From earliest memory, they were traders with an intimate knowledge of the desert. They led camel caravans, heavy with frankincense and myrrh, through obscure desert wadis. Their concealed cisterns trapped the rainwater they needed to survive. Through the centuries, as allegiances shifted and kingdoms rose and fell and the region where they lived was bartered by the powerful, they lived on, plying their trade and bringing the caravans north and west to the sea. At some point — and nobody knows exactly when or why — they retreated down a long and winding defile and hewed a magnificent city out of the chalk-red cliffs. Then the water they trapped in cisterns and channeled from natural springs kept their gardens alive and their fountains flowing. And the caravans, bringing silks, spices, ivory, incense and goods from many nations, stopped there. Time went on. The caravans went elsewhere. There was an earthquake. The rubble from the city’s temples and houses was rebuilt as churches. Then the water slowed to a trickle … and the city fell quiet.
The ancient city of Petra is not a stone artifact but, rather, a legacy of the vital people who shaped it — the Nabataeans. And the story of both city and people will be told in Grand Rapids as Petra: Lost City of Stone wends its way north and west from New York through Cincinnati to Calvin College.
A college is not the usual venue for an exhibition of this scale, whose only other American stops are at New York’s American Museum of Natural History and the Cincinnati Art Museum. “It’s pretty exciting, and I think it’s pretty nervy and courageous of Calvin to put this on,” said Bert de Vries, a Calvin history professor and director of the college’s archaeology minor, whose life’s work includes three decades of archaeological experience in Jordan and at least 50 trips to Petra (ancient Greek for rock). Yet if Calvin is an atypical stopping place for Petra: Lost City of Stone, it is a logical one because of the work of de Vries and other Calvin alumni in bringing the story of the Nabataeans to the light.
Though they were a vital presence in the Middle East for at least 800 years, the Nabataeans do not appear on historical timelines. They began as a nomadic culture with a tenacious grip on the lucrative incense trade of southern Arabia. But from as early as the second century B.C. through the second century A.D., the Nabataeans ruled over swaths of present-day Jordan, Israel, Egypt, Syria and Saudi Arabia from Petra, the city they had excised out of the ruddy sandstone cliffs of the southern Transjordan. Petra was a wealthy center of trade, attracting caravans from as far away as India and the Mediterranean coast. Nabataean kings were friends of the Herods and sometime players in Judean politics around the time of Christ. When Antigonus, successor to Alexander the Great, made repeated attempts to subdue the Nabataeans beginning in 312 B.C., they successfully repulsed him; but in A.D. 106, they accepted annexation by Rome.
The Romans re-routed the trade routes away from Petra. Then came the earthquake, on May 19 of A.D. 363, which destroyed nearly half of Reqem (the Nabataean name for Petra), wrote Cyrus, the Bishop of Jerusalem. In the years that followed, a noteworthy Christian presence grew in Petra, evidenced by the three churches recently discovered there. It was not until the city’s intricate water system was crippled, historians speculate, that Petra gradually declined and disappeared into history.
In 1812, Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burkhardt visited Petra’s ruins, followed in the next 60 years by a steady stream of artists, who memorialized the city’s ornate rock-cut tombs in their sketches, prints and paintings. Archaeological investigation of Petra began in earnest as late as the 1980s, and it has only recently revealed the day-to-day lives of the city’s residents, their houses, temples, reflecting pool, fountain house, crusader forts and three Byzantine churches.
Petra: Lost City of Stone is a collaborative effort of the New York and Cincinnati museums that was nine years in the making. Drawing on collections in both Jordan and the U.S., the exhibition’s 200 pieces are a panorama of Nabataean culture: sculptures such as a simple geometric limestone stele or “eye idol” stand alongside a graceful Hellenistic bust of a muse holding a theater mask. Column capitals are decorated with everything from elephant heads — showing the reach of Nabataean trade into India — to winged lions, fruit and flowers. Interlocking water pipes demonstrate the Nabataeans’ mastery of hydrology; delicate pottery bowls demonstrate their skill as ceramists. Papyrus records give an inside view of the business culture of Petra, and a marble pulpit from Petra’s Blue Chapel stands as a remnant of the city’s Christian era.
The breadth of the collection shows how fluently — and playfully — the Nabataeans (or their imported craftsmen) adapted the designs of other cultures — Egyptian, Persian, Hellenistic, Roman and Byzantine. And it brings Petra’s culture to life. “This is a hybrid exhibit. It’s not purely an art exhibit, and it’s not purely a historical exhibit,” said Joel Zwart ’97, Calvin’s director of exhibitions.
And, he stressed, it is a multimedia exhibition, whose treasure trove of artifacts is augmented by technological wizardry. An animated fly-through video drops the viewer down into Petra, video-game style. Three screens continuously pan up and down Petra’s venerable tomb edifices. “It’s like a moving backdrop,” Zwart said. Another 10-minute video traces Petra’s history. Yet another traces the effects of a 2004 flood at Petra, arguing for the restoration of the Nabataean water systems.
“This is why the exhibit is the next best thing to going to Petra,” Zwart explained.
Neal Bierling ’68 has been to Petra — many times. He worked there in the mid-1990s, under the direction of archaeologist Patricia Bikai, photographing, filming video and excavating at the Blue Chapel site. “In working there, I heard about how Cincinnati, with the cooperation of Jordan, was trying to set up an exhibit to tour the United States,” he said. When another U.S. venue dropped the exhibition from its schedule, Bierling gave himself the job of shopping Petra around Grand Rapids. Two other Grand Rapids venues were fully booked on the exhibition’s available dates, so Bierling turned toward his alma mater. When he approached Calvin, “[President Byker] jumped at the chance,” Bierling said. “He had been to Petra. He knew how exciting it is.”
“We have very creative people in the art gallery, physical plant and in public relations,” Byker said. “I thought there was a strong possibility we could put this together.” He and exhibition co-chair June Bos Hamersma ’51, director of Calvin’s January Series, put together a steering committee made up of Calvin faculty, staff and alumni to bring Petra: Lost City of Stone to Grand Rapids.
It is a daunting task. To house the exhibition’s bounty of objets d’art and technology, a museum space — complete with new interior walls; incandescent lighting; security cameras, monitors, sensors and alarms; and a brand new heating, ventilation and air conditioning system — will be custom-built within the two-year-old Prince Conference Center. “It’s a huge amount of work that has to be done in a very small period of time,” said Phil Beezhold, director of Calvin’s physical plant and the steering committee member charged with transforming the building. “We spend a lot of time talking about every little contingency that could happen,” he said.
Zwart, the committee member with the job of actually installing the exhibit, is also thinking of contingencies (and has confessed to some sleepless nights). “Fortunately, we’ve been able to lean on the expertise of two world-class institutions that have put this exhibit together,” he said. “The key personnel involved with this project from the American Museum of Natural History and the Cincinnati Art Museum [CAM] have served as a sounding board on our installation and renovation plans.” Both museums are also sending staff to assist Zwart with the installation.
“The Cincinnati Art Museum is delighted that a college institution of Calvin’s caliber has expressed interest in the project,” said Glenn Markoe, CAM’s curator of classical and near eastern art and the man who created Petra: Lost City of Stone. “Calvin’s taking of the exhibition adds another dimension to the project.”
That added dimension is evident in the whirlwind of events that Calvin has added to the exhibition under the rubric “Experience Petra”: lectures by Calvin faculty and other experts, educational series for area teachers, culinary events, an exhibition of Jordanian artifacts, an archaeological dig, a virtual tour, the Souq El-Hadaya Giftshop (featuring the work of Jordanian, Syrian and Palestinian artisans) and the Mediterranean-themed Khazneh Café.
“We’re trying to provide a really first-rate educational and cultural experience for West Michigan,” Byker said. And many of its events draw on the talents and resources of Petra-connected alumni. (The entire enterprise is dedicated to Bastiaan Van Elderen ’49, an internationally respected scholar, archaeologist and Calvin faculty member who died in 2004.)
Sally Northouse de Vries ’62 first visited Petra in the early ’70s with her husband, Bert, and they have returned many times to the site. Now, as an introductory exhibition to Petra: Lost City of Stone, Sally will share her impressive collection of Jordanian clothing, textiles, jewelry, coffee pots, brass pots and stoneware. She has also organized an impressive slate of lecturers — including Markoe, Bikai and other international Petra experts and archaeologists — who will speak throughout the exhibition at “Experience Petra” evening lectures and luncheons.
Meanwhile, Bert will offer “Petra and the Nabataeans,” a four-week segment of his spring course in classical history for which area teachers can receive state board continuing education units.
Continuing education credit is likewise available for Bierling’s educator sessions, which are geared to bringing Petra — both the exhibition and the city — into the classroom. And the sessions add some unusual twists to the Petra experience. With the help of Beezhold and the physical plant staff, Bierling has created an archaeological dig, salted with animal bones, (“I have a couple of deer in there,” he said), faux-Nabataean pottery made by his students at Ada (Mich.) Christian School and other artifacts. Using the dig site, Bierling will teach school classes and other young visitors to Petra: Lost City of Stone the rudiments of archaeology.
Bierling has also helped his son, Joel ’97, create a virtual reality tour of Petra from hundreds of 360-degree photographs that the father and son have taken of the ancient city using a camera with a fish-eye lens. “You can basically look any direction. You can look straight up. You can look straight down. You can look around you,” Joel said. The technology, which Joel created and which the Bierlings have dubbed PanoReality, allows the Petra visitor to tour via computer any one of 700 “hot spots” in present-day Petra.
In addition to these educational pieces, Souzan Kades Karadsheh ’01, a committee member and events planner with Calvin’s development department, is perfecting a menu of Petra events that appeal to all the senses: “A Taste of the Mediterranean” is an hors d’oeuvre buffet of Middle Eastern and other Mediterranean treats. The “Afternoon Family Festival,” held in the “Sultan’s Tent,” will blend together Middle Eastern foods and vendors; clowns, magicians and jugglers; henna art, tattoo art, caricature and photography — and music and dancing from North Africa, Egypt, Lebanon, Persia and Romania. “Mezze and Music” combines Mediterranean food with Middle Eastern singing and dancing. And the Grand Rapids Ballet’s performance of Scheherazade will include a specially choreographed Petra piece.
“To bring the Middle East here is not easy,” admitted the Egyptian-born Karadsheh. “It’s such a warm and fun culture that people here aren’t so familiar with, and for Calvin to be the venue for that makes me very proud and excited.”
Karadsheh’s attitude is characteristic of the Petra steering committee, said Hamersma: “I have never worked with a more dedicated and productive committee.” She thinks she knows why: “This exhibit is our gift to the community.”
— Myrna DeVries Anderson is Calvin’s staff writer.
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