In 2007 incredible paintings were found on the walls of a cave in Petra. The paintings were a particularly significant find because of the sit, age and quality. For hundreds of years the paintings remained covered up by dirt, soot and even graffiti. With the dedicated efforts of experts from the Courtauld Institute in London the paintings were uncovered and restored by conservation experts Stephen Rickerby and Lisa Shekede at the instigation of the Petra National Trust. By 2010 the restoration and preservation was completed.
What was revealed was one of the most stunningly beautiful Hellenistic-style paintings dating back 2,000 years. The quality of the paintings is thought to be even better than paintings in Italy from the same period (for example in Herculaneum, Italy). The painting in Petra is of vital importance in the understanding of art of that period and is one of only a handful of such paintings which have survived. The Petra cave paintings reveals a lot about the materials used at the time and the colors and composition. The painting displays real artistic skill and knowledge of painting techniques. The artist used sophisticated colors and complex materials including gold leaf, gilding and translucent glazes.
Hellenistic Painting in Petra
The painting is believed to have been created by an artist from the Nabataean culture. The Nabataeans resided in Petra from about 300BC for the next 400 years. The painting is thought to have been created in the 1st century so it was more than likely a Nabataean who painted the picture. Although some experts say that the painting could be even older. Petra is on the ancient trade routes connecting Arabia and Egypt with Syria and Europe. The Nabataeans traded regularly with Romans and Greeks; the artistic styles and techniques would have been gleaned from these encounters. Many features of the painting are typical of Hellenistic paintings. The intricate detail in the depiction of flowers, birds and insects bringing life to the creatures is typical of the Hellenistic style. In the painting there are three types of vines depicted – grape, ivy and bindweed. All of these vines are associated with Dionysus, the Greek god of wine and signify that the artist also had knowledge of Greek mythology and culture. The birds depicted in the painting have been identified as the demoiselle crane, a sleek black and white bird as well as the Palestine sunbird which has iridescent blue-black feathers. The scenes in the paintings feature human figures as well as a winged child playing the flute. The painting shows human figures working in the fields and vineyards while protecting the fruit from pecking birds. In the surrounding area of the caves evidence was found of ancient vineyards and wine production facilities (grape presses). The painting was more than likely a depiction of the scenes the artist saw around him.
You can see the influence of Greek and European architecture in the carved structures of Petra. For example the Treasury features columns, an urn and pediment. In fact the name “Petra” comes from the Greek word for stone or rock. Petra was the Nabataean capital with a flourishing economy and cultural life; the city saw merchants and travelers passing through their city on a daily basis. Each traveler or caravan brought with it knowledge and its own cultural elements, some of which left their mark on Petra. Petra was an important crossroads for the route from the Red Sea and Arabia to the north, Syria and Europe.
Where is the Petra Cave Painting?
The 2,000 year old cave painting is in a cave complex in Petra situated in Siq al-Barid in Beidha which is affectionately called Little Petra; approximately 5 kilometers from the primary tourist area of Petra. The site of the painting is likely to have been a retreat for the super-rich in Petra and the painting is one of the most valuable surviving examples of Nabataean art. The cave where the paintings are located would have been used as a dining area or biclinium (a room with reclining chairs specifically for dining at a Roman feast).This was one of the main cave chambers where ritual dinners would have been held. Of the paintings in the cave the most impressive is on the vaulted ceiling and the walls of a recess area.
Significance of the Petra Painting
The Petra cave painting shows the Hellenistic-Roman cultural influence. It teaches us of the lifestyle of that era and the surrounding landscape. Experts were surprised at the level of expertise required by the artist to produce such a high standard of work and by the quality of the artist’s materials. As a cultural crossroads of the Eastern Mediterranean Petra’s surviving fragile cave painting decorating the dining hall is a major discovery. The most significant fact about this discovery is that it is the only known Nabataean figurative wall painting in situ.