Petra's ancient paintings emerge from campfire smoke

Mon Sep 13, 2010 6:03am EDT
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By Suleiman al-Khalidi

PETRA, Jordan (Reuters Life!) - Conservation experts almost gave up when they first saw the severely damaged wall paintings they had come to rescue in the ancient city of Petra.

Cloaked for centuries in grimy soot from bedouin camp fires, the blackened murals appeared beyond repair.

But three years of restoration revealed intricate and brightly-colored artwork, and some of the very few surviving examples of 2,000-year-old Hellenistic wall painting.

"It has actually been quite nerve-racking. We didn't actually realize that we could clean this painting and when we started we thought that would be impossible. It only emerged half way through," said conservation expert Stephen Rickerby, waving his hand at the decorated mural.

The spectacular paintings are located in the canyon of Siq al-Barid in Beidha, known as "Little Petra" about five km (three miles) from Petra itself.

Petra enjoys fame for the carved rock ruins left by the Nabateans, an Arab civilization that arose centuries before Jesus and survived until Roman legions incorporated it into their vast empire.

The Nabateans flourished in the second century BC and dominated the long distance caravan trade that brought incense and aromatics from South Arabia to the Mediterranean.

Absorbing artistic influences from across their empire, they adopted Hellenistic styles in many of their cities and their newly restored paintings at Petra are some of the very few -- and most detailed -- remaining examples.   Continued...

<p>Stephen Rickerby, a British conservation specialist from the Courtald Institute in London, restores 2,000 year old Hellenstic style wall paintings in a cave complex, nicknamed "Little Petra", at Siq al-Barid in Beidha, about five km (three miles) away from the rock carved city of Petra, southern Jordan August 30, 2010. REUTERS/Ali Jarekji</p>