout the Arabian Peninsula by the first century B.C. This section features a number of objects related to the Nabataeans, including a striking gravestone with a stylized male head whose style provides evidence that the Nabataeans interacted with the kingdoms of southern Arabia.

  4. Caravans and Commerce explores how the Nabataeans built a commercial empire, as Petra evolved into a bustling hub of international commerce and culture. Highlights of this section include a recently discovered column capital with elephant heads, possibly demonstrating the growth of trade with Asia and the influence of India, and a beautiful alabaster funerary plaque from southern Arabia that provides further evidence of the extent of Nabataean trade.

  5. Petra: Crossroads of the Ancient World, an eight-minute-long film created especially for the exhibition, offers visitor a brief cultural history of the city, as well as an examination of how the more than 800 tombs honoring Nabataean ancestors were literally cut into the rock using a unique process. The film also highlights the ingenious methods the Nabataeans developed to manage and store water.

  6. EagleCity of Stone examines the architecture, engineering, and artistry of the Nabataeans, who created a spectacular city of elaborately carved freestanding temples and nearly 3,000 tombs, dwellings, banquet halls, altars, and niches, all cut into the rose-colored sandstone cliffs of southern Jordan. Petra's aqueduct system is estimated to have carried about 40 million liters (12 million gallons) of fresh spring water per day, enough to sustain a modern-day American population of more then 100,000.

  7. Door frameDaily Life offers visitors a glimpse into what day-to-day life was like for Petra's inhabitants. Among the exquisite pieces on view in this section is an elaborately carved Roman marble vase, or cantharus, with panther-shaped handles that is the largest and finest of its kind to survive from classical antiquity. Other highlights include a selection of jewelry, including bracelets and earrings of gold and silver.

  8. Three carved headsIcons of the Gods focuses on the religious world of the Nabataeans, which drew upon the religious traditions of many surrounding regions-north Arabia, Edom, Syria, and Egypt. Worship of the heavenly bodies was central to Nabataean religion and figures of the zodiac became popular in Nabataean architecture. Highlights in this section include the two halves of an important ancient Nabataean statue which have been reunited for the first time in more than 1,500 years. The sculpture, a statue of Nike, or Winged Victory, holds atop her head a disk with the bust of the goddess Tyche, the Greek god imported by the Nabataeans, in its center, surrounded by the 12 symbols of the zodiac. Other highlights include a monumental 2,100-pound sandstone bust of Dushara, Petra’s primary male deity.

  9. MelpomeneUnder Roman Rule examines the influence of Rome on Petra, which came under the control of the Emperor Trajan in A.D. 106 and remained under Roman rule for the next three centuries. A major highlight in this section is a nearly life-size bronze statue of the Greco-Roman goddess, Artemis, the only surviving statue of its type from Petra, and an example of the many now-lost large sculptures that adorned the main streets and public squares of Petra during the Roman era.

  10. The Great Earthquake describes the violent earthquake of A.D. 363 that wreaked considerable damage to Petra, from which the city never fully recovered, and features a timeline of earthquakes that occurred within a 400-kilometer (250 mile) radius of Petra from the first century B.C. to the eighth century A.D.

  11. Arches The Byzantine Era explores the history of Petra in the fifth and sixth centuries A.D., when Petra became an important center of Christianity within the Byzantine realm. Highlights in this section include a sixth-century A.D. marble pulpit from a Byzantine church called the Blue Chapel, which was part of a building complex that evidently housed one of the city’s prominent citizens, and a sixth-century A.D. scroll fragment, written in cursive Greek, that is part of an extensive will of a wealthy man named Obodianus, dictated from his sickbed.

  12. Petra Today details ongoing archaeological research and conservation projects through a montage of contemporary photographs.

The Nabataeans

Who were the Nabataeans? Their story is a fascinating, and integral, part of the Petra story.

Why Calvin?

After successful runs in New York City and Cincinnati, why is the acclaimed Petra: Lost City of Stone exhibition coming to Calvin College? And is it a "Calvin-only" event, exclusively for the school's faculty, staff, students and alumni?

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Waves of sand