Photograph by Marc Latzel, Rolex Awards
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Struck but the beauty of the site, Talal Akasheh established a means to reduce the natural and man-made damage to ancient Petra.

Photograph by Marc Latzel, Rolex Awards

Preserving an Ancient 'Lost' City Has Consumed This Chemist's Life

Talal Akasheh is among leading preservationists trying to save Petra's red sandstone monuments.

Talal Akasheh has devoted half his life to protecting and preserving the 2,500-year-old Jordanian city Petra from the ravages of nature and neglect. And at a time when many of his peers have long since retired, Akasheh, 69, remains dogged in his efforts to preserve the once robust trade capital, home to the world’s largest collection of rock-carved monuments.

Carved in red sandstone, Petra was a thriving caravan trading center from 400 B.C. to A.D. 106, and then it sat empty and in ruins until its rediscovery by Swiss explorer Johann Lewis Burckhardt in 1812. Tourism to the site flourished, and its exotic look eventually attracted Hollywood—several scenes in 1989’s Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade were filmed there.  

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Petra's Treasury by candelight

Akasheh’s initial interest was spurred by his Jordanian ancestors, who lived in a village near Petra in the 18th century. As a first-time tourist in 1982, he was struck by Petra’s beauty. Eventually Akasheh, who trained as a chemist and later taught at Jordanian universities, became one of Petra’s leading preservationists.

“My specialty in chemistry had very little to do with the weathering of Petra’s monuments," he says. "The geological, physical, chemical, and biological processes were out of my scope at the time, and I had to learn those things. Slowly, I decided we needed to create an information system.”

The Rolex Laureate eventually created a database of maps, photos, and other research materials, and later developed a global information system template using GPS to map and analyze nearly 3,000 archaeological features in and around the city for conservation, research, and tourism.

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The Ad Deir Monastery was built by the Nabateans in the first century.

With scientists from Jordan, Italy, and South Africa, Akasheh also spent three years using photogrammetry to gauge the stability of rocks in the Siq, the main entrance to the ancient city. He and colleagues completed a Petra conservation plan in 2015, which he hopes to publish as a book.

Earlier this year, Akasheh was among 10 preservationists honored at the 13th International Conference on the History and Archaeology of Jordan.

He hopes to secure additional funding for preservation efforts.

“The deterioration of the site seems to be accelerating, calling for immediate action,’’ he says. “Unfortunately, the cost is prohibitive, and since Jordan is in a dire economic situation, the only hope is for the entire world to collaborate and contribute to the protection and conservation of Petra.”

National Geographic produced this content as part of a partnership with the Rolex Awards for Enterprise.