Zoom­ing In on Pe­tra


Smithsonian Magazine - - Con­tents - By Su­san Or­lean

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



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.

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