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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.

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Tags: Byzantium