Rose-Red City, Half as Old as Time

Jordan’s city of rock, Petra, contains Byzantine church ruins.

text by Mary K. Milne, O.S.U.
photographs by Christian Molidor, R.S.M.

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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.

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Tags: Byzantium