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Museums: Petra's Wealth Volume 57 Number 2, March/April 2004
by Emily Catherine Egan

Relief sculptures from Petra's first-century A.D. heyday as a thriving merchant capital include depictions of Medusa, left, a bust of Pisces, middle, and the Nabataean god Dushara carved in the style of Dionysus. (© Cincinnati Art Museum) [LARGER IMAGE]

The most comprehensive collection of materials from the ancient city of Petra ever assembled is now on display at New York's American Museum of Natural History. "Petra: Lost City of Stone" showcases the magnificent capital of the Nabataeans, a once-nomadic Arab tribe that achieved prominence and wealth through trade in spices and incense in the first century B.C. As lucrative caravan routes fell under their control, the Nabataeans settled into a valley in southwestern Jordan and transformed it into a world-class city, best known today for its elegant rock facades.

The exhibition opens with a ten-foot-tall image of the city's most recognized facade, the magnificent al-Khazneh or Treasury, viewed through the winding canyon made famous by Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. During Petra's heyday as a mercantile center and political capital, trading caravans, the city's lifeblood, made their way through this same canyon. Recent excavations here have uncovered a vast water-supply system and carvings of a camel caravan, both of which are featured in a short film that also digitally reenacts the carving of a tomb facade from the living rock. Standing at the crossroads of ancient trade networks stretching as far east as India, Petra was a cosmopolitan center that dressed the part. Some of the exhibition's most intriguing pieces betray foreign influence, like ornately carved column capitals decorated with Asian elephants.

But Petra's hold over the lucrative caravan trade was not to last. Acquired by the emperor Trajan in A.D. 106, Petra suffered when the Romans shifted vital trade routes north. Reorganized and rebuilt under foreign rule, Petra remained prosperous after annexation but fell far from the commercial preeminence it once enjoyed. Sculptures and inscriptions dating to the site's Roman and Byzantine periods briefly address the later periods of the city's occupation. Beginning in A.D. 363 a series of destructive earthquakes led to the collapse of many of Petra's larger buildings. Structurally weakened and economically impoverished, Petra slowly slipped into obscurity.

After July 6, "Petra: Lost City of Stone" will travel to the Cinncinati Art Museum. The exhibition also has a comprehensive website:

Emily Catherine Egan is an archaeologist at Brown University.

Click here for ARCHAEOLOGY's list of current exhibitions.

© 2004 by the Archaeological Institute of America