Petra's artifacts unpacked for show

— Stone statues and other artifacts from Petra, the ancient city carved out of desert cliffs in Jordan, have been unpacked at the American Museum of Natural History in preparation for their first showing in the United States.

The 200 busts and other objects, dating mainly from the first century A.D., will be on view from October through July 2004, then move to the Cincinnati Art Museum, a co-sponsor. Other showings in the United States and Canada also are planned.

The 7.5 tons of Petra sandstone, and Greek, Roman and Byzantine marble, terra cotta and alabaster, were still in half-opened crates as museum officials conducted a preview Wednesday of what would be, for many North American audiences, the first physical contact with Petra.

For the benefit of cameras, Ellen Futter, the museum's president, and David Harvey, vice president for exhibitions, lifted black veils to reveal the Bust of Dushara, a 1,600-pound sandstone head of a bearded male god, and a marble torso of Aphrodite -- two centerpieces of the collection.

Founded in the second century B.C. by the Nabateans, an ancient civilization of desert nomads turned urbanites, Petra was for nearly five centuries a highly developed, agriculture-based society and crossroads of the silk and spice trade among Asia, Egypt, Greece and Rome.

Its importance waned after a devastating earthquake in 363 A.D. By 700 A.D., it had all but vanished, until rediscovered by a Swiss explorer in 1812.

Petra's unique desert ruins -- buildings and tombs carved directly into red sandstone cliffs -- began to attract scientists, scholars and artists. But it became a major tourist site only in the last 50 years, and is still known to many only through such films as "Lawrence of Arabia" and "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade."

Queen Rania of Jordan is a patron of the exhibit, which officials described as "the first major cultural collaboration" between the Middle Eastern kingdom and its close ally, the United States.

For the natural history museum, it is in keeping with 130 years of studying "relationships between nature and humanity," Futter said.

"It was a big decision to have these artifacts leave their country," she said. "For us, it is a great opportunity, part of a continuum of looking at civilizations past and present."

The collection includes several items recently excavated by archaeologists at Petra, among them a carved stone elephant head capital and a large frieze from a Nabatean temple, never before displayed in public.

Other items are ceramics, metalwork, inscriptions and some 25 paintings and other works by 19th-century artists who visited Petra. Some are on loan from Europe and from the Cincinnati Art Museum, where the idea for the exhibit originated.


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