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The Temples of Doom

Professor’s research helps save rediscovered cities February 13, 2015 at 1:00 a.m.

Cue the Indiana Jones theme music. Into the frame strides a khaki-clad explorer, this one with a shock of gray hair, a short, tidy beard and a bright smile. You'd have to know Tom Paradise to know that the red shirt he's wearing isn't the one NOVA officials recommended. Instead, it's Razorback red. One of the most important scientists working in Petra today is a professor of geomorphology, historic preservation and cartography at the University of Arkansas.

He's also one of the stars in NOVA's "Building Wonders" series in an episode titled "Petra: Lost City of Stone," airing Wednesday on PBS stations.


‘Petra: Lost City of Stone’

WHEN — 8 p.m. Wednesday & 4 a.m. Feb. 20


COST — Free

INFO — or

Paradise, whose enthusiasm surrounds him like the light shooting out of the Ark of the Covenant, says he was "gobsmacked" by the finished episode. It was "weird," he says, "watching nearly eight months of filming converted to a 53-minute NOVA piece."

And it's clear from the research Paradise sends via email that 53 minutes can't even scratch the surface of the work he's done.

The short version is that what Paradise learns at Petra may not help the 2,000-year-old city of the Nabataeans survive the million tourists who visit the ruins in Jordan every year. But it may help save historic sites just now discovered -- like Wadi Rum, "the Valley of the Moon" -- and those not yet even imagined.

Petra became famous to the masses in "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade." The narrow, high-walled "Siq" through which Jones and his father rode to find the holy grail is real, as is the temple -- in reality called the Treasury -- carved from the millennia-old sandstone cliffs in the middle of the Jordanian desert.

In reality, that building is just one of hundreds that made up the cultural and retail oasis of Petra some 2,000 years ago. The Nabataeans were wealthy merchants, once nomads, whose camel caravans transported incense and spices across hundreds of miles from the Arabian Gulf. When they created Petra, it was a monument to opulence that NOVA describes as "the Las Vegas of the ancient world," complete with "a water system that not only supplied 30,000 people with enough to drink but also filled bathhouses, fountains and pools with abundance."

What people recognize, the elegant facades carved into the cliffs, were burial places for the wealthiest people of Petra, long ago raided by tomb robbers and left empty, only the colors of the sandstone remaining inside -- colors Paradise quotes an Italian chef as describing as "salmon mousse with a mustard sauce, followed by a beautiful piece of chocolate."

Paradise, raised in San Francisco, didn't fall in love with Petra and dream of working there, however. He fell in love with history.

"I think it's the whole idea of ruins, the idea that we are nothing but part of what we were," he says. "From an early age, I loved architecture and rocks and geology, and then I realized I could do both."

Paradise went to the Mackay School of Mines (in Reno, Nev., the school created by the mining barons of the Comstock Lode), completed a master's thesis on Stone Mountain (Ga.) and the weathering of the rock, then got into geomatics -- also known as geospatial technology -- cartography and "visualization, which is related to architecture," he says. One day might find him planning a summer in Petra for his students, the next working on greenway maps in Northwest Arkansas, the next mapping Angkor Wat.

"The nice thing about the NOVA special," he says, is producers asked him what he'd like to do that no one else had done. The answer was a reconstruction, which he and two trained stone carvers completed over 10 weeks in a sandstone outcropping in southern California.

"I wanted to see what we'd learn," he says -- which is revealed in the NOVA segment -- "and I got to experience something no one else has seen for 2,000 years. I was constantly taken aback."

Asked where else he might want to work, Paradise pauses.

"A friend of mine is working at the pyramids in Sudan, and he's always inviting me," he says. "But I could work in Petra for another 20 or 30 years -- including working at Wadi Rum -- and be happy. Wadi Rum is developing, and Petra is developed."

NAN What's Up on 02/13/2015

Print Headline: The Temples of Doom


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