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The Churches of Byzantine Petra

Author(s): Patricia Maynor Bikai

Source: Near Eastern Archaeology, Vol. 65, No. 4, Petra: A Royal City Unearthed (Dec., 2002),
pp. 271-276
Published by: The American Schools of Oriental Research
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3210859 .
Accessed: 07/05/2011 15:26

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By PatriciaMaynorBikai used by the military.Actual evidence for that is
somewhatephemeral,but merelogicwoulddictate
t has longbeenknownthatthe cityof Petrawas
severelyaffectedby the greatearthquakeof 363
CE,and it once seemed
The thatthe upperareawasof militarysignificance. From
the highestpointon the ridge,thereis a 360 degree
viewthatincludesthe city
that afterthat earthquake, center and, moreimpor-
the city was inhabited by
onlya verysmallnumberof
persons,someof whomwere
Christian.In 1974,Brown-
tantly, the main "back
entrance" to Petra, the
Wadi Abu 'Ullayqa (or
addition to a probable
ing wrote that by the
Byzantineperiod the "vitalityof the people was militaryuse, the North Ridge was also used as a
beingsappedbysqualor."He continued:"Without cemetery. The bedrock of the upperslopeis literally
even vainhope,a sortof torporsettledacrossPetra; honeycombed with shaft tombsof the Nabataean
life becamean existencevaluedforits own precar- era. Twoof these were excavated by ACOR (see
ious self and not for anyprospectof achievement" N MeganPerry's contribution in thisissue).
(1974:58). Althoughtracesof buildingsthatcould The earliest of the three churchesis the Ridge
be churches had been noted by explorers, the Church,so-calledbecauseof its locationon a ridge
onlycertainchurchin Petrawasa Nabataeantomb, at the top of the slope. South of that is the Blue
the Urn Tomb,convertedfor ecclesiasticaluse in Chapel Complex, perhaps the residence of the
446 CE (McKenzie 1990: pl. 97), a conversion bishopof Petra.Thisis a largebuildingon twolevels
that gave the impressionthat the Christianpopu- of the slope.The twopartsarejoinedby a staircase.
lationof Petrain thisperiodwasso limitedandpoor Farthersouthis whatis knownas the PetraChurch;
that they did not even have the resources to c% it has an adjoiningstructuredevotedto the ritualof
build a church. This was a very bleak picture of baptism.All of the churcheshave a nave and two
ByzantinePetra. aisles and a central apse. All three are generally
The excavationof threeByzantinechurchesand orientedto the east as wouldbe expected but the
the discoveryof a cache of Byzantinepapyriby the specific orientation was dictated by extant
AmericanCenterof OrientalResearch(ACOR) construction intowhichthe churcheshadto fit.
completelychangedthat view. Petrahas come to
seem much more like manyother sites in Jordan RidgeChurch
(Madaba,Jerash and Rihab, for example) and Ct
% Not long afterthe earthquakeof 363 CE,an apse
elsewherein the ByzantineEmpirewherethereare and two rectangularside roomswere addedto an
multiplechurches. existingbuildingnearthe top of the slope,creating
At Petra, the three churches are located on a what is now called the RidgeChurch (its original
nameis not known).As the aridclimateandlackof
slopeto the northof the maineast-weststreetof the Ct
city. In the
waterweremajorconcernsforthe peoplesof Petra,
Roman and everyopportunitywastakento conserverainwater.
. (hu'. Nabataean The RidgeChurch has a large cistern under the
periods, the nave;this was apparentlyfed by rainfromthe roof
area where that wasbroughtinto the buildingby downspouts
the churches and channelsleadingto the mouthof the cistern.
werelaterbuiltseemsto One of the stone channels still runs throughthe
Bluc on the lowerpartsof the
(hua slope while the upper
areas were probably The RidgeChurchis the
earliestof the three
A plan of the Ridge Byzantine churches
Church,the PetraChurch excavated
recently by
a and the Blue Chapel the AmericanCenterof
h•ch Complex.ByChrysanthos OrientalResearchat
Konellopoulosbased on a Petra.Thispaintingof its
map created by ACOR remains,by AliJabri,
tlI-? ?)~j~? and HashemiteUniversity gives a viewto the east.

65:4 (2002) 271
d0orsill. The church itself has side aisles that are separated BlueChapelComplex
frotmthe nave byfive columns on each side. Only fragmentsof. On the slope above the Petra Church was a large building
these remain.The church had a simple stone floor in the nave that may o riginally have been military in nature, perhaps a
and aisles, but may once have had a marblefloor in the altar barracks.At about the same time as the c(onstructionof the
area. The Ridge Church did not have a pulpit nor, seemingly, Petra Church, that building was converted for use by the
did it have benches aloingthe walls; a pulpit and benches are Christian community, perhaps as the residence of the
featuresin the
the other two churches. bishop. Part )ofthe rebuilding program also included the
By the middle of thcefifth century, the Christianpopulation creation of the Blue Chapel, named after the four Egyptian
of Petra had grown substantially, necessitating both the blue granite columns that were moved there, presumably
conversion of the Urn Tormb into a church and the from a nearby ruined Nabataean mIonument. In rose-red
constructionof a majorecclesiasticalcomplex containingwhat Petra, these blue columns stand out, as do their beautifully
were probablythe cathedral of Petra, an elaborate baptismal simple limestone capitals.
complex, and the residence of the bishop (called the Petra The columns and capitalsof the RidgeChurch and the Petra
Church and the Blue Chapel Complex). Church were scavengedfroma varietyof earliermonumentsin
Petra (see Fiema et al. 2001: 172-73). Such mismatched
PetraChurch colonnades are typical of the Byzantineera, not only in Petra
When it was built, the Petra Church had, like the Ridge but all over the empire. In the Blue Chapel, however, there
Church, a single apse flanked by two rectangularrooms. West was an effort to follow a cohesive decorative program. Not
of the apse was a deep, flat altar area. The apse and adjacent only were the blue columns with their white limestone plinths,
roomsare at the ends of a broadnave and two aisles, which in bases, and two-part capitals moved to the site as a set (and
turn are reached by three double doors opening out to a even numberedbefore they were moved), but also some effort
narthex. The nave of the church was paved with sandstone seems to have been made to carrythe blue and white program
and there were mosaics in the southern aisle and around the throughout the monument, as the other decoration included
altararea.Of the latteronly fragmentsremain.Whether or not white plastered walls and a blue sandstone floor. Later other
there were mosaicsin the north aisle in this periodis unknown. blue elements were added.
West of the church a three-roombaptismalcomplex was built. That the Blue Chapelwas privateis indicatedby the fact that
The center room contained a cross-shaped font under a it can only be reached via a narrowstaircase from the upper
canopy supported four columns. The two adjoining rooms part of the building-not a likely public access. Further it is
were used in the baptismal ritual. It is the best preserved very small; the "proper"(the interior area excluding the apse
baptisteryin the Near East. area) measures only 111 meters square as compared to the
Ridge Church at 158 meters square and the Petra Church at
358 meters square. Thus its size and difficulty of access
indicate that the Blue Chapel was not meant for large
public gatherings.These factors and the existence of the

D Plan of the
later phase of
the Petra
Church, after
renovations in
the sixth century.
By Chrysanthos
and Catherine

A Plan of the early phase of

the Petra Church. By Chrysanthos
Kanellopoulos and Catherine

I The baptistery of the Petra

Church is the best-preserved in the
Near East. Drawing by Chrysanthos


Axonometricview of the BlueChapelcomplex fromthe southwest.
By ChrysanthosKanellopoulos.
Groundplanof the BlueChapelComplex.Its size and difficultyof
access indicatethat this structurewas intended for privaterather the centralapsewereconvertedinto additionalapses.In the
than publicuse. Drawingby PatriciaM. Bikai,Megan Perryand PetraChurch,as in the other two churches,the altararea
ChrysanthosKonellopoulos. wasraisedandmarblescreenswereinstalledaroundthe altar
area duringthese renovations. Finally,an elaborateopus
base of a bishop'sthrone behind the altarsuggestthat the sectilefloor of marbleand stone was installed in both the
complex may have been the residence of the bishop or, raisedaltarareaand in the nave. This type of flooringwas
of anothermember
alternatively, of theelite. very expensive and is found only in the more important
To the west of the chapel is a courtyardwith an atrium churchesin the region.
surrounded bya single-story
portico.The upperbuildingof the In the RidgeChurch,a simplemosaicwaslaidon the raised
BlueChapelComplexconsistsof threesections.The central altarplatform.If therewereothermodifications, evidencefor
section has a room with a large door to the west and a themno longerexists.Of the threechurches,this is the least
courtyard to the east.Tothe northarea seriesof smallrooms, preserved, mainlybecauseof its exposedlocationon the ridge.
andto the southis a vaultedroomto the westanda porticofor Stonesfromtheirownsuperstructures literallyburiedthe Blue
the courtyardtowardthe east.The upperbuildingmayhave Chapel Complex and the PetraChurch, while almost the
servedas the actualresidenceforthe bishopandhisretinue. entire superstructureof the Ridge Church disappeared,
presumably downthe slopeson eitherside.When excavated,
Renovations the fill in mostplaceswithin the structureconsistedof less
In the course of the sixth century, all three churches thanthirtycentimetersof sand.In someplaces,the wallswere
underwentrenovations.At the PetraChurch,the open area erodedbelowfloorlevel andin the southeastcornerthe floor
betweenthe churchitselfandthe baptisterycomplexbecame itselfhadbegunto slip.Nevertheless,fragments of the chancel
a formalatriumwith a two-story
portico around it. In the center
of the atrium, a bell-shaped
cistern was constructed to
conserve rainwater from the
surrounding roofs. The bap-
tisterywas extended to the west
to accommodate larger groups.
The south room of the
baptismalcomplex ceased to be
used in the ritual as it was
converted into a staircase to
reach the second floor of the
atrium. Inside the church itself, Basketof the pulpitof the BlueChapel, The altarinstallationof the south apse of the Petra
the rectangular rooms flanking restored. Photoby PatriciaM. Bikai. Church,as restored.Photoby BronwynDouglas.

65:4 (2002) 273
Section of the screensandof the chancelitselfwerefound.These likelydate
mosaicsof the to the periodof the renovations.
south aisle, In the BlueChapel,the excavationuncoveredthe remains
PetraChurch, of a ratherhaphazardmarblepavementin the newlyraised
showing two altararea.Giventhe careshownin the buildingof the restof
Mesopotamian the structure,thisis jarring.Perhapswhatis nowvisibleis the
resultof laterepairsof a floorthatwasoriginallymoreelegant.
A throne for a bishop was installed behind the altar and
benchesforthe clergywereplacedon eitherside of the altar.
The latticework pulpit, perhaps added at this time, is
Easternend of the
mosaicsof the north exceptional.The bluishmarbleused for the pulpit, for the
chancelposts and screens,and for a reliquaryinstalledin a
aisle, PetraChurch,
nichein the northernapse,continuesthe decorativeprogram
showing,fromtop to
bottom, ramson either createdby the bluecolumns.Additionally,quantitiesof blue
side of a metal bowl, andwhitemarblefragmentswerefoundscattered.Thesemay
doves on either side of have once been coveringsfor the bishop'schairbehindthe
the cone of a stone pine, altarandthe seatsforthe clergyon eithersideof the altar.In
an Africanholdinga jug the Petra Church, a synthronon,a step-like seating area,
and a man with a plate probably witha seatforthe bishopat the center,wasinstalled
on either side of what in the centralapseduringthe remodelings of the sixthcentury.
could be a jewelrybox,
pheasants on either side Mosaics
of a varietyof fruits,and
The PetraChurchhad stone
attributes)on either side pavementin the nave,butin the
of a cone-shaped basket. rest of the church there were
mosaics(see Fiemaet al. 2001:
218-305 on a varietyof aspects
Detailof the mosaics of the floorand wall mosaics).
of the PetraChurch, The earliest of these, perhaps
northaisle, showing a datingto the mid-sixthcentury
crownedcrane or is in the southernaisle.
or earlier,
phoenix. It has a geometricbackground
against which are portrayed
animals,birdsandfish on each
side. Down the center are
personifications of the Four
Ocean; there are also two
4 Wallmosaicfragmentfrom fishermen,a fowler,and a vase
the PetraChurchshowing the withbirds.Perhapsat the same
face of a young man. 18 cm timeastherenovations, a mosaic
by 17 cm. showingdeerandostricheswas
installedin the easternend of
the southaisle.In the northaisle
is a somewhatlatermosaicthat
W I Section
is continuousfromthe doorto
ofthemosaics of the apse. Justinside the door,
the south aisle, PetraChurch,
showing on the left side, fromtop grapevines emergefroma vase
to bottom, a fish, bull,fish, ibis (?), andcreaterowsof threeroundels
dolphin,donkey, ray,guinea fowl and fish. These are mirror upthe aisle.In theseareanimals
imaged on the opposite side of the mosaic. Down the center of and vessels as well as a few
the mosaic,fromtop to bottom, are depicted a personificationof humanfigures.
summer,a fisherman,a personificationof wisdom (sophia),a fowler Inboththe RidgeChurchand
with a cage on his back, a personificationof springand a the PetraChurch,wallmosaics
personificationof the ocean (he holds a model boat and an oar). wereinstalled.A fewsectionsof

65:4 (2002)
View of the Blue Chapelwith its four Egyptianblue granite columns these fromthe PetraChurchshow humanfiguresagainsta
with limestone capitals. Inrose red Petrathe blue columnsstand out. backgroundof mosaiccubeswith goldleaf.It is possiblethat
Photo by Neal Bierling. the mosaicsin thesechurcheswereinstalledby artistsfromthe
sameworkshopthat createdthe greatmosaicmasterpieceat
Lootersin a ruinedBlueChapel.The floor was lifted to see if there the Churchof MountSt. Catherine's in the Sinai.It is thussad
were Nabataeanshaft tombs below; note the collapsed and broken
pulpit.Cartoonby ChrysanthosKanellopoulos. to see that the wall mosaics from the PetraChurch are so
fragmentary (Fiemaet al. 2001:300-302). Thoseof the Ridge
Church are too shattered to give even an idea of the
compositionof the originalwork.
Duringthe course of the sixth centurya groupof papyri
documenting a varietyof transactions of anextendedfamilywere
deposited in a room adjacent to the PetraChurch.Fromthe
papyri we can deduce(among other things)thatthePetraChurch
was dedicatedto the "Blessedand All-Holy Lady,the most
GloriousMotherof God andEver-Virgin Mary."The original
namesof the othertwo churcheson this slopearenot known.
Judgingbythe latestcertaindatein the papyri(593/94cE),the
PetraChurchremainedin useuntilthe endof the sixthcentury,
afterwhichthe PetraChurchandthe papyriburned(seeMarjo
Lehtinen's contribution in thisissue).
It is unclearwhetherthe PetraChurchhadbeen abandoned
as an ecclesiastical structure before the fire that totally
destroyedit or whether it was still in use but undergoing
renovations(Fiemaet al. 2001:80-91), but all threechurches
mayhave simplybeen abandoned,perhapsbecause of the
decliningpopulationof Petra.It mustbe remembered that by

65:4 (2002) 275
the endof the sixthcentury,halfa millennium hadpassedsince restored.At all threesites,whereelementswereadded,suchas
theheydayof Petrawhenit wasa stationon a majortraderoute. in the case of wallsbeingraised,meshscreeningwasplaced
Theearthquake of the fourthcenturycausedsubstantial physical withinthe wall belowthe restoredelementsto indicatethe
damage to the city,asbestillustratedbythefallencolumnsof the restoration.Wherethis wasnot possibleor wouldbe visually
GreatTemple.Largepublicbuildings suchasthe GreatTemple, disruptive,a datewascarvedin the newelement,or a modern
theQasral-Bint,andtheTempleof theWingedLionswerenever coinplacedin sucha wayas to be visibleto futureinvestigators.
rebuilt.Indeedit seemsthatin the citycenter,whilea fewof the The Petrathatis bestknownis the cityof the stunningtomb
shopson the southsideof the easternendof the mainroadwere facadesandmonumentalpublicbuildings.The excavationof
rebuilt(Fiema1998;Kanellopoulos 2001),mostof the areasouth the Byzantinechurcheshasgiventhe site anotherface,a face
of the mainstreetwasabandonedafterthe earthquake. On the thatis familiarto thosewhoknowthe ByzantineEast,yet it is
northsideof thestreet,currentevidenceindicates thateverything a facelookingbackto a gloriouspast.
westof theBlueChapelComplexareawasalsoabandoned. Thus,
theByzantine citycenterwassubstantially smallerandclearlyless Note
imposing thanthe"downtown" of theNabataeans. Nevertheless, 1. PierreBikaiwasoveralldirectorof the PetraChurchProject.Workin
forabouttwocenturies, the
from earthquake to thefinalcollapse the field was led by ZbigniewT. Fiemawith co-directorsKhairiehAmr
and RobertSchick. The North Ridge Project,within which the Ridge
around600CE,therewasa vibrantByzantine community. Churchand BlueChapelComplex,as well as the two Nabataeantombs
It is not certain what caused the final decline of the were excavated,was directedby PatriciaM. Bikaiwith VirginiaEganas
population.Lackof maintenanceof the infrastructurethat assistant director from 1994 to 1998 and with Megan Perryin that
broughtwaterinto the city mayhavebeenone of the reasons positionfrom1999to the present.ChrysanthosKanellopouloshasserved
thatduringthe courseof the seventhcentury,the population as the architectof all three projects.All of the projectshave benefited
of Petradeclinedto almostnothing.Judgingby the amountof fromthe supportof the Departmentof Antiquitiesof Jordan.
wateravailabletodayfromthe springin the wadibelowthe
Ridge Church, there were probablyno more than a few
hundredpersons.That remnantpopulationseems to have I.
1974 Petra.
London: andWindus.
consistedof smallgroupswhosemajoractivitywasthe looting Z.T.
of the site. In the upperreachesof the hillsideof the North 1998 The RomanStreetof the PetraProject,1997. A Preliminary
Ridge,theirfocuswason the Nabataeanshafttombs.Their Annual
Report. oftheDepartment
ofAntiquities 42:
presencecan be documentedat leastuntil the earthquakeof 399-424.
748/49CE,whenthe columnsof the BlueChapelcamedown, Fiema,Z. T; Kanellopoulos, T.;and Schick,R.
C.; Waliszewski,
andperhapsevenbeyondthattime. 2001 ThePetraChurch.
Centerof Oriental
Publications 3. Amman: American Center of Oriental
Conservation C.
Conservation hasbeena majorelementof ACOR'sworkin 2001 TheArchitecture oftheShopsandColonnadedStreetin
Petra.At the PetraChurch,the majorissuewasprotectionof Bulletin
Petra. oftheAmerican
Schools Research
ofOriental 324:
the mosaicsin the two aisles.Manystrategiesto createthat 9-22.
protection were considered by ACOR and the experts it McKenzie,J.
1990 The Architectureof Petra.BritishAcademyMonographsin
consulted.In the end, a shelterin the formof a spaceframe
Archaeology1. New York:OxfordUniversity.
wasdesignedby RobShutlerandconstructedby Starnetin
Florida.Conservators stabilizedthe mosaicsthemselves,while
somedrumsof the colonnadewererestored,a replicaof the
opussectilefloorwasinstalled,andthe wallswerebuiltupfor
security.At the RidgeChurch,simplestabilization of the walls ABOUT THE AUTHOR
was undertaken and a few column drums returned to their
original place. Although no mosaics remained in situ, the Patricia Bikai is the Associate
mortarbeddingof the mosaic in the altar area, exposed during Directorof ACORinAmmanwhere
excavation,was protectedby a built stone box. shehasbeen
Restorationin the Blue ChapelComplexwas moreextensive. ordan,Bihaiwroteextensively
In some cases, walls were unstable and had to be partially in.
Phoenicians, onPhoenician
dismantledand rebuiltor stabilizedby other means such as the ceramics
that P
insertionof steel pins. Wallswere also raisedand elements such withherparticipation
began asastudent
as door lintels reset in their original places. The maior in the excavationsat Sarepta in
restorationeffort was the re-erection of the four blue granite Lebanon.Shehasalsoworkedat Tyre
columns.One of the column'sbases was brokenand two of the andon Cyprusandhascontributedto Patricia Bikai
lowersections of the capitalswere entirelymissing.Replicasof inEgypt
projects andGrece.
these were manufactured and the complete set of columns

276 65:4 (2002)