After visiting Petra — home of his ancestors — for the first time in 1982, Jordanian chemist Talal Akasheh was surprised by the beauty of the site, but equally appalled at the damage that time and the elements had wrought on the extraordinary monuments.
Akasheh (born in 1947), a professor of physical chemistry at Jordan’s Hashemite University, has dedicated nearly three decades to protecting Petra from further deterioration. The GIS database system he developed to document all aspects of the site earned him a Rolex Award in 2008.
With the Award funding, he is expanding the database to include more features and monuments.
As a next step, Akasheh will complete a website as a tool for the Jordanian authorities, who can better manage the site, and academicians interested in Petra. He also intends to create a 3D documentation method as well as a non-destructive technique to study the salt content of the weathered monuments.
Published in 2009
My specialty in chemistry was the advanced reactions and physical processes caused by light — so it had very little to do with the weathering of the monuments. The geological, physical, chemical and biological processes were out of my scope at the time, and I had to learn those things. Slowly I decided we needed to create an information system. The site required integrated management, multidisciplinary action and so on, and this led me into another area — how to create a database using new digital technologies. I went into GIS very slowly, really. Sometimes you are not sure where you are getting with this new knowledge. And, you know, in time it worked
In the first place, just learning the necessary skills was quite challenging. Then, convincing people of the importance of this work. It takes a lot of communication to get people to back you and to understand what you are trying to do. This takes up a lot of your life; you have to give up many things. Sometimes, too, you’d go on a course [of investigation] only to find it wasn’t useful or beneficial — but it is part of the process. Research is like that. Sometimes. Raising funds takes the better part of your efforts and time, and remains a problem.
Many sites all over the world have been subjected to the same kind of study. I think the biggest impact is in Jordan, as a foundation for planning, for conservation and management. This really is the first GIS for a site in Jordan, and it is designed with a view to create a foundation for the conservation of Petra. It can be a model to be employed for other sites in Jordan as well as outside. At the same time, anything you do can have a scientific impact in other places. You find other people would like to do something similar to what you have done. They get an idea from you to improve their system — or you get an idea from theirs. Now we are considering creating virtual reality – our GIS can be used to enhance this. We have already covered a few monuments. Eventually, with the right resources, we hope to cover the whole city.
Petra hosts the largest number of rock-carved monuments in the world. However, in addition to the finest man-made art and architecture, nature has also used its tools to carve the most breathtaking geologic formations. Man and nature have collaborated in the creation of this fantastic site, with the visual and artistic riches that tourists enjoy today. It is also a perfect example of how ancient man was able to work in harmony with nature, harnessing its resources and scarce water for sustainable development. It is not surprising that Petra recently won the title [in an Internet poll in 2007] of one of the “Seven New Wonders of the World”.