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Rose-Red City, Half as Old as Time

Byzantine church ruins evoke era of living faith.

The holy sites in Jerusalem and its environs have sometimes seemed at the very center of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. But there is a part of the Middle East that is politically stable, quietly peaceful and where a landscape full of biblical stories can be found. The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan – which emerged out of the post-World War I division of the Middle East by Britain and France – a part of what Christians, Jews and Muslims call the Holy Land, has played a pivotal role in the ongoing struggle in the region.

Within the desert kingdom’s boundaries can be found some of the best preserved traces of antiquity and significant evidence of early Christianity. With its awe-inspiring ruins, Petra, the ancient fortress city carved out of rock in the Valley of Moses, is the site of many of these archaeological treasures.

Participating in an exploratory dig in 1973, the noted archaeologist Kenneth W. Russell detected some previously overlooked ruins while supervising the excavation of a colonnaded street. He saw a semicircular foundation protruding from the soil and thought this might be part of a church. Intrigued, he revisited the site several times since his initial discovery.

In the spring of 1990, Russell returned to Petra to explore the site in depth. Both the size of the structure, with its semicircular apse, facing east, and surface materials including a portion of mosaic, helped him identify the site as a major Byzantine church.

Because of Russell’s untimely death in May 1992, he did not live to see the church unearthed. However, his friends, Pierre and Patricia Bikai from the American Center of Oriental Research in Amman, followed Russell’s lead and the public can now view the church.

No one knows who brought Christianity to Petra, the “rose-red city, half as old as time” located in southern Jordan about halfway between the Gulf of Aqaba and the southern end of the Dead Sea. It is known, however, that the Nabateans, an Arab people who controlled the caravan routes from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean and farther north, made this isolated and well-hidden location inside deep sandstone cliffs their capital.

In 106 the Roman emperor Trajan annexed Petra and the surrounding region to the Roman Empire. The first evidence of Christians in Petra is the account of an early fourth century persecution under Roman prefect Maximus when, apparently, many Christians of Petra refused to sacrifice to Roman gods.

Excavations at Petra revealed that the city remained an active trade center during the Roman period. When the Edict of Milan in 313 enabled Christians to practice their faith openly, Petra flourished, becoming by the end of the fourth century the capital of the newly organized province of Palestina Tertia. During the same century, the church historian Eusebius referred to the construction of churches there.

The presence of bishops from Petra at synods and councils indicates that the city became an important Christian center. The first mention of their presence was in 343 when Bishop Asterius from “Petra in Arabia” participated in the discussion of the Arian heresy at the Council of Sardica. An inscription in the ruined city of al-Rabba indicates that the See of the Metropolitan Bishop of Petra was eventually transferred to al-Rabba at the end of the sixth century or the beginning of the seventh.

Pierre Bikai’s excavations of the Byzantine church identified by Kenneth Russell revealed a basilica with three apses to the east, three entrances to the west, a stone-paved atrium and just beyond, as an integral part of the structure, the largest and best preserved baptistry in the region.

The magnificence of the Byzantine basilica has also been preserved in the splendid mosaics that carpet the side aisles of the church. Personifications of the seasons, ocean, earth and wisdom, flanked by animals, birds and fish, adorn the central panels of the southern aisle.

Animals, some native to the area and some exotic, decorate the northern aisle. These mosaics date from the early sixth century when a metropolitan bishop still resided in Petra. The writings of the early Church Fathers suggest that the subject matter and decorative patterns of Byzantine church mosaics have a symbolic meaning; indeed, like the Scriptures they may have several layers of meaning.

During excavations in 1993, 152 papyrus scrolls, each tied in the center with textile or papyrus string, were unearthed in the basilica’s storage room. Written by several individuals, the texts are mainly in cursive Greek and cover the years when the Emperor Justinian and his successors ruled the Byzantine Empire. The scrolls, carbon-ized by a fire that destroyed the basilica and the storage room, were crushed between the remains of shelves that probably collapsed when an earthquake hit Petra in 551.

Using computer-assisted digital imaging, researchers deciphered these fragmented scrolls, some of which were written on both sides. The scrolls discussed the births, prenuptial arrangements, marriages, business deals, family properties and tax responsibilities of about 350 members of the community. Most of the individuals mentioned were males, but 27 females, seven of whom were slaves, were also mentioned.

One of the main figures identified in the scrolls is Theodorus, son of Obodianos (a Nabatean name), born around 513 and married in 537 to his cousin, Stephanous. Ordained a deacon sometime after 544 in the Church of the Most Holy Mary in the Petra diocese, Theodorus was also a successful landowner who participated in extensive business transactions.

Another scroll records that the son of Theodorus was responsible for paying local taxes on a vineyard. The rate of taxation was high at 47.5 percent. It is clear that this affluent family owned much property in the regions around Petra. The scrolls also demonstrate that Petra’s agricultural economy was functional in the mid-sixth century and that Petra maintained economic and administrative ties with other communities in the area.

The fact that many place references are in pre-Islamic Arabic, rather than Aramaic or Nabatean, shows the area’s Arabic character. People gave their fields and houses Arabic names in these Greek documents, suggesting an Arab self-identification. Some of these Arabic place names are still found in the Petra area.

Several other churches are named in the scrolls: the Church of Our Lord the Saint High-Priest Aaron (probably referring to the church associated with the pilgrimage site of Jabal Harun high above Petra), the hostel or hospital of the Saint and Gloriously Triumphant Martyr Kyrikos in Petra, and the hostel or hospital of the Saint Martyr Cyricus in the city of Petra.

North of the Byzantine basilica already excavated by her husband, Patricia Bikai excavated two other churches. One, located on the ridge above Wadi Abu Ullayqa, is a small, badly eroded structure with two side aisles separated from the nave by five columns on each side. The other is a chapel located on the eastern side of a larger building between the excavated basilica and the church on the ridge. This latter chapel, with its nave and two side aisles, is remarkable for its Aswan blue granite columns, blue sandstone flooring and blue marble furnishings. The “Blue Chapel” complex is contemporary with the excavated basilica and may have been part of the bishop’s residence.

Each of these churches incorporated architectural elements from the Nabatean buildings already in Petra. The angled chisel marks of the Nabatean stonecutters can be found in the structures as well as capitals, column drums and bases, carved entablatures, doorjambs and other stonework.

The ruins of these churches give us just a glimpse of the splendor and extent of Christian Petra during the Byzantine period. Large, beautifully decorated Nabatean temples, whose structures were either freestanding or cut into the rocks, still dominate Petra. It may have been necessary to build very ornate churches in order to attract converts. Epiphanius, a Byzantine historian, mentions that the conversion of the residents of Petra was a slow process throughout the late fourth century and into the fifth century.

Petra seems to have a cluster of Byzantine churches, a common arrangement also found in other parts of Jordan. Besides the churches already identified, there may be as many as 40 or 50 Byzantine churches yet to be discovered. If so, a thriving Christian community certainly existed there. But it also seems that this community abandoned the city either after the earthquake of 551 or after the Muslim conquest of 638.

Sources indicate that the monastery on the plateau just below Jabal Harun may have been inhabited up to the time of the Crusades. In 1217, Magister Thetmarus recorded that two Greek monks still lived in the monastery. And archaeological sources indicate that the original Byzantine monastery shrank in size over the centuries due to the devastating earthquakes so common in the area.

The resident population may have been lured away from the damaged city of Petra by the promise of more productive arable land and the prospect of profitable trade along new routes. Ultimately, the people of Petra would have cast off their foreign Byzantine culture, assimilating into other ethnic groups.

The churches of Petra also suggest an era of vital living faith. The excavated churches are now open to the public and pilgrims come to explore their heritage and to establish a bond with the early Christians of this ancient, desert city.

Sister Mary K. Milne is a Jerusalem-based biblical archaeologist.

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