Professor’s Paradise in Petra Premiering on PBS
Walking into Thomas Paradise’s office in Ozark Hall, the first thing someone could notice is his extensive rock collection. The rocks are neatly scattered around his desk, along with his pictures and books of the ancient city of Petra near Wadi Musa, Jordan. Paradise, a professor of geosciences and an expert on Petra, has published more than 40 articles, maps and chapters on the subject and visited the site. He also taught at the University of Jordan while on a Fulbright Senior Scholar award.
His most recent work will be featured to an estimated audience of 20 million people as part of a three-part series called Building the Wonders of the World. Petra will be featured along with the Flavian Colosseum in Rome, Italy, and the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, Turkey. The individual programs are schedule to premiere on PBS Feb. 18, 11 and 25, respectively.
Paradise was part of a team that worked with carvers and masons to sculpt a full-scale tomb into a cliff face to discover how the ancient Nabateans carved Petra’s famous facades and structures. The project, called The Lost City of Petra, was filmed by NOVA, a science documentary series on PBS.
"What’s great about this type of re-enactment is that it is the only way to answer the big questions, it’s less 'what-if' and more knowing," Paradise said. "There’s no speculation when the answers are right in front of you."
Because of Paradise’s expertise in geology, architecture, Levant geography and geomatrics, NOVA asked him to oversee the design, re-creation, on-air commentary, script work, imagery and fact-checking for the series, making him a part of the project from beginning to end.
"Do you know how Petra’s sandstone was polished? It’s the simplest thing you could ever think of," Paradise said. "Throughout this project we realized that you can take another piece of sandstone and rub them together to smooth both surfaces. There was speculation as to what tools were used for the smoothing, when we realized that the 'smoothing tool' was there all the time in front of us."
He demonstrates with two pieces of sandstone among the collection in his office, and within minutes his desk was covered in rock particles, and both rocks had developed flat, clean surfaces.
Paradise uses the same hands-on approach in his professional work. Producer and director Gary Glassman said Paradise’s insight into Petra and the Nabateans "provides the soul of the film."
"I lived in Rome for years, and I know the Hagia Sophia, so that’s how I got involved because they [NOVA] asked me questions about the two other films," Paradise said. "Then they told me, 'We know your work in Petra, and we decided to do the third film on it. Are you in?'"
Building the Wonders of the World will be shown on PBS in the United States and across Europe and Asia on ARTE, a European culture and public service television channel. The networks combined have created an estimated viewership of 20 million people worldwide. Dates and times for the broadcasts may vary. Check local listings to see the series in your area.
"One might consider himself or herself as an expert, but you really don't believe it until a research team, like PBS and ARTE, has exhausted the other specialists, experts, pundits and scholars on the mysterious, ruined city of Petra, and then calls you in to work on a huge production like The Lost City of Petra," Paradise said. "It was a rare and wonderful opportunity to be able to use my 25 years of experience, knowledge, and past research in the production."
Since Paradise joined the Fulbright College faculty in 2000, he has taught courses in cartography, architecture, art and environmental sciences such as geography, geology and climatology. He also served as director of the University of Arkansas King Fahd Center for Middle East Studies, an informational and educational resource on the Middle East, North Africa and the Islamic world for the state of Arkansas and the university community.
Paradise was able to continue his work as a professor while contributing to the NOVA project. He taught classes Tuesdays, Wednesday and Thursdays and commuted to Los Angeles over the weekends.
"I flew out to L.A. seven times in nine weeks," Paradise said. "It was exhausting, and my class had no idea. It was crazy. Crazy, but good."