Like a city carved from a sunrise, Petra rests among the desert sands, recalling the genius of creators long lost in time. Yet the very beauty that adorns it is also, slowly, devouring it.
Relics at Risk
The chemistry that decks Petra’s ancient sandstone monuments in red, sulphur and orange hues is also secretly, grain by grain, dissolving this ancient wonder. Bone-stripping desert winds, rain and flash floods, scorching sun, teeming tourists and modern development add their weight to the erosion. Against these irresistible natural and human forces stand the resolution and skill of Talal Akasheh, a man determined to help save Petra for future generations.
Moved to Help
Since he first beheld Petra as a young scientist, the soft-spoken professor of chemistry from Jordan’s Hashemite University has dedicated 26 of his 61 years to conserving the city. As he marvelled at the magnificence of its monuments carved from the living rock by a forgotten people, he also noted with distress the ravages of time. “I was astonished by the beauty of the site, its geology, its architecture. But I also saw many signs of deterioration. I felt something should be done about it,” he explains. “It is a place alive with history — including the history of my own family, originally from Petra. I could not look at such beauty without saying: ‘Maybe I can help. Maybe not a lot, but perhaps a little, I can help’.” With quiet persistence, scientific meticulousness and inspired leadership, Akasheh has helped piece together the knowledge system that may yet help protect Petra, or at least delay its complete destruction for as long as possible.
History and Legend
The city of Petra was born 2,500 years ago in a giant bowl hollowed over aeons into the sandstone tableland by wind and water to form a perfect natural stronghold for a desert tribe, the Nabataeans, who lived by raiding caravans on the trade routes that criss-crossed the region. In time they grew wealthy and settled to a more cultured existence, crafting majestic tombs, elegant temples and theatres from the timeless cliffs that enfold the hidden site. They built a sophisticated system of dams, cisterns, pipes and channels to guard it from sudden floods. Later, the Romans added to the city. At its peak Petra may have sheltered 25,000 citizens. Named Rekem in the Dead Sea Scrolls, it had a profound influence on regional culture and politics, but, from the 3rd century on, natural disasters and political tides gradually eclipsed it until it was eventually abandoned and erased from the memory of all but local Bedouin.
In 1812, gleaning rumours of a 'lost city' in the desert, Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt rediscovered Petra and proclaimed its marvels to the European public. English poet John Burgon famously celebrated it as “a rose-red city, half as old as time”. Approached through a dark and sinuous gorge called the Siq, the site opens out into a breathtaking vista of more than 500 facades of tombs and as many as 3,000 features, over which The Treasury — a royal mausoleum — towers with grandeur. Visitors, particularly in recent decades, have flocked to view these wonders in tens of thousands, providing vital income to Jordan — but also posing a new threat to the ancient city. Added to UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 1985, Petra has been listed, by the World Monuments Fund, among the annual 100 most endangered sites four times in the past 12 years.
The Chemistry of Decay
From his first visit to the site, Talal Akasheh was not only moved by its beauty — as a scientist, he was eager to understand the chemistry of the weathering that is destroying Petra and to use his training to help arrest it. The vivid colours that lend the city its mystique in fact reflect the chemical processes caused by water within the rock itself: “Water is the most important element. It gets into the pores of the rock, evaporates and condenses, dissolving the minerals, depositing their crystals which then grow and crack the rock into finer particles. It is a very complex process and the flow of water leaves traces that form these beautiful colours on the surface.”
Documenting the Dangers
Today the Geographic Information System, or GIS, provides managers of the archaeological park with essential knowledge they need to plan, care for and restore the site and its surrounding region. It offers archaeologists and architects a new way to analyse the monuments and their architecture — and visitors with a safer, more informative experience.
However, the threats facing Petra are pervasive. Akasheh has examined them all: there is the long, slow, chemical disintegration driven by moisture and the airborne salts from the Dead Sea, the rare, fierce downpours, changes to the water table and the sand-blast of desert winds. There is constant abrasion from the hands and feet of tourists and guides, the vandalism of tomb-robbers, urban encroachment, the visual canker of modern development and loss of vegetation from the landscape. There is the snake-like spread of tarmac roads and the acidic fumes of traffic. “I had an ulterior motive for wanting to conserve Petra,” Akasheh admits, referring to his fascination with the site. “Every time I go back there I find new things to marvel at, features to admire. I am myself a tourist. And tourism is the bread and butter of this part of Jordan. But it must be carefully planned. The GIS is the foundation, a first step, in this process.”
Many Forces at Work
Learning the specialist skills to create the database was no simple matter. Meticulously, doggedly, Dr Akasheh applied himself to mastering them. By 2002, the Petra GIS, the first of its kind in Jordan, was in action, acclaimed by colleagues and put to practical use by Jordan’s Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities to plan and manage the site. Like the desert itself, funding was erratic; downpours were followed by long periods of scarcity through which the work progressed hand-to-mouth, often consuming Akasheh’s own resources. Yet he persisted. By 2008, the GIS’s 10-gigabyte memory collated 2,000 monuments and features, mapped Petra itself, the nearby tourist town of Wadi Musa and the Bedouin settlement of Um Sayhoun. At the same time, he also sought new ways to conserve the monuments and explored the exquisite Nabataean pottery.
Aqel Biltaji, former Jordanian Minister for Tourism and Antiquities, says: “Dr Akasheh’s work is a perfect example of the use of science and technology in the service of sustainable tourism . . . Jordan lays great importance on tourism development, but is very keen to ensure the protection of the site. Dr Akasheh’s work . . . could be among the first and most effective efforts towards achieving this goal.”
What Lies Ahead
Still, the GIS covers only part of the site — and it is for this vital completion phase that Talal Akasheh has been given a Rolex Award. Over three years, he plans to devote the prize funds to the inclusion of up to 1,000 further possible archaeological features in the database, half within Petra and the rest — possibly including a collection of watchtowers in a rural-suburban agricultural area filled with dams and water-management systems — outside. Study will be made of the flash floods that ravage the site, with a view to possibly restoring the 2,000-year-old Nabataean drainage system. Ground-penetrating radar will be used to prospect the surrounding terrain for hidden tombs and other archaeological mysteries. X-ray fluoroscopy and other advanced techniques will be deployed to study the weathering chemistry of the monuments, to identify those in most urgent need of conservation. The GIS has already yielded a wonderfully detailed tourist map, and may make possible virtual visits to the city from anywhere on earth, via the internet.
“The area around the city is covered with ancient farm terraces and dams, interesting graves, stone rubble pointing to possible defensive structures on the high ground, and other features,” Akasheh explains. “If we leave it to the developers, we will never know what was there.”
Among the world’s fabled lost cities, Petra’s mysterious glory stands as a beacon of human achievement. It has withstood the abrasion of time for over two millennia, but how long it endures depends on how it is cared for today. Eventually, Akasheh acknowledges, it must return to the desert sands: “Already monuments have disappeared, and some are more affected than others. But it is still worthwhile. It is natural for man to look at his past and to respect it. To want it to last as long as possible. And good documentation of the site keeps its memory safe, even after it is long gone”.
Published in 2008