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Petra: The Definitive Guide

Petra Monuments
Text from "Petra Book" by Jane Taylor

The Theater View in Photo Gallery

The zeal of the Nabataeans in chiselling their vast theater out of the solid rock is a source of wonder. To trace a semicircle on level ground is no great matter; to do so on a convoluted rock-face, using nothing more sophisticated than a length of string and a few simple tools, is decidedly more taxing. Their grasp of geometry was clearly formidable.

It was once thought that the theater was made after the Roman annexation of the Nabataean kingdom in AD 106, following their principle of providing food and entertainment to win favour with newly conquered peoples. But Dr Philip Hammond, the American archaeologist who excavated the theater in 1962-3, concluded that it was originally carved between 4 BC and AD 27, in the reign of Aretas IV, with some minor alterations by his successor, Malichus II, and some refurbishments when the Romans redeveloped the city. This Roman activity could have been occasioned by an earthquake in AD 113/4. Another earthquake on 19 May 363 doubtless caused more damage to the stage building than to the carved seating of the cavea; but the life of Petra and probably of its theater continued.

Though its design is Roman, according to the principles of Vitruvius, the floral capitals uncovered in the excavation are distinctively Nabataean. So too is the construction technique a blend of confident mathematics and slogging, stone-chipping craftsmanship. The scale of the theater is some measure of the size and prosperity of Petra in the first century AD. In 1812 Burckhardt reckoned it would hold 3,000; 25 years later Comte Jules de Bertou accused him of exaggeration and suggested 1,200. A recent, carefully calculated estimate of a capacity audience puts it at around 5,000.

So urgent was the Petrans' desire for a theater that they were prepared to sacrifice some tombs, whose sliced remains still stare balefully out of the back wall. Perhaps the necropolis was the only area of the city with acceptable visibility (on the main street) where there was also sufficient space for so large and important an undertaking. Maybe, too, the Nabataeans had no sense of incongruity in locating their entertainment in a graveyard. But such evident eccentricity provoked portentous or amused comment by most nineteenth-century travellers. 'Strange contrast!' wrote the American theologian Edward Robinson in 1838, 'where a taste for the frivolities of the day, was at the same time gratified by the magnificence of tombs; amusement in a cemetery; a theater in the midst of sepulchres.'