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Back to the Lost City of Stone with NOVA Featuring U of A’s Tom Paradise

Back to the Lost City of Stone with NOVA Featuring U of A’s Tom Paradise

By Bob Whitby

Swiss scientist/adventurer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt wasn’t on a quest to find the “rose-red city half as old as time” when he came across Petra on Aug. 22, 1812. Burckhardt was actually in search of the source of the Niger River in Africa. But he knew of the lost city, and knew that another European had been murdered while trying to find it.

On his way south from Nazareth to Cairo, Burckhardt heard interesting tales of ruins hidden in a crescent-shaped valley, and naturally wanted to investigate. Perhaps this was the wondrous city of massive temples and intricately engineered irrigation pools carved from sheer stone cliffs he’d heard about. If so, no European had seen it since the crusades.

Travel was a bit more adventurous in the early 19th century. Burckhardt studied Arabic and typically kept himself robed so he could pass as a Muslim. To do otherwise would be to risk his life.

On that August day he hired a local guide to take him to a tomb near the ruins where, his cover story went, he wanted to sacrifice a goat to Aaron, the supposed brother of Moses. He killed the goat—had to maintain cover—nosed around the ruins and left convinced that he had indeed come across one of the most significant archeological sites in the world. He never did find the Niger River, though.

Today Petra, located in modern-day Jordan, is famous as one of the New Seven Wonders of the World (it made the list in 2007). It’s probably even more famous as a setting in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

And it’s being loved to death. Millions of tourists visit annually. Their collective footfalls, hand prints and even their breath is contributing to the demise of the city. That’s where the University of Arkansas comes in.

In 1990, the university established the Petra Project, an ongoing effort to assess and record landscape change, deterioration of the city’s architecture, and cultural heritage management efforts.

The Petra Project is led by Dr. Tom Paradise, a professor in the Department of Geosciences and a faculty member with the university’s King Fahd Center for Middle East Studies. Paradise’s background is in geography, cartography, geology and architectural/art history. Lately he’s become known for his stonework.

Paradise wanted to know how the ancient Nabateans built Petra more than 2,000 years ago. So, with the help of masons, carvers and lots of hand laborers, he built a full-scale tomb himself.

His research into how, exactly, ancient architects managed to hew out of sandstone a city home to 30,000 people in an arid desert is the centerpiece of a NOVA special called Petra: Lost City of Stone, which aired in February. If you missed it, there’s a special showing at 7 p.m. in Ozark Hall April 14, courtesy of the Gamma Kappa chapter of the geography honors society Gamma Theta Upsilon.

And if you can’t make the showing, Lost City of Stone is also available online at

About The Author

Bob Whitby writes about bioscience, geoscience, physics, space and planetary sciences, psychology and sociology. Reach him at 479-575-4737, or

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