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BYZANTINE CHURCHES

Byzantine churches

Among Petra's ancient temples is a Byzantine church dating from the 5th and 6th centuries. Still being excavated, Petra Church contains some extraordinary Byzantine mosaics.

The Petra Church is a Byzantine church in the ancient city of Petra, located a few hundred meters off the colonnaded street near the Temple of the Winged Lions.

The Petra Church seems to have first been built over Nabataean and Roman remains around 450 AD. It may have been a major 5th- and 6th-century cathedral, which is intriguing given the other evidence of Petra's decline after a 363 AD earthquake.

When first constructed around 450, the church had only one apse and an entrance porch. The Mosaic of the Seasons in the southern aisle is from this period.

In 500-50 AD, the church was remodeled. Two side apses were installed and the two-story atrium built. The nave was paved and the chancel screens, a pulpit, and wall mosaics were installed, as were the mosaics of the northern aisle and the eastern end of the southern aisle.

Around 600 AD, a second remodeling may have been in progress when the church suffered a major fire, and it stood derelict until it was finally destroyed by earthquakes.

The Petra Church was discovered by Kenneth W. Russell in 1990, who passed away in 1992. The site was excavated in 1992-98 by the American Center of Oriental Research (ACOR) with funding from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).

In December 1993, 152 papyrus scrolls were uncovered inside the church. The scrolls, which are the largest group of ancient written material found in Jordan, were carbonized due to the early 7th-century fire and are still being deciphered. The scrolls are the records of one extended family and provide a valuable glimpse into life in Petra between 528 and 582 AD, a period that saw the reigns of three Byzantine emperors: Justinian, Justin II and Tiberius II. Among the documents is a will dividing property among three brothers; the property included vineyards and slaves. The scrolls are probably the family archive of the archdeacon Theodorus, son of Obodianos.

What to See at the Byzantine Church

The Petra Church is currently being excavated and preserved and a protective tent covers the roofless walls. It is a three-aisled basilica, about 26 meters by 15 meters, with three apses on the east end and three west portals. The materials used to construct the church, including the capitals, door jambs, and reliefs, must have come from the ruined monuments of the Nabataean and Roman periods.

Each of the side aisles of Petra Church is paved with 70 square meters of remarkably preserved mosaics, whose subjects include a variety of animals (local, exotic and mythological) and personifications of the Seasons, Ocean, Earth and Wisdom. Also surviving are significant remains of the nave's pavement, with marble and stone geometric designs.

There is an atrium and a baptistery to the west of the nave. The latter dates from the mid-5th century and is one of the largest and best preserved in the entire Near East. Sunk in the southwest corner is a cross-shaped baptismal font accessed by steps. It is surrounded by four columns, which may have supported a canopy.