"Petra: Lost City of Stone" Showcases Brilliance of Nabataean Civilization

By Pasquini, Elaine | Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, April 2004 | Go to article overview
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"Petra: Lost City of Stone" Showcases Brilliance of Nabataean Civilization


Pasquini, Elaine, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs


More than 2,000 years ago, Petra, a cliffside metropolis located in the southwestern desert of modern-day Jordan, and famous for its rose-colored rock-hewn tombs, monuments and private dwellings, was the thriving capital of the Nabataeans. Artifacts and relief carvings from this civilization of nomads turned prosperous traders and renowned masters of building and engineering are on display at New York City's American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) until July 6. In September, the exhibit moves to the Cincinnati Art Museum (CAM), co-orsanizer with the AMNH. Presented under the patronage of Queen Rania of Jordan, the items-from Jordanian, European and American collections-reunite for the first time the discoveries from the 1937 excavations at Khirbet et-Tannur. The artifacts were divided between the CAM-home to the most extensive collection of Nabataean sculpture outside of Jordan-and the Jordan Archaeological Museum in Amman.

Co-curated by Glenn Markoe of the CAM and the AMNH's Craig Morris, the extraordinary exhibit features 200 items-many on display for the first time in the U.S.-ranging from stone-carved temple facades and bronze statues of Greek deities to delicate ritual objects mainly from the first century CE. A 1,600-pound sandstone bust of the Nabataean's primary male deity, Dushara, a cult statue of the storm god Qaws, and a marble torso of Aphrodite also are on display.

The delicacy and sophistication of Nabataean sculptors can be seen in the lifelike relief carving of a standing eagle, probably once incorporated into a limestone frieze that guarded Qasr al Bint (palace of the Pharaoh's daughter) in the Temenous Gate area of Petra. A symbol of celestial power, the bird has intricately carved wings, feathers, feet, and deep-set eyes under a prominent brow.

A limestone Eye Idol stele featuring a stylized geometric face-to which Picasso's cubist female images from the early 1900s bear an uncanny resemblance-is an excellent example of Petra's awesome treasures.

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