It’s hard not to be awed by Petra. The entire city looks like an optical illusion, built by a society with an exemption from gravity. Stone staircases are carved out halfway up unscaleable cliffs. Temples that once forced their way out of the rock now seem like they’re dissolving back into the gorge walls. As the path widens, hovels jammed into rocky crags at bizarre angles beckon, but only if you can walk upside down.
In the middle of all this sits a man – Italian, older, solid – with a small spray bottle. He is anything but awed. Hunched over by the ruins of a temple, he lightly wets the bottom layers of a sandstone wall. He asks how I am, without looking up. When I return the question, there is a slight pause. “Is better to be a tourist”, he grunts.
This is Franco Sciarilli, the lead conservator at Petra’s Temple of the Winged Lions. He is currently part of a team trying to teach Jordanians how to preserve their archaeological treasures. Petra is a considerable source of revenue for Jordan’s government. But time and the weather are starting to get the best of the monuments. Sciarilli is hoping to slow this process.
Petra is all that remains of the Nabataeans, an Arab people who lived over 2,000 years ago. With a monopoly on the trade of frankincense and myrrh, they quite literally carved out a small empire. Following the death of the last Nabataean king, the Romans took control of the area and the Byzantines swept through a little later.
The entire city looks like an optical illusion, built by a society with an exemption from gravity.
Maria Elena Ronza, the site director, explains that the Temple of Winged Lions dates to the second century AD. “It was probably dedicated to one of the main goddesses,” she says. But after an earthquake in 363 AD, the building was abandoned as a place of worship.
Today, the temple might be mistaken for a dig site. After passing the imposing Treasury building and an eroding amphitheatre to get there, the eye almost skips straight over it. It is modest in stature and several green tarps shading the ruin give it a ragged quality. A little further down, a collection of artefacts sit in the open, looking like an abandoned chess game.
Ronza says it was, in part, this unkempt quality that led archaeologist Chris Tuttle to launch the Temple of the Winged Lions Cultural Resource Management project in 2009. The project is a joint initiative of the American Center for Oriental Research, the Department of Antiquities of Jordan and the Petra Archaeological Park, and is largely funded by the American Embassy and the United States Agency for International Development.
“The team is completely gender blind. We have the same pay scale which is a first in Jordan."
The restoration work has so far created about 800 jobs for Jordanians and Ronza is very proud of the team’s diversity.
“The team is completely gender blind. We have the same pay scale which is a first in Jordan and so far we have been able to keep about 50 per cent men and 50 per cent woman employed, which is something that was never done before,” Ronza says.
Preservation efforts at the temple have largely brought excavations to a halt. But the site still has its secrets. The team have been unable to locate any of the eponymous winged lions, for instance. These statues were said to have topped several of the columns inside the temple, but they were buried by a previous expedition somewhere near the temple and the location wasn’t recorded.
“We do still have some years to go,” says Ronza. “We are optimistic about finding them.”
Recent scans of the temple grounds have also revealed what could be another room beneath the main chamber. The team are excited, but also know they have to be patient; it will be another year at least before they know for sure. In the meantime, their focus remains on restoration.
Sciarilli shows me how fragile the temple is, giving the wall a quick spray with the bottle and collapsing a thin layer of the sandstone. He knows the building won’t last forever. Though with proper care and monitoring, its lifespan will lengthen considerably.
But the site still has its secrets. The team have been unable to locate any of the eponymous winged lions, for instance.
Much of Petra is at similar risk from the elements and Ronza is hopeful the method will be adopted at other excavation sites.
“This has definitely been a success, especially in terms of local community engagement,” Ronza says. “With a small company we have founded, the hope is that local people can take contract jobs.”
Ahmad Mowasa, a member of the site’s landscaping team, is keen for the chance to lead by example. He has been working at various digs in Petra since he was a boy and hopes to see Jordanians take charge.
"Because if somebody comes from outside and finds the local community taking care about the site, you will find the others will do the same.”
“We try to do a lot with the Arabs who visit here, the local communities, to take care to respect these sites,” Mowasa says. “Because if somebody comes from outside and finds the local community taking care about the site, you will find the others will do the same.”
Sciarilli says local conservation teams offer long-term benefits.
“We should teach the people because we need them. It’s not possible to think about having people from other countries or other expertise because even after one month, two month, three month, they leave.”
Sciarilli turns back to the wall. Petra disappears from his view again as he resumes spraying tiny cracks in the temple wall.