Petra paintings restored to their glory

Works at historic city in Jordan are the most important surviving Nabataean murals, and are being restored by experts from London's Courtauld Institute.

AMMAN // Cave paintings of immense historical value have been brought to life at a restoration project in the historic city of Petra in southern Jordan. The 2,000-year-old paintings - of such exceptional beauty and detail that individual species of plants, birds and insects can now be recognised - have been uncovered in a restoration project that the Petra National Trust (PNT) started in 2006.

The PNT and Jordan's department of antiquities brought in conservation experts from the Courtauld Institute in London to carry out the project, which was completed last week. The paintings were covered over the centuries by soot and grime and, more recently, were damaged by graffiti and attempted thefts. Painted by the Nabataeans, probably in the first century as they ran their trading empire across much of the Middle East and Mediterranean from Petra, the paintings in the classical Greek style "should make jaws drop", according to David Park, director of wall paintings at the Courtauld.

The PNT says the paintings, covering a principal chamber and a smaller rear recess at the cave about 300 metres from the entrance of the Siq al-Barid in Petra, represent "the most important surviving examples of Nabataean wall painting". Aysar Akrawi, executive director of the PNT, said in a statement: "The wall painting in Siq al-Barid is the finest and most extensive of these rare fragments of Nabataean mural paintings.

"It is a unique example in this region and holds importance for the history of art. It also provides valuable information about the history of the region." The painting covers the vault and walls of the recess with an intertwining vine-scrolls and flowers, winged demi-gods, child-like figures and a host of colourful birds. Dalya Alberge, arts correspondent for The Observer newspaper in London, wrote this week that the artistic quality and sheer beauty of the paintings "are said to be superior even to some of the better Roman paintings at Herculaneum that were inspired by Hellenistic art".

"Virtually no Hellenistic paintings survive today, and fragments only hint at antiquity's lost masterpieces, while revealing little about their colours and composition, so the revelation of these wall paintings in Jordan is all the more significant," she added. The restoration project has been led for the past three years by Stephen Rickerby and Lisa Shekede from the Courtauld Institute. "A lot of wall paintings are really no more than general decoration, but this is truly a work of art," Mr Rickerby said yesterday.

"When we first saw the painting, it was completely covered in soot. The techniques used in the painting were very vulnerable and at first we thought that it would be an impossible project. "But we tailored our cleaning techniques and, slowly, we uncovered the painting in all its stunning detail. Now, for the first time in centuries, it is possible to see how unique it is … simply wonderful." Mr Park said the painting represented not only a work of art but also provided considerable information about the complex technical workmanship involved.

He said the painting developed out of a compound of Hellenistic-Roman cultural elements "adding to its unique quality and value for understanding the Nabataean civilisation". Among the plants that have so far been identified are three different vines, grape ivy and bindweed. Birds depicted include a demoiselle crane and a richly coloured Palestine sunbird. Figures portrayed include a winged child playing a flute and others picking fruit or fighting off birds pecking at grapes.

"An outstanding discovery is the use of gilding to highlight the autumnal leaves of the vine-scroll decoration," the PNT said. "There is technical evidence to indicate that many other leaves were originally similarly gilded. Scientific analysis of paint materials has demonstrated the complexity and sophistication of the painting, for example in the extensive use of organic glazes." Next, the project will focus on the interpretation of the painting and improving access to visitors with the aim of boosting income for the local Amarin tribe in nearby Beida. David Sapsted reported from London