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A virtual adventure along the ancient paths of Petra

by Sarah Wild, November 26 2012, 07:24
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ANCIENT: The rock city of Petra in Jordan. Picture: THINKSTOCK
ANCIENT: The rock city of Petra in Jordan. Picture: THINKSTOCK

The University of Cape Town’s Zamani Research Group has renewed my faith that Lara Croft might just exist, and that if she did, she would do stuff like this. The group, based in the geomatics department, has been contracted to map the city of Petra.

What is Petra, I hear you ask? The word means “stone” in Greek, and the place is an ancient rock city in Jordan. It’s more than 2,000 years old and has been a World Heritage Site since 1985. It was the stronghold of the Nabataeans, an Arabic people who operated trading channels between oases in the sprawling desert. That is one of the things that is so incredible about Petra — aside from the fact that it is a city carved into rock (similar to a dwarf kingdom in The Lord of the Rings), it has an incredible irrigation system that stored water from flash floods and made the city an oasis in inhospitable surroundings (and allowed its residents to sell water to the thirsty).

The West only found out about the city in the 1800s, but by then it had already been ravaged by earthquakes (and the Roman empire). The Siq is the main entrance to Petra and part of the reason it remained hidden for so many years. It is a 3m crack in a wall of solid rock, and you have to pass through it to gain access to the city.

But why is this interesting? Once the research group — in partnership with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, the Italian National Institute for Environmental Protection and Research, and the Jordanian Department of Antiquities — has completed its survey, you will be able to take a virtual tour of Petra from your couch.

The team, headed by Prof Heinz Rüther, gets spatial data from laser scanning, conventional and GPS surveys, and specially calibrated cameras. It also collects satellite images, aerial photography and full-dome photography. All the data are digitally synthesised into geographic information systems, 3D models and interactive panorama tours.

“Much of the city has been destroyed because of natural weathering and earthquakes,” says Prof Rüther. “Using GPS and photogrammetry, we are mapping the walls of the Siq as well as the most important structures in the valley.”

The university notes there are a number of components to the operation: “They will contribute to the design of the Siq monitoring system, develop a GIS for the entire Petra national park area, and create 3D computer models of the principal temples and tombs of Wadi Araba and Wadi Farasa, including the treasury, royal tombs, urn tomb, monastery and the amphitheatre.”

And the best bit? This will allow you and me to embark on a virtual adventure along the pathways of an ancient city, without the heat and the other 5,000 tourists who visit the site daily in the peak season.

• Find out about the Zamani Research Group here. It has also documented many other historical sites, specifically in Africa.

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