Glimpses of history, wonder, myth and mystery have wound their way to Sharjah as uncovered secrets of the past from one of the most famous places in the world are shared and displayed for the first time in the Emirates.
Petra, once known as the lost city, has many legends. There are tales of buried treasures; that it once hosted a strange cult of the dead; or that its mysterious whispers are owed to a mystical Jinn hiding out in its caves. Some believe Petra is the final resting place of Miriam, sister of the prophet Moses. Nearby is Wadi Musa (the Valley of Moses), believed to be the site where Moses struck the ground and water gushed forth.
This place of myth and mystery remained lost to much of the world for hundreds of years, with only the Arab Bedouin aware, and protective, of its location.
Petra was finally revealed to the outside world in 1812 by 27-year-old Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt. While dressed as an Arab, he told the Bedouin he was Sheikh Ibrahim Ibn Abdallah and convinced them, in fluent Arabic, to take him to one of the wonders of the ancient world.
Half-built, half-carved into reddish pink rock, giving Petra its second name, Rose City, and surrounded by mountains riddled with passages and gorges, this south-west part of Jordan was described by the British officer T E Lawrence, of Lawrence of Arabia fame, as the “most beautiful place on Earth”.
Treasures from this mysterious place, and a civilisation more than 2,000 years old are now, for the first time, being displayed in the UAE.
They are being hosted by Sharjah Archaeology Museum as the Petra Exhibition: The Wonder of the Desert.
The Petra archaeological park was declared a Unesco World Heritage site in 1985 and has been popularised in films such as the 1989 Hollywood blockbuster Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.
The exhibition, which will run until March 16, is a collaboration between Sharjah Museums Department and the Department of Antiquities of Jordan.
“We are extremely proud to partner with the Department of Antiquities in Jordan to bring this significant exhibition to Sharjah,” says Manal Ataya, director general of Sharjah Museums Department.
“From today, visitors will gain an understanding into one of the most important civilisations in the region and the groundbreaking artistic and architectural heritage integral to its capital,” she says.
Once a thriving trade centre and capital of the Arab Nabataean empire between 300BC and 106AD, the incredible lost city of Petra and its treasures is a blend of Middle Eastern and Hellenic influences.
Visitors to the exhibition will be able explore the relationship and connections that linked Petra as a centre of trade with other settlements in the Arabian Peninsula, including Sharjah’s most significant archaeological site, Mleiha, and Saudi Arabia’s Mada’in Saleh, also called Al Hijr or Hegra.
Historical and archaeological evidence suggests the presence of Nabataean communities in these other two sites.
Because of its strategic location, Petra dominated trade links associated with the passage of caravans transporting incense, frankincense and spices.
The 54 artefacts on display at Sharjah Museum include a diverse selection of sculptures, statues, medallions, architectural motifs and crafts reflecting the groundbreaking artistic and architectural heritage integral to the civilisation of the Arab Nabataeans and their capital city.
“Exhibiting such a wealth of pieces in this region for the first time helps to greatly expand knowledge of this great city, which in turn preserves the cultural heritage of a major Arab civilisation,” Ms Ataya says.
One carving in the display is on a piece of clay from the late 1st century BC depicting a group of musicians from Petra. The figure at the centre is playing a double flute while the women to his sides are playing a lute and a tambourine. A limestone relief from the Temenos precinct from the 1st century BC to the 1st century AD bears the carved image of an eagle with opened wings ready to fly. The image is the symbol for strength in antiquity.
A jug produced in Petra’s bronze-making workshop – also from the 1st century AD – has a handle decorated with the figure of Medusa, a monster from Geek mythology with venomous snakes in place of hair. While those who gazed upon her face would turn to stone, it is believed that putting Medusa’s face on entrances and other objects could ward off evil.
One of the important artefacts on display is a piece of Nabataean script, from which Arabic script was born.
A limestone piece found in Az-Zantur bears a Nabataean building inscription, with text referring to a cavalry leader who erected a building for King Aretas IV and a date in the year AD10.
“What you will find in this exhibition, is how we are all related and connected in this region,” says Samia Khouri, director of museums and public awareness at Jordan’s Department of Antiquities.
The popular local Nabati poetry here in the UAE and other Gulf countries – passed down orally through generations, its dialect strong and slightly removed from classical Arabic – is believed to owe its origins to the Nabataeans, who were also poetic and literary.
“Petra is part of a chain that extended across the region, its culture influencing others, and the other civilisations influencing the Nabataean culture,” she says.
“Petra has been touched by all the major religions, and they are still discovering new artefacts, including elaborately designed churches and monasteries from the Byzantine period (c 330-1453).”
Statues and figurines on display each have their stories and legends, including the limestone head of Dionysus, or Dushara, from the Temenos precinct in the period 1st century BC to 1st century AD.
Dushara is the lord of the Shara mountains of Petra, and was believed to be the protector of the place.
“He is quite similar to Zeus of ancient Greece, who was the king of gods,” Mrs Khouri says.
One of Mrs Khouri’s favourite legends, and often a favourite siste with tourists, is that linked to Qasr al Bint, or castle of the Pharaoh’s daughter, from the 1st century BC.
It is Petra’s best-preserved building, with thick stone walls that have managed to resist earthquakes that have been devastating to other buildings.
“This temple’s unusual name comes from a legend about a pharaoh and his daughter,” she says.
“While in Petra, the daughter went looking for a husband and she decided to marry the first man who would bring water to her palace.
“Only one man proved capable of doing this, one of the guards, who she did, indeed, marry.”
Exhibitions and collaborations like this one, between Jordan and Sharjah, come at a critical time for archaeological and historic sites and artefacts in the Middle East.
“Our most precious treasures are in danger,” Mrs Khouri says.
“Our history and our past civilisations are being wiped out by ISIL and terrorist groups and everything that our ancestors did is in grave danger of being lost forever for future generations.
“It is tragic and painful to look at what we have lost in Iraq, Syria and Palestine.”
What organisers of the exhibition hope for is that visitors form an attachment to the items displayed and feel a responsibility to the preservation and protection of artefacts and history.
“Creating awareness about what is out there and their historic importance is an important step in inspiring civic and individual love and care for the past and its treasures,” Mrs Khouri says.
Even tourism in Jordan, a relatively more stable country compared with others surrounding it, has been hit hard with the continuing conflict in neighbouring countries.
“So this exhibition is a rare and priceless chance for anyone who may have been hesitant to visit Petra, to go now to Sharjah and see what magnificence and greatness this capital once embodied and how it continues to be one of the greatest ancient capitals in the region,” Mrs Khouri says.
As it was described in 1845 by the English poet, John William Burgon, Petra remains “a rose-red city half as old as time”.
Petra Exhibition: The Wonder of the Desert runs until March 16 at Sharjah Archaeology Museum. Dh10, Saturday to Thursday 8am-8pm; Friday 4pm-8pm. For information, visit sharjahmuseums.ae or call 06 566 5466