World Heritage in the Movies: Petra and Indiana Jones
World Heritage Sites have called the attention of several movies’ directors through time; some of the most well known heritage sites seem to be a very appealing stage for Hollywood movies. But what impact do movies really have on World Heritage Sites? Is it a positive or a detrimental one?
It can be argued that movies provide a positive way to advertise a World Heritage Site by fostering tourism and enhancing worldwide recognition. This is true in some cases, and movies do provide an important exposure to places that do not hold great renown. In addition, hosting a Hollywood movie certainly represents an opportunity to increase income and boost the economy of communities related to the site.
Nevertheless, movies also have a strong influence in people’s perspective about World Heritage sites, and therefore, they can mislead the real history and cultural significance of these sites. In this sense, there is often a misunderstanding among people about what is shown in the movies, and whether or not this has real connection to the actual culture and people that created and inhabited these places.
A good example of the impact that movies have on World Heritage is the case of Petra (Figure 1). Petra World Heritage site is located in Jordan and it was inscribed in the World Heritage List in 1985. The site is a temple that was carved and built into rock. Petra is also an outstanding representation of Nabataean civilization and the influence of Hellenistic culture. It functioned as a caravan centre during the Nabataean, Roman and Byzantine periods (UNESCO, 2017).
The site was used as part of the movie Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989). The Indiana Jones trilogy was the most well-known fictional films with archaeological content during the 1980’s. These films became very popular and commercially successful through several generations, and they created a popular stereotype of what archaeology supposedly is (Fancher, n.d.). However, the narratives of these movies are highly incompatible with actual history and culture behind these archaeological sites. For Petra specifically, during the film there is no reference to the Nabataean civilization whatsoever.
“Petra, like the other sites, is visually stunning and resonates with romantic, collective memory, increasingly reinforced and reshaped by tourism marketing” (Comer, 2012, p. 3). This marketing is highly influenced by a movie with the renown that Indiana Jones has, and for the tourist perspective, the content shown on the film surpasses the real history of Petra. Then tourism and advertisement focus more on the film’s fictional story, and leave aside the history of Nabataean culture and other societies.
This situation can be easily observable in travel agencies websites such as Travel Yourself, where Petra’s main attraction is alluded to its relationship with the Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade film (Figure 2). There is a clear preference to focus on what is “exciting” rather than historically accurate, and to create a feeling of “adventure” associated with World Heritage Sites.
These issues are not isolated just to the Indiana Jones films, but they go further into any Hollywood productions that deal with archaeological content. Where the producers and movie directors are clearly not interested in preserving cultural nor historic heritage from those sites. Moreover, communities and entities associated with those sites tend to focus more on the economic benefits, leaving the conservation and education about heritage in the background.
It is understandable that attractive World Heritage sites such as Petra are chosen to be used as stages for fictional films that attempt to create some sort of archaeological content. However, there must be a greater participation of authorities and communities involved with World Heritage sites in the discussion about the content to be shown in the film. A balance between an exciting adventure or story, and a proper display of the history and/or culture associated with the site must be encouraged.
Comer, D. C., 2012. Petra as a Bellwether Archaeological Site on the World Heritage List. Tourism and Archaeological Heritage Management at Petra, pp. 3–28.
Fancher, J., (n.d.). Indiana Jones Movies. Archaeology for the Public. Retrieved: April 08, 2017, from http://www.saa.org/publicftp/PUBLIC/fun/Fancher.html
Indiana Jones returns to Petra. (2013, May 01). Retrieved: April 10, 2017, from http://www.travelyourself.ca/cailins-blog/indiana-jones-returns-to-petra/
Petra. UNESCO Centre. Retrieved: April 8, 2017, from