Zooming In on Petra
HOW DIGITAL ARCHAEOLOGISTS ARE USING DRONES AND CUTTING-EDGE CAMERAS TO RECREATE THE SPECTACULAR 2,000-YEAR-OLD RUINS IN JORDAN
Using drones equipped with 3-D cameras, a team of digital archaeologists is working to create a precise virtual model of the spectacular, once-bustling ancient stone city in Jordan
ONCE YOU’VE BEEN TO PETRA, it stays with you. Long after you’ve left you will find grit from Petra’s red sandstone in the tread of your shoes; your fingernails will have a faint rosy tinge; a fine pinkish dust will cling to your clothing. For some time you will close your eyes and still be able to relive the startling moment you first saw this ancient stone city rising out of the desert floor; you will savor the memory of this place, its grandeur and strangeness, even after you manage to wash away the traces of its red rocks.
Driving southwest across the dull plateau from Amman for a few hours, you suddenly tip into the dry basin of Jordan’s Arabah Valley and tumble down through mountain passes. The landscape is cracked and sandy, seared and unpromising. It is hardly the setting in which you expect to find a city of any sort, let alone one this rich and extravagant and refined. There seems to be no water, no possibility of agriculture, no means of livelihood or sustenance. The fact that the Nabatean people, the nomadic Arabs who crisscrossed the region until they grew wealthy from trade, made Petra the capital of their empire by the fourth century B.C. is baffling. Yet here, at the valley’s center, are the remains of this once-lavish city, watered by hidden aqueducts that run for miles from an underground spring. It looks like no other place I’ve ever seen. The “buildings” are punched into the rock cliffs—in other words, they are elaborate caves, recessed in the sandstone and fronted with miraculously carved ornate facades. It is probably one of the world’s only cities that was made by subtraction rather than addition, a city you literally enter into, penetrate, rather than approach.
Petra will draw you in, but at the same time, it is always threatening to disappear. The sandstone is fragile. The wind through the mountains, the pounding of feet, the universe’s bent toward disintegration—all conspire to grind it away. My trip here was to see the place and take a measure of its evanescent beauty, and to watch Virtual Wonders, a company devoted to sharing and
PETRA WAS HOME TO AS MANY AS 30,000 PEOPLE, FULL OF TEMPLES,
THEATERS, GARDENS, VILLAS AND ROMAN BATHS.
documenting the world’s natural and cultural wonders, use all manner of modern technology to create a virtual model of the site so precise that it will, in effect, freeze Petra in time.
I ARRIVED IN PETRA just as the summer sun cranked up from roast to broil; the sky was a bowl of blue and the midday air was piping hot. The paths inside the Petra Archaeological Park were clogged. Horse-drawn buggies clattered by at a bone-joggling speed. Packs of visitors inched along, brandishing maps and sunscreen. In a spot of shade, guides dressed as Nabateans kneeled to conduct their midday prayers.
At its peak, 2,000 years ago, Petra was home to as many as 30,000 people, full of temples, theaters, gardens, tombs, villas, Roman baths, and the camel caravans and marketplace bustle befitting the center of an ancient crossroads between east and west. After the Roman Empire annexed the city in the early second century A.D., it continued to thrive until an earthquake rattled it hard in A.D. 363. Then trade routes shifted, and by the middle of the seventh century what remained of Petra was largely deserted. No one lived in it anymore except for a small tribe of Bedouins, who took up residence in some of the caves and, in more recent centuries, whiled away their spare time shooting bullets into the buildings in hopes of cracking open the vaults of gold rumored to be inside.
In its period of abandonment, the city could easily have been lost forever to all but the tribes who lived nearby. But in 1812, a Swiss explorer named Johann Ludwig Burckhardt, intrigued by stories he’d heard about a lost city, dressed as an Arab sheikh to beguile his Bedouin guide into leading him to it. His reports of Petra’s remarkable sites and its fanciful caves began drawing oglers and adventurers, and they have continued coming ever since.
Two hundred years later, I mounted a donkey named Shakira and rode the dusty paths of the city to ogle some of those sites myself. This happened to be the middle of the week in the middle of Ramadan. My guide, Ahmed, explained to me that he had gotten permission to take his blood pressure medication despite the Ramadan fast, and he gobbled a handful of pills as our donkeys scrambled up rock-hewn steps.
Ahmed is a broad man with green eyes, a grizzled beard, a smoker’s cough, and an air of bemused weariness. He told me that he was Bedouin, and his family had been in Petra “since time began.” He was born in one of Petra’s caves, where his family had been living for generations. They would still be living there, he said, except that in 1985, Petra was listed as a Unesco World Heritage site, a designation that discourages ongoing habitation. Nearly all the Bedouin families living in Petra were resettled—sometimes against their wishes—in housing built outside the boundaries of the new Petra Archaeological Park. I asked Ahmed if he preferred his family’s cave or his house in the new village. His house has electricity and running water and Wi-Fi. “I liked the cave,” he said. He fumbled for his phone, which was chirping. We rode on, the donkeys’ hard hooves tapping a rhythmic beat on the stone trail.
The sandstone at Petra is famed for its painterly natural radiance, like these swirling exteriors of the Royal Tombs.This page: an illustration inspiredby a first-century A.D. fresco in “Little Petra,” a suburb ofthe main city.