Revealed to the public in late August, the once sooty, 2,000-year-old face of a winged child now stares brightly from an ancient work of cave art—one of several that have recently been restored near Petra, Jordan's ancient rock-carved city and one of the "new seven wonders" of the world (pictures).
Filled with other Cupid-like figures, intertwined vines and flowers, and brightly colored birds, the wall paintings provide important new insights into the mysterious culture of the builders of Petra, the Nabataeans, said art conservator Lisa Shekede. The artwork, she added, suggests the cave was a refuge for a cult focused on the ancient Greek god of wine, Dionysus.
The art is "remarkable in the extent of its palette and the intricacies of its painting," added Shekede, who worked on the project for London's Courtauld Institute of Art. "The sheer quality of the painting is magical."
First discovered the 1980s, when the site was occupied by local Bedouin tribes, the ancient Greek-style artwork is "quite unique in Petra," said Aysar Akrawi, executive director of the Petra National Trust, which instigated the restoration work with the Courtauld Institute of Art.
A millennia-old winged flutist in Little Petra finally shows his true colors (right) following a three-year restoration project of the cave artwork, completed in August by specialists from London's Courtauld Institute of Art.
"The miracle is that they understood the 'fabric' of the painting," the Petra National Trust's Akrawi said. "It was about to detach and disappear."
The first century A.D. mural, which decorated a room hewn from sandstone, is "incredibly important on all sorts of levels," restorer Lisa Shekede said.
The only known in situ figurative wall painting from the Nabataean civilization, the cave painting's style and iconography suggest local Nabataeans followed a religious cult modeled on that of Dionysus, the Greek god of wine, Shekede said.
The Nabataeans were Arab nomads who grew wealthy and powerful by trading exotic Asian goods—spices, jewels, precious metals—with ancient Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians.
Carved into sandstone, stairs lead to a rock-hewn room at Siq al-Barid, or Little Petra (file photo). The Jordanian site may have been a weekend retreat for affluent Nabataeans, a place where they toasted bacchanalian deities with goblets of wine.
Recent evidence—including excavated wine presses—suggests the area was surrounded by vineyards and farms, Akrawi said.
These discoveries appear to dovetail with iconography in the wall art, which suggests the painted cave chamber was "probably a meeting place for followers of Dionysus," restorer Lisa Shekede said. The room "was used as a sort of cultic dining room."
Researchers note that three varieties of vine—all associated with Dionysus—can be clearly identified in the cave-room murals.
Photograph by Taylor S. Kennedy, National Geographic
Crowning Achievement at Petra
A crested lark appears among decorative foliage in the newly restored wall painting at Petra, a UN World Heritage site.
The lark is just one of a number of clearly identifiable bird species still found in the region, including the Palestine sunbird and the demoiselle crane (picture), said Aysar Akrawi, of the Petra National Trust.
Restorer Lisa Shekede described the artwork as "an amazingly complex technical feat. It's got Egyptian blue, lead white, a whole range of ochre pigments, copper greens, green earth—and it's even got gilding and organic glazes.
"It must have been a very significant and very special painting because of the care and attention in its execution," Shekede added. "I think they must have got the best artists and the materials to make it."
Akrawi added that it's likely "that a lot of the craftsmen were brought in from Greece."