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Petra, The Mountain of Aaron: The Finnish Archaeological Project in Jordan. Vol. 2, The Nabataean Sanctuary and the Byzantine Monastery

Petra, The Mountain of Aaron: The Finnish Archaeological Project in Jordan. Vol. 2, The Nabataean Sanctuary and the Byzantine Monastery

By Zbigniew T. Fiema, Jaakko Frösen, and Maija Holappa. Pp. viii + 601, DVD of virtual tour. Societas Scientiarum Fennica, Helsinki 2016. €140. ISBN 978-951-653-410-0 (cloth).

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For many years, the fabulous site of Petra in Jordan remained an enigma. The extraordinary rock-cut monuments of this ancient city, often described as “half as old as time,” were well documented and dated broadly to the Roman period, but both the origins and ultimate fate of the city and its inhabitants, the Nabataean Arabs, remained shrouded in mystery. The present volume makes a significant contribution to both periods, especially the latter. The genesis of the project stems from the discovery of the now famous Petra papyri during excavation of a church in the city center in the early 1990s. A Finnish team played a major role in the analysis of the sixth-century CE carbonized scrolls (now fully published), which opened a bright window into the regional history of Petra in this period. The papyri mention the “monastery of Aaron,” seemingly referring to a ruin atop a mountain a few kilometers west of and overlooking the city center. Between 1997 and 2013, a Finnish team led by Jaako Frösen conducted extensive excavations of the site, which confirmed this identification, and an intensive regional survey of its environs. The results appeared in final form with remarkable speed. Volume 1 (2008) provides the essential background on the project and focuses on excavation of the monastic church and chapel; volume 3 (2013) presents the results of the regional survey. The present volume completes the series with its focus on a Nabataean sanctuary that preceded the monastery and other structures of the monastic complex beyond the church and chapel.

The results presented in volume 2 consist of 23 chapters, six appendices, and a DVD that includes a virtual tour and virtual model of the site. The volume is lavishly illustrated with hundreds of figures (42 in color) plus tables and plans. Chapter 1 by chief archaeologist Fiema includes not only the essential methodology but also an update of some information offered in the 2008 report. Chapters 2–4 present the results of the excavated structures, while chapters 5–18 offer analyses of a wide range of material cultural evidence (e.g., ceramics, glass, coins, small finds, faunal and botanical remains, inscriptions). Chapters 19–20 document the production of the 3D digital modeling of the architecture, and chapter 21 presents a plan for a protective shelter. A learned contribution by Wenning (“The Great Goddesses of Petra”) follows, although it seems somewhat out of place in such a report. The final chapter by Fiema is a full synthesis and interpretation of all the evidence.

The comprehensive nature of this report is matched by few other archaeological projects in southern Jordan. Limits of space prevent this reviewer from conducting a critical analysis of all the chapters in this massive volume. I focus on how the new evidence relates to questions about the origins and post-Roman history of Petra, plus offering some comments about one notable category of evidence, the ceramics.

Ancient documentary sources attest to the presence of the Nabataeans in the region by the late fourth century BCE, but the emergence of Petra as an urban center has long remained unclear. Although there is archaeological evidence from the city center of modest structures from the Persian and Early Hellenistic periods, there is more and more compelling evidence that the major monuments of the Nabataean capital appeared much later, beginning only in the late first century BCE, thus after the Nabataean kings fell under indirect Roman control as client rulers. The Finnish excavations add to this picture by concluding that the Nabataean sanctuary atop the mountain was established only in the first century CE, in other words precisely during the monumentalization of the city center. This relatively late date is further underscored by the results of the regional survey published in volume 3. Much to the surprise of many scholars, the landscape in the immediate environs of Petra appears largely devoid of settlement until the late first century BCE, when the region experienced an explosion of sedentary settlement. Although a complete understanding of the Nabataean sanctuary was hampered by later construction and occupation, the authors make a plausible case for its continuous use for cultic purposes until the late fourth century CE, likely terminated by a well-documented earthquake in 363. This provides further evidence for the tenacity of polytheism in this city against the inexorable spread of Christianity, a conflict reflected in some literary sources.

One of the greatest strengths of the volume is the four chapters devoted to presentation and analysis of the ceramics. These together represent the most comprehensive and sophisticated ceramic analysis yet published from the region. Gerber continues her analysis of typology and chronology and the Byzantine and Early Islamic material from volume 1, but now with more quantification and definitive interpretation. Sinibaldi contributes a brief chapter on the Middle and Late Islamic pottery. Holmqvist authors two chapters: summarizing “Pottery Supply and Exchange” via technical analysis and a nuanced study of ceramic lamps, and summarizing results from her recent monograph Ceramics in Transition: Production and Exchange of Late ByzantineEarly Islamic Pottery in Southern Transjordan and the Negev (Oxford 2019). These chapters convincingly demonstrate continuity in ceramic production at a “communal,” rather than “household” (233), level somewhere in the Petra region in the Byzantine and Early Islamic periods; there is also abundant evidence for substantial quantities of imported ceramics, such as amphoras (e.g., supplying fish products from the Red Sea to monks and pilgrims) and oil lamps (many apparently brought to site by the pilgrims themselves).

This project’s most important contribution is to the history of Petra and its hinterland in the Byzantine and Early Islamic periods. Notions of Petra’s immediate decline after the Roman annexation of 106 CE have long been put to rest, but what of the city’s history after the seismic catastrophe of 363 CE? The discovery of three major churches on Petra’s North Ridge in the 1990s, the city’s administrative role as capital of Palaestina Tertia and an episcopal see, and especially the sixth-century Petra papyri suggested to many scholars that the city continued to flourish through the Byzantine period. The establishment of the physical structures of the Monastery of Aaron is now firmly dated to the later fifth century CE, although Fiemi suggests (547–78) that Christians likely venerated the site itself much earlier, probably by the fourth century. The site was not only a monastery but also an important center of pilgrimage for the next 500 or even 700 years before its final abandonment. It later became and still remains an Islamic holy site.

However, the success of this monastery and construction of the churches in the city center masks to some degree much other recent evidence that suggests Petra was nevertheless in serious decline in the Byzantine period. Recent excavations suggest that all the major monumental structures south of Petra’s main street (e.g., the Qasr al-Bint temple, the so-called Great Temple, the adjacent pool and garden, the main theater) were all lying in ruins by the fifth century. So, too, were the former villa urbana (ez-Zantur) above the main street and the Temple of the Winged Lions to the north. Even several domestic complexes immediately east of the three churches on the North Ridge, where Byzantine occupation was surely expected, revealed no such evidence after 363 CE. In short, much if not most of the city center was by then in ruins despite construction of the churches in the city center and the establishment of the apparently thriving monastic and pilgrimage center atop the Mountain of Aaron. Regional surveys also unanimously attest significant declines in settlement density from the first-century CE peak. Finally, although the Petra papyri do document precious details of rural settlement in the sixth century CE, these documents also mention two abandoned villages in the region by this period. Petra survived merely as an administrative and ecclesiastical center in the Byzantine era, but its days as a caravan city, formerly the lifeblood of its economy, were long since passed. Regional primacy seems to have passed to the city of Augustopolis (Adrou, modern Udhruh), about 10 km east of Petra and prominent in Early Islamic sources. This might well explain the otherwise puzzling absence of Petra in accounts of the Muslim conquest in the early seventh century.

In short, this is a model archaeological publication. As a final report, it sets a high standard for all other projects conducting research in the Petra region and the entire Levant.

S. Thomas Parker
Department of History
North Carolina State University

Book Review of Petra, The Mountain of Aaron: The Finnish Archaeological Project in Jordan. Vol. 3, The Nabataean Sanctuary and the Byzantine Monastery, by Zbigniew T. Fiema, Jaakko Frösen, and Maija Holappa
Reviewed by S. Thomas Parker
American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 124, No. 1 (January 2020)
Published online at
DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1241.Parker

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