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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.

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

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Tags: Byzantium