Saturday, September 11, 2004

'Petra' puts viewers in the city of stone

By Marilyn Bauer
Enquirer staff writer

This marble vase with panther-shaped handles, circa first century, and probably carved in Rome, is part of the Petra exhibit.
(Cincinnati Art Museum)

Two thousand years ago, in Southern Jordan, the ancient metropolis of Petra prospered and became one of the wealthiest cities in antiquity.

A city carved entirely from the sandstone cliffs, Petra sat at the crossroads between the East and West. Traders traveling across the Arabian Peninsula would pass through Petra on their way to Mediterranean ports.

Destroyed by an earthquake in A.D. 363, the "lost" city was rediscovered in 1812 by Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burkhardt.

Petra: Lost City of Stone, at the Cincinnati Art Museum through Jan. 30, brings together more than 200 objects, many never seen before in the United States, including several recently uncovered treasures from the area.


Statue of Victory (Amman) holding celestial disk with head of Tyche (Cincinnati)

Khirbet et-Tannur circa A.D. 100-150
Originally built into a wall of the Khirbet et-Tannur temple, this carving gets to the heart of this exhibition: part of the statue is owned by Jordan, the other by the Cincinnati Art Museum. For the first time since antiquity the halves have been brought together as a symbol for the first cultural exchange between the United Statesand Jordan.

Roman vase with panther-shaped handles

Petra Church, Petra, Jordan circa A.D.170-210
This monumental piece, hand-carved from a single block of pavonazzetto marble by a Roman master craftsman, symbolizes the opulent lives of privileged Nabataeans. It was probably a garden ornament and is the finest of its kind to survive.

Column capital with elephant heads

Great Temple, Petra Jordan
Late 1st century BC
In the fourth century B.C., Alexander the Great opened new trade routes when he led his army from Macedonia toward India. Contact with the East brought new cultural ideas and imagery to Petra, which were soon incorporated into Nabataean art and architecture. Asian elephants were the most spectacular sight the Nabataeans experienced and they quickly became popular symbols of strength.

Marilyn Bauer

It also marks the first cultural exchange between the U.S. and Jordan.

"Petra is the story of the Nabataeans who built one of the great urban complexes of the ancient world," says Glenn Markoe, curator of antiquities for CAM. "It is also a story of the rediscovery of this lost civilization through physical exploration in the early 19th century, and then through scientific, archaeological and ecological research, which makes it possible to relate the history of the Nabataeans in exhibition format."

A local connection

This fascinating show lures you into a secret city lying under layers of sand in the desert, rediscovered in the 19th century and excavated by the late Cincinnatian Nelson Glueck, who turned over his collection of Nabataean artifacts - the largest outside Jordan, to CAM.

Add the fact Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade was filmed in Petra and you have one irresistible show.

Located in the Special Exhibition Gallery on the second floor, the story begins with the paintings, drawings and prints of 19th century explorer-artists, including Frederic Church's who painted "El Khasne, Petra" (1874), following a visit to the city soon after its rediscovery.

From there we meet the Nabataeans through treasures such as a striking gravestone with a stylized male head and inscribed plaques. The show progresses to the Nabataean commercial empire with a recently discovered capital carved with an Asian elephant and a beautiful stone incense burner.

An eight-minute video, Petra: Crossroads of the Ancient World provides historical context, as does an area called "City of Stone," examining the city's architecture and engineering artistry through its freestanding temples, 3,000 tombs, dwellings, banquet halls and altars - all carved into the cliffs.

Then we see what daily life was like for the Nabataeans through an elaborately carved Roman marble vase with panther-shaped handles, jewelry, terracotta plaques, musical instruments, ceramics and a sculpted limestone window frame.


When: Tuesday-Jan. 30

Where: Cincinnati Art Museum

953 Eden Park Drive, Eden Park

Hours: 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday, 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Wednesday

Admission: To the show (museum is free) is $12 for adults, $6 for children 6-18 and free for members and school groups.

Info: 639-2995 or

The Nabataean religion drew upon the gods of the surrounding areas including north Arabia, Edom, Syria and Egypt, but the central belief required worship of the heavenly bodies. Figures of the zodiac were popular and they are illustrated in a phenomenal frieze, now divided into blocks, with the various signs carved from the limestone rock. You won't be able to miss the 2,100-pound sandstone bust of Petra's principal deity, Dushara.

For three centuries starting in A.D. 106, Petra was under the rule of the Roman emperor Trajan. The Roman influence was great and is illustrated by a nearly life-size bronze statue of the Greco-Roman goddess, Artemis, the only surviving statue of its type from Petra.

The history of Petra in the fifth and sixth centuries A.D. when the city was a center for Christianity is incredibly represented by part of a sixth-century A.D. marble pulpit from a Byzantine church.

The exhibition ends with a montage of contemporary photographs detailing ongoing archaeological research and conservation.

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