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Petra: The Definitive Guide

Petra Monuments
Text from "Petra Book" by Jane Taylor

The Byzantine Church View in Photo Gallery

In 1973 an American archaeologist, Dr Kenneth W. Russell, saw the outline of an apse on a slope north of the Colonnaded Street. When he did a formal recording of the site in 1990, he concluded that it was a large Byzantine church which, from the quantities of small glass tesserae on the surface, must have been richly decorated with wall and ceiling mosaics. And any church with such costly decoration must have been of considerable importance.

Excavation of the site began in May 1992, shortly after Russell's tragic death at the age of 41, and continued in different areas until 1996. It has revealed a triple-apsed church, probably built in the mid-to-late fifth century as the cathedral of Petra, with an atrium at the west end and a fine baptistery with a cruciform font. Inside the church, the central nave was paved with imported marble, enlivened with strips of local red sandstone, but most of the marble disappeared long before the church filled with driftsand. Fortunately other pieces of marble survived, including colonnettes, altars and a finely carved chancel screen.

Handsome mosaic floors cover both side aisles (those in the south aisle earlier than the sixth-century ones in the north aisle), with depictions of human figures, birds and animals in a geometric frame. The fragments of wall and ceiling mosaics were too small to show the designs, but the classic scheme of Byzantine church decoration was to provide an image of the cosmos in a clearly defined order, showing (from the floor up) first the natural world of God's creation; then the world of Christian saints and martyrs; above that the Holy Land with scenes from Christ's life; and, in the ceiling, Christ Pantocrator, the omnipotent, the image of God.

One of the most extraordinary finds in Petra was of a cache of around 140 papyrus scrolls, found in a storage room just outside the north-eastern corner of the church. Those documents with dates cover virtually the whole of the sixth century; undated scrolls could well extend their range both earlier and later. The scrolls had been carbonised in a fire that destroyed the church no earlier than the late seventh century, but the Greek writing on them was still legible. These are legal documents of at least three generations of an affluent, land-owning Petra family and their relatives by marriage, and includes contracts, wills, dowry settlements, sworn agreements to property divisions, registrations of property sales, transfers of tax responsibilities, receipts for payments of civic and military taxes, and also what appears to be the resolution of a dispute by arbitration. Hellenised forms of Nabataean names occur (such as Obodianos instead of Obodas), showing clearly that the sixth-century Byzantine inhabitants of Petra included descendants of the original Nabataean population.