Treasures from Petra
Jordanian-U.S. Exhibit Tours North America
An idea sparked by a 1994 visit to Cincinnati by Jordan’s Queen Noor al-Hussein has resulted in Petra: Lost City of Stone—the first major cultural collaboration between Jordan and the United States. Organized by the Cincinnati Art Museum and the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, the exhibit features more than 200 artifacts from the 2,000-year-old Nabatean city.
Glenn Markoe, curator of Classical and Near Eastern Art at the Cincinnati Art Museum and co-curator of the Petra exhibition (along with Craig Morris of the American Museum of Natural History), told Archaeology Odyssey that the seeds of the exhibit were sown when Queen Noor viewed the famed statue of Atargatis/Tyche, the ancient Greek goddess of fortune, in the Cincinnati museum.
“After biblical archaeologist Nelson Glueck of Cincinnati excavated the hilltop sanctuary of Khirbet et-Tannur, north of Petra, in 1937,” Markoe said, “the finds were evenly divided between Glueck’s team and the Jordanian Department of Antiquities. A figure of Nike, or Winged Victory, originally supported the upper half of the statue of Atargatis/Tyche. The Nike portion of the statue had apparently been removed from the site before excavation got underway and eventually wound up in the Citadel Museum in Amman. The upper half of the statue, containing the bust of Atargatis/Tyche framed by signs of the zodiac, was shipped off to Cincinnati.” (The Cincinatti Art Museum had purchased the American share of the finds from Khirbet et-Tannur.)
The two halves of the statue, as well as many other finds from Nabatean sites, have been reunited in the Petra exhibition. “Only a small portion of the items on display come from Cincinnati’s collection,” Markoe said. “Most of the objects are from Jordan—from Amman’s Citadel Museum and the old and new museums in Petra. Some loans are from the Louvre, and the 19th-century paintings, prints and 013drawings of Petra were culled from collections in New York and England.”
After years of negotiations with the Jordanian government, and notwithstanding continued political unrest in neighboring countries (including two wars), the Petra exhibit became feasible in 2002, when the American Museum of Natural History agreed to co-produce the project. That same year, the Jordanian parliament, on the recommendation of Fawwaz al-Khraysheh, Director-General of Jordan’s Department of Antiquities, and under the aegis of Queen Rania al-Abdullah, agreed to loan the precious Nabatean artifacts for an extended period of time, at least through 2007.
The financial backing and logistical support needed to mount such an ambitious exhibition were daunting. Royal Jordanian Airlines assumed the cost of shipping six tons of crated objects. The American museums were responsible for conserving and mounting the objects—work that involved hundreds of thousands of dollars. After the completion of the tour, all of the hardware used to display the antiquities will be given to the Jordanians for use in future displays in their museums.
Markoe said that the cost of the exhibition, evenly shared by the Cincinnati and New York museums, will be two million dollars. Gate receipts and loan fees will defray costs, but no major corporation has so far stepped forward to underwrite the exhibit.
Markoe’s team made numerous reconnaissance trips to Jordan to get a sense of what artifacts were available. “We found some really remarkable things in the storerooms of the museums we visited,” he said. “But what we’re most proud of is our rescue and removal of a colossal—twice life-size—limestone bust of Dushara, the primary male divinity of Petra, which is now one of the highlights of the exhibition.”
The Dushara bust was discovered in the 1950s by British archaeologists in the vicinity of Petra’s Temenos Gate, which led from the city into the sacred precinct of the Temple of Qasr al-Bint. The statue, which originally stood over the gateway, was hauled several hundred feet up a cliff and cemented in place over the entrance of the old Petra museum, which was housed in an ancient rock-cut tomb.
“Over the past five decades, half of the piece had deteriorated from exposure to wind and rain,” Markoe said. “We negotiated with Jordan’s Department of Antiquities to have it removed, cleaned and shipped to New York.”
Pierre and Patricia Bikai of the American Center for Oriental Research, Amman, were responsible for removing and lowering the statue of Dushara, as well as cleaning and conserving many other artifacts in the show.
So far, people have turned out in record numbers to see artifacts from Petra’s rose-red canyons. “Petra is likely to be among the best-attended exhibitions ever mounted at the American Museum of Natural History,” Markoe said.
The exhibit will remain in New York until July; it will reopen at the Cincinnati Art Museum in mid-September and remain there until the end of January 2005. Other North American venues will be announced in the future.—N.B.L.
Treasures from Petra