UCT team on Petra mission

Ray Maota

The ancient rock city of Petra celebrated its 200th anniversary of rediscovery on 18 October 2012.
(Image: Flickr)

Prof Heinz Ruther, the principal investigator at Zamani, explained that much of the city has been destroyed because of natural weathering and earthquakes.
(Image: Zamani Project)

• Professor Heinz Rüther
Zamani Project: UCT
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A team from the University of Cape Town’s geomatics department, working with Unesco, is making a valuable contribution to the digital survey and mapping of the ancient rock city of Petra in Jordan.

The Zamani Research Group, which acquires, models, presents and manages spatial and other data of cultural heritage sites, aims for a sustainable stability plan for the geologically fragile world heritage site after the project has been completed. Already in Petra, the group is identifying and monitoring unstable slopes and sections at risk.

Emeritus professor geomatics Heinz Ruther, the principal investigator at Zamani, explained that much of the city has been destroyed because of natural weathering and earthquakes over the years.

“Using GPS and photogrammetry, we are mapping the walls of the Siq to look for cracks and fissures and anything that could help to create a risk management plan to maintain slope stability.”

The Siq, a 120m-high, 1.2km-long gorge that was formed after a split in the sandstone, is the only entrance into Petra – film buffs will remember it from the 1989 blockbuster Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Unesco believes its fragility means that it needs to be monitored to reduce the risk of landslides and rock falls.

During the course of their expedition, Ruther’s team will also produce a virtual tour of the ancient city and document many of the tombs and temples.

Petra celebrated its 200th anniversary of rediscovery on 18 October 2012 and Emad Hijazeen, the commissioner for the Petra Archaeological Park, warned that it could be added to the list of world heritage sites in danger if certain criteria set out by Unesco were not adhered to.

Rich history

According to Unesco, the ancient city of Petra, which is situated between the Red and Dead seas, was an important crossroads between Arabia, Egypt and Syria-Phoenicia.

Petra is surrounded by mountains and characterised by long passages and gorges that are popular with tourists. Much of the city is carved out of the rock. The architecture is from the Hellenistic period and incorporates eastern traditions in its form.

Once a capital of the Nabateans – an ancient nomadic people of North Arabia – Petra was declared a world heritage site by Unesco in 1985. Twenty two years later, in 2007, it was added to the New7Wonders of the World list and is enjoying a daily tourist presence of up to 5 000 during high season.

Unfortunately, Petra’s existence is being threatened by earthquakes and floods that could cause the collapse of the walls along the Siq.

Heritage documentation skills

Joining Ruther for the expedition are Ralph Schroeder, Roshan Bhurtha and Stephen Wessels, also from UCT, as well as local volunteers who will assist them.

Besides Unesco, other partners for the initiative include the Jordanian department of antiquities and the Italian Institute for Environmental Protection and Research, which has pledged US$1-million (R8.9-million) for a 30-month contract to produce a stability plan using sophisticated surveying and laser-scanning mapping techniques.

Zamani is funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, an American NGO that provides grants for, among other fields, art history, conservation and the environment.

The Zamani team brings a wealth of expertise in heritage documentation skills, having covered 40 sites in 13 countries in the past. They have also been involved in the digital mapping of many of Africa’s famous heritage landmarks.

These include Fort San Sebastian in Mozambique, the Grand Mosque in Djenné, Mali, the rock-cut churches of Lalibela in Ethiopia and the complete Valley of the Queens in Luxor, Egypt.

They use laser scanning, conventional surveys, GPS surveys and photogrammetry to produce geographic information systems, 3D models and interactive panorama tours of heritage sites.