Doubling up on Antiquity at the Canadian Museum of Civilization

Today culture was on my mind. After enjoying two interesting exhibits at the Canadian Museum of Contemporary Photography, I made my way across the river to the City of Gatineau (formerly Hull) to visit Canada’s most popular museum: the Canadian Museum of Civilization. This rewowned Canadian institution is known for its unique architecture and is host to the Canadian Postal Museum, the Canadian Children’s Museum, an IMAX Theatre (which I was going to visit later today) and a variety of special exhibitions.

The Canadian Museum of Civilization has three major galleries: the Grand Hall, which is the architectural centerpiece of the museum, Canada Hall as well as the First People’s Hall. The 112 x 15 m (365 ft x 50 ft) glass wall of the Great Hall features a magnificent view of Ottawa’s Parliament Buildings and hosts the world’s largest collection of indoor totem poles.

My goal today was to see a special exhibition: a traveling exhibition organized by the Cincinnati Art Museum and the American Museum of Natural History under the patronage of Her Majesty Queen Rania Al-Abdullah of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.” Petra – Lost City of Stone” is the most complete portrait ever assembled of the amazing and enigmatic city of Petra. This exhibit tells the story of a once-thriving metropolis at the crossroads of the ancient trade routes.

Its inhabitants, the Nabateans, constructed a magnificent city in a harsh desert environment. Petra only receives about 15 centimeters (6 inches) of rain a year. Ingenously its residents were able to control the water supply of the city by capturing and collecting water from flash floods in more than 200 underground cisterns which would then be redistributed through the city through a system of clay pipes. This stored water was used during periods of extended drought and the city even prospered from the sale of the water. In effect the ancient Nabateans had created an artificial oasis.

Originally the Nabateans were traveling merchants, but they became even more prosperous once they settled down and started serving and taxing other traveling merchants. Being located at the intersection of several caravan trade routes, the Nabateans integrated art and architecture from other cultures. Asian elephants, for example, were a popular symbol for strength, many carvings found show artistic elements from in the art and mythology of Ancient Greece. Several centuries later, Byzantine Christian art was widely adopted.

Petra’s surrounding natural environment is visibly stunning and geologically unique. A dark and narrow gorge called the Siq (the “shaft”) cut into sandstone forms the eastern access to the city. In some places the Siq is only 3 to 4 metres wide and its end stands the magnificent ruin of the Treasury (Al Khazneh), an absolutely stunning decorated façade hewn out of the natural stone. In total, Petra had 3000 temples, tombs and dwellings and during its heyday the population was an estimated 20,000 people. Originally these structures were covered with stucco and brightly painted, which must have been a spectular view in this desert environment.

Despite the abundance of temples we actually know relatively little about the religion of the Nabateans. They apparently had a small number of Gods, with Dushara being the most important male god, and Al-Uzza representing the most important female deity.

Petra celebrated its zenith between 200 B.C. and 200 A.D. when it was one of the major trading centers linking the Silk Road and the spice routes that connected China, India and Arabia with buying consumers in Greece, Rome, Egypt and Syria. In 106 A.D. Petra was annexed by the Roman Emperor Trajan. During the Byzantine period the city had its own bishop and later large Christian churches were built.

Being located in a seismically unstable area, Petra had experienced many earthquakes, but a tremor in 363 AD hit the city particularly hard. Half the city was destroyed and the water system was disrupted. With the increase of ocean trade, the decline of land-based trade routes through this area had already affected the city earlier and it seems that Petra was unable to muster the resources to rebuild itself. In the early 7th century, Muslim Arabs arrived in Petra from the south. The transition to Islamic rule appears to have been relatively peaceful in Southern Jordan.

By the seventh century Petra was finally abandoned and remained virtually lost to the outside world. It was not until 1812 that a Swiss explorer, Johann Burckhard, rediscovered the city. Today, less than five percent of the city has been unearthed, so this ancient city of stone still has many secrets to reveal.

The exhibit itself consists of many components, including artifacts, architectural detailing, jewellery, vases and other objects. Some of the highlights of the exhibition are a striking gravestone bearing the likeness of a man’s head, a recently discovered column capital with elephant heads, a relief carving of a standing eagle and a recently reassembled sculpted garland frieze from one of the city’s main temples. 19th century paintings, drawings and prints illustrate the city’s rediscovery by Burckhard in 1812 and Petra – Crossroad of the Ancient World is an 8 minute film that presents a brief cultural history of this city. It also illustrates the Nabateans’ unique rock-cutting process as well as their water management and storage techniques.

This historical exhibition is augmented by a photo exhibit: The Bedouin of Petra is a collection of 25 colour photographs by award-winning photojournalist Vivian Ronay. The photos were taken at various times between 1986 and 2003 and document the life of the Bedoul Bedouins, and their transition from a pastoral life to a lifestyle based on tourism. The Bedoul had lived in tents and caves among the ruins of the ancient city until the Jordanian government became concerned about the city’s preservation. They were then invited to move to a nearby village where modern housing and facilities would be provided. The majority of them moved from tents and caves to conventional houses, giving up their old life as herders and farmers to work in the tourism industry. A fascinating look at an ancient people who have undergone an enormous change in lifestyle.

As if Petra wasn’t fascinating enough, I decided to add another encounter with antiquity. I walked over to the Museum’s IMAX Theatre to see a special presentation: Greece – Secrets of the Past. This IMAX Theatre is the first of its kind in the world and actually combines two IMAX technologies. The size of the vertical screen is 10 times the size of a conventional movie screen and tilts into place to convey a multi-dimensional experience, as close as possible to actually being there.

This realistic quality was definitely appreciated since one of the movie’s opening sequences starts with a flight over the Mediterranean and a stunning look down on some of the Greek islands. In dramatic pictures I learned about the formation of the island of Santorini and its volcanic eruption: the most powerful explosion in history.
Images of Athens and the Acropolis demonstrated that 2500 years ago Greece was indeed the cradle of Western civilization. Art and architecture flourished while science, philosophy and literature reached impressive heights. The camera follows in the footsteps a team of archeologists and introduced the audience to innovations in this scientific field.

Greece: Secrets of the Past is a MacGillivray Freeman Film produced by Alex G. Spanos in association with the Canadian Museum of Civilization and Museum Film Network with major funding assistance from the National Science Foundation. Incidentally Nia Vardalos (from “My Big Fat Greek Wedding”) narrates the feature.

The visual images are stunning and it’s true: it’s almost as good as being there…

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