Conservation Jordan

Tourists threaten Petra’s paintings

A recent conservation project has brought publicity—and a lot more people

Siq al-Barid: the rock-cut biclinium (left) contains the recently conserved Dionysiac wall painting

PETRA. The recent publicity surrounding the completion of a three-year conservation project to clean and stabilise a first-century AD wall painting in Petra has come with a potentially harmful and unexpected side effect: an increase in tourist traffic. The painting’s location outside of the government-sponsored “zoning” scheme for central Petra combined with the lack of a site management plan is causing concern for the work’s long term survival.

The painting decorates the vault and walls of a rock-cut biclinium or dining room located ten kilometres north of Petra in Siq al-Barid. Nicknamed “Little Petra”, the Siq was a suburb of the ancient Nabataean capital and was inhabited by Bedouin until their relocation by the Jordanian government in 1985. The significance of the Nabataean painting lies not only in its technical brilliance but in the fact that it is Petra’s only remaining in situ wall painting with a figurative subject matter. The Dionysiac scene, depicting birds as well as flute-playing and fruit-picking putti floating among interweaving vines, suggests that the biclinium was used for symposia (ancient drinking parties).

A collaboration between the Petra National Trust (PNT) and London’s Courtauld Institute of Art, the 190,120 Jordanian Dinar ($268,531) conservation project sought to stabilise fragile areas and remove centuries of soot caused by Bedouin fires. Before the work was carried out, condition, environmental and technical assessments were performed which revealed some surprises including traces of gold leaf and, most significantly, that the painting was not a fresco as previously thought but was painted on a gypsum ground. If alkaline reagents had been applied as had been suggested when the painting was believed to be a fresco, the work would have been destroyed.

According to PNT executive director Aysar Akrawi although the conservation work was challenging, in some ways it has been the least complicated aspect of the project. “The emphasis has now shifted to the longer-term protection of the painting and its extremely fragile archaeological environment,” adding that relocating the work is not an option: “The painting gives meaning to the site and the site gives meaning to the painting; they are interrelated and should not be separated.”

Tourism in the region is on the rise with the Petra Development and Tourism Region Authority reporting 462,000 visitors in the first six months of 2010—a 42% increase from 2009. Although there are far fewer visitors to the Siq than to Petra, the recent publicity generated by the conservation project has increased visitor figures. Akrawi said there is currently inadequate personnel to deal with the 5,000 monthly visitors during the high season. “Tourists climb on the protective bars to get better pictures,” she said adding that the biclinium cannot accommodate more than ten to 15 individuals at one time and tour groups often number in excess of 40 people.

She also said that tourism provides little benefit to the local economy and hoped that policies adopted at Petra which have reduced marginal economic activities and provided jobs for locals could be adopted in the Siq.

“The fate of this painting still hangs in the balance with other in situ works in the region. We need to find a balance between the vulnerability of the site in regards to the tourist industry and the economic needs of the locals.”

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