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

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Lost City of Stone

News: February 3, 2005

Noontime Series Talk to Look at Petra

The February 10 Noontime Series lecture at Calvin College will be on the ancient city of Petra.

In an illustrated talk titled "Petra: A Rose Red City Half as Old as Time," local archaeologist and teacher Neal Bierling will demonstrate that both the ancient city of Petra and the people who built it, the Nabataeans, were important players on the Biblical-historical scene.

The free, public program will be held noon to 1 pm in the Chapel Undercroft at Calvin and will be part of the college's popular Noontime Series, sponsored by the Calvin Academy for Lifelong Learning.

It is also a piece of the educational series supporting Petra: Lost City of Stone, a comprehensive exhibition of Nabataean artifacts and culture that will visit Calvin from April 4 through August 15, 2005.

In his talk Bierling will talk about cultural collaborations of an older variety - the ones practiced 2,000 years ago by the Nabataeans. Drawing on references from the Bible and the ancient historian Josephus, Bierling talk will spotlight the events and the historical "celebrities" — including Cleopatra, Mark Anthony, and both biblical Herods — who interacted with Nabataean culture.

The historical record of the Nabataeans, he maintains, remains the great untold story of history.

"It was always there," he says, "but it was lost to everybody's imagination."

Originating as a nomadic culture, the Nabataeans eventually settled down in what is now present-day Jordan, Israel, Egypt, Syria and Saudi Arabia and became a powerful presence in the area as a result of their control of the lucrative southern Arabian incense trade.

From as early as the second century BC through the second century AD, the Nabataeans transacted their business and mingled with historical events from Petra, the city they sculpted from the red sandstone cliffs of the southwestern Transjordan which eventualy became an essential stopping place on most caravan routes.

But the story of Petra goes back further says Bierling.

In his February 10 talk at Calvin he will begin with its Biblical origins, including the Edomites (the descendants of the Biblical Esau), and work his way to the Byzantine period in Petra, an era that only recently came to light through the discovery of three churches in the ancient city.

One of these was the Blue Chapel where Bierling served on the team that excavated that site under the direction of archaeologist Patricia Bikai.

For his part Bierling is thrilled to finally tell the story of a city and a culture where so much history converges.

"Teachers teach ancient Greece," he says. "Teachers teach ancient Rome. And teachers teach ancient Egypt. These sites all come together at ancient Petra."

Waves of sand