Petra: the city in the rock saved by an Italian task force

Petra, Jordan’s city in the rock, is threatened by rain and erosion: these are the works undertaken to save it.

No country has as many World Heritage Sites designated by UNESCO as Italy and the list has been growing even longer in recent years: the Prosecco hills of Conegliano Veneto and Valdobbiadene, Ivrea, Arab-Norman Palermo, the Medici Villas and so on. But this does not mean that Italian know-how and experience must be focused solely on the care and safeguarding of sites located in our own country. On the contrary, the aim of the list, updated year after year by UNESCO, is to establish continuous collaboration between different countries in order to preserve these precious areas from the perspective of culture and/or nature, as happened, for example, with the rescue of the Abu Simbel temples in Egypt. It should be no surprise then to find Italian professionals at work in Jordan at the amazing archaeological site of Petra, working to make certain parts of the city sculpted in the rock safe.

Petra, the city in the rock

The preservation of Petra, the city sculpted in the rock, is essential for Jordan because the country is very dependent on tourism, a sector that provides for around 20% of its GDP. In recent decades, visitors have been drawn both by its natural beauties, like the desert and Mount Nebo, and by cultural sites like the majestic ruins of Jerash and – above all – the archaeological site of Petra.

As is well known, the war in Syria, instability in the Middle East and the danger of penetration by IS have placed the flow of tourists in jeopardy in recent years. Between 2018 and 2019, however, the numbers began to increase again, promising new hope for the Jordan tourist sector. Without a shadow of a doubt, Petra is the jewel in the crown of this Arab country’s tourist attractions. Lying 155 miles south of the capital Amman, it was a Semitic city, the capital of the Nabatean people, but was abandoned in the 8th century due to natural catastrophes and a decline in trade. Forgotten for centuries, Petra was designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO on 6 December 1985 and was later included in a much larger National Archaeological Park in 1993. In 2007, finally, Petra was selected as one of the seven wonders of the modern world. As mentioned, Italy has been among those helping to protect this very important archaeological site in recent years.

The first Italian intervention at Petra in 2011

As is often the case, rain is the greatest threat to the archaeological site of Petra, especially during heavy downpours. To make the city carved in the rock safe, it was decided to combine ancient knowledge with the most advanced technologies and also to make use of foreign expertise, such as that found in Italy.

In 2011, the archaeological site of Petra became the workplace of a team of Italian rock climbers who were asked to make the long, evocative canyon safe through which visitors reach the heart of the city of rock. It can certainly be said that this intervention was a meeting between the ancient and the futuristic: the team used mules to transport materials and, at the same time, a three-dimensional laser scanner.

The aim of this first Italian intervention at Petra was to make the passage safe, securing or removing the hazardous rocks that threatened visitors and guides along the Siq, about half a mile long. The work was coordinated by the National Research Council (CNR) and ISPRA (Higher Institute for Environmental Protection and Research), using both 3D laser and instruments for photogrammetry, as well as an interesting software programme called the GIS (Geographic Information System) that can analyse the data on the territory and interpret it on the basis of the most varied requirements. Once the passage had been made safe, the Italian team of Alpine rock climbers provided a course on safety for the many Jordanians who climb the steep walls of the Petra archaeological site every day, for various reasons. This was only the first of the Italian interventions at Jordan’s “wonder of the modern world”.

The second Italian intervention at Petra in 2019

The second Italian intervention at Petra took place last year, in 2019, and focused on a specific building at the Royal Tombs: the Palace Tomb. There was a sprinkling of Italian influence, it must be said, right from the start of this particular construction: its very name comes from the fascinating imitation by the ancient Arab builders of a palace with Roman features. This is a façade carved into the rock with two central doors surmounted by triangular tympanums and, further up, an order of 18 columns.

The Italian intervention was prompted by a specific aspect of this structure, the rear of which conceals a huge water tank from where a widespread network of pipes radiates. However, over the centuries, the latter fell into ruin, allowing rainwater to penetrate. Archaeologists, working alongside scientists from CNR and researchers from Urbino University, were asked to put this water system back into working order to protect one of Petra’s most important monuments. The intervention was made possible by the use of advanced technologies, such as 3D scanners and drones. Indeed, it was a drone that, not long ago, discovered a new important archaeological site near Petra.

A drone finds an enormous monument near Petra

The discovery of a vast monument only about 830 yards from the city of Petra hit the headlines not long ago. This complex, forgotten for centuries, was identified by Sarah Parcak of National Geographic and Christopher Tuttle, Executive Director of the Council of American Overseas Research Centers, helped by satellite images and shots taken by a drone. It must be said that this is no insignificant monument: indeed, the new archaeological site may be longer than an Olympic swimming pool.

New technologies, together with the best expertise, again proved crucial for the protection and safeguarding of the world’s most important archaeological sites.