Reprinted with permission from Heritage Newsletter, English Version No. 2, June 1993
In 1991, UNESCO Director-General Federico Mayor responded favorably to a request emanating from the highest level in Jordan for help with regard to the site of Petra, inscribed on the World Heritage List in 1985. For several years, even before its inscription on the List, Petra had benefited from international co-operation. During the period 1960 to 1970, studies were carried out by the World Bank, in collaboration with experts from UNESCO, with a view to establishing a new residential areAto house the peoples living in tombs dating back to the Nabatacan era and carved in the rose-red rock of Petra.
The French National Geographic Institute (IGN), under contract to UNESCO, had also made a number of photogrammetric surveys and restoration missions had been sent to PetrAto try to consolidate the stucco decorations adorning the Qasr Al Bint, one of the principal monuments of the site.
In 1985, UNESCO had taken part in a seminar on Petra and the caravan-route cities organized jointly by the Jordanian Department of Antiquities and a group known as LIMC (Lexique Iconographique de la Mythologie Classique). More recently UNESCO financed the scaffolding erected for the restoration of the Palace Tomb.
Petra, however, had become one of the favorite destinations of tourists visiting Jordan and the Holy Land and ad hoc restoration work was no longer enough. The nature and complexity of the problems arising were considered to be suffi- ciently important for UNESCO to give further consideration to Jordanian concern about the site as expressed in letters addressed to Mr. Mayor by Her Majesty Queen Noor.
It was evident that Petra, the ancient capital of the Nabataeans, was facing inevitable further deterioration if an overall safe- guarding plan was not rapidly set in motion.
In December 1991, a mission was sent to Jordan to identify the problems and to suggest projects to remedy them. This was followed by the despatch of a multidisciplinary group of experts which stayed in Petra from 24th October to 24th November 1992.
This mission consisted of an architect/coordinator, Atown-planner with specialist knowledge of problems of Saharan hydrology, an expert in ecology and the management of national parks, a geomorphologist, two experts on cultural tourism and touristic engineering, an anthropologist and an archaeologist with specialized knowledge of Petra.
Following completion of their mission, the members of the UNESCO team were received by their Majesties King Hussein of Jordan and Queen Noor to whom they presented the broad lines of action they proposed for the elaboration of a master plan covering the whole Petra region. Details of the analysis made and conclusions reached by the experts were laid out in Atwo-hundred-page report which was sent to UNESCO for reproduction in April 1993. A first working copy had already been sent, in March 1993, to the Jordanian authorities.
Like all visitors, the experts saw Petra as an archaeologically fascinating city, unique both in its geographical situation and in the quality of its natural environment.
Inhabited since Neolithic times, Petra entered its golden age when the Nabatacans chose this site to be the royal scat of king Aretas in the second century BC. From that time onwards, for several centuries, Petra played a dominant role, flourishing as an economic and religious centre and as a sacred funerary city.
Scattered around the city are hundreds of tombs and funerary vaults, carved out of the rock and adorned with sculptures. The city also has its share of civic buildings for it was once a major cross-roads for the caravan routes that led to Sinai, the Red Sea, the Dead Sea, Egypt and Syria.
The climate, which appears to have changed little since ancient times, impelled the inhabitants to construct ingenious systems, veritable works of art, to control the water that nature dispensed with a parsimonious hand. Annual precipitation in the area averages between 50 and 250 millimeters a year, an amount characteristic of semi-desertic regions. These climatological conditions, combined with the abandonment of the ancient system of dams and irrigation channels has been one of the causes of erosion of the soil and of the amplitude of the flooding when the area is at times subjected to torrential rain. Access to the site of Petra is through the narrow, two-kilometre-long Siq gorge, where, in April 1963, a group of tourists was carried away by floodwater.
Two bodies, Electricité de France and SPOT Image, have offered to study the hydrological conditions and to supply the information which will enable the ancient system of dams and channels to be restored to use.
The monuments of Petra are under several forms of attack, not least from erosion by:
the wind which carries sand particles from the crumbling sandstone rock and which corrodes the lower sections of the facades of the tombs and funerary vaults: the water which infiltrates into the rock by capillary action and enables vegetation to grow in the interstices and to cause fracturing of the rock or even rock fall.
Nature, however, is not the only aggressor; human activities also play a preponderant role in the deterioration of the site.
The integrity and conservation of the site are seriously threatened by the uncontrolled flow of tourists and the lucrative sideline activities this engenders.
The first thing that strikes the visitor on arrival at Wadi Musa, a village through which one passes to reach the archaeological site, is the clear evidence of uncontrolled urban development.
Large numbers of hotels have sprung up, one of them located within an areAthat should be designated as a "no building" zone. Recent archaeological research shows that many vestiges of the ancient site have still to be uncovered in the area stretching from the existing site up to and including parts of the village of Wadi Musa, which, because of the tourist influx, is rapidly developing into a bustling small town.
One of the most lucrative activities is the provision of horse and camel rides to give tourists access to the ancient ruins. Exotic and attractive as this may seem to tourists, the dust raised by the animals becomes encrusted on the flanks of the Siq gorge and damages the excavated ruins.
The pervasive smell from animal dropping is also most disagreeable.
On emerging from the gorge and reaching the archaeological site itself, the visitor finds the path strewn with stalls selling tourist souvenirs. The vast number of these rudimentary, temporary stalls seriously disturbs the harmony of the site. Moreover, the pitches are shared out among the various tribes living in the area and any re-allocation would have to and equitable. This is why the master plan envisages Along-term strategy aimed at involving the local population authorities concerned very closely elaboration of a management plan the site.
An initial solution could be the creation a National Park within which zone be selected for specific purposes. S Park would be administered by a body having sufficiently broad responsibility management autonomy to enable resolve the special problems peculiar to Petra.
The authors of the report put for number of proposals for action relating to the training of conservation personnel, protection against flooding, the restoration of the principal monuments (such as the Qasr Al Bint), the installation of a sign system, control of the flow of tourists and general supervision of the site.
It is to be hoped that the report will favour both with the Jordanian author and with potential financial backers will be asked to support the implementation of the proposed programme.
Nothing short of a joint effort by Jordan and the international community will suffice to ensure the safeguard of PetrAthe delight of future generations.
The World Heritage Newsletter is published by the UNESCO
World Heritage Centre, 7 place de Fontenoy, 75352 Paris 07 SP,
FRANCE. Fax: +33.1 126.96.36.199.