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Definition: Petra from Merriam-Webster's Collegiate(R) Dictionary

ancient city of NW Arabia on slope of Mt. Hor, site now in SW Jordan; ✽ of the Edomites & Nabataeans

Summary Article: Petra
from The Encyclopedia of Ancient History

Petra (Aramaic reqem or ragmū, referring to the "multi-colored" Nubian sandstone rock of the mountains surrounding the city) was the capital of the Nabataean kingdom, and center for the international trade in aromatics from south Arabia to the Mediterranean (from ca. 312/11 BCE to 106 CE). Most of the standing monuments and architecture date to the late Hellenistic and Roman era, but Petra was already attracting the attention of Moschion, an envoy from Priene in 129 BCE, and perhaps appears in the report of the Han Dynasty Chinese envoy Chang Ch'ien in 126 BCE (as Li-Kan = Rekem; Graf and Sidebotham 2003: 65–7). The earliest detailed literary description of Petra is that of Athenodoros of Tarsos between 63 and 50 BCE, when "Romans and other foreigners" were present in the city (Strabo 16.4.21). Recent excavations have clarified the civic center along the colonnaded street between the theater and the Qasr al-Bint Temple. On the north side, excavations have revealed the Temple of the Winged Lions and a Byzantine ecclesiastical complex. On the south, Nabataean villas have been exposed, along with a large administrative center and audience hall (the so-called Great Temple), with an adjacent paradeisos, and a small temple to the imperial cult. Of the eight hundred tomb façades at Petra, only several have inscriptions, and their chronological arrangement has been an architectural challenge. Their dating has been facilitated by over thirty inscribed tomb façades from Meda'in Salih (Hegra) in Saudi Arabia dating between 1 and 76 CE that suggest a date before the second century for the majority if not all the rock-carved tombs at Petra. It is also clear that the large tomb called the Khazneh can be dated no earlier than late in the reign of Aretas IV (9 BCE–40 CE). This refined chronology is based on stratigraphical analysis of finds, not purely stylistic characteristics: Nabataean painted fine-ware pottery has been arranged into various phases from ca. 100 BCE to the annexation in 106 and beyond (see Schmid 2003). Even after the annexation of the Nabataean kingdom in 106, Petra retained its importance. The cohortes Ulpiae Petraeorum was drawn from its royal forces before Trajan's Parthian expedition in 114–17, and Petra was the location of the assize (conventus) of the governor in 125 and the burial of the governor Sextius Florentinus (ca. 129). In the third century, several prominent Sophist philosophers and rhetoricians were centered at Petra. After Christianity was introduced there as early as the reign of Constantine, it became an important Christian center. Although earthquakes in 363 and 551 caused substantial damage to Petra, they hardly brought its demise. By the end of the fourth century, it was the capital of the province Palaestina Salutaris/Tertia, and the recent discovery of the Petra papyri in a Byzantine church indicates it was thriving into the late sixth century (Fiema 2003a; Koenen, Daniel, and Gagos 2003).

Petra, monumental tomb, the "Khazneh." © Photo Spectrum/Heritage Images/Scala, Florence.



References and Suggested Readings
  • Fiema, Z. T. (2003a) "The Byzantine church at Petra." In Markoe, ed.: 239-49.
  • Fiema, Z. T. (2003b) "Roman Petra (AD 106-363): a neglected subject." Zeitschrift des Deutschen Palästina-Vereins 119: 38-58.
  • Graf, D. F. (2009) Athenodorus of Tarsus and Nabataea: the date and circumstances of his visit to Petra. In Studies in the history and archaeology of Jordan, vol. 10: 67-74. Amman.
  • Graf, D. F.; Sidebotham, S. E. (2003) "Nabataean Trade." In Markoe, ed.: 65-73.
  • Koenen, L.; Daniel, R. W.; Gagos, T. (2003) "Petra in the sixth century: the evidence of the carbonized papyri ." In Markoe, ed.: 250-61.
  • McKenzie, J. (1990) The architecture of Petra. Oxford.
  • Markoe, G., ed. (2003) Petra rediscovered: lost city of the Nabataeans. New York.
  • Schmid, S. G. (2003) "Nabataean pottery." In Markoe, ed.: 75-81.
  • David F. Graf
    Wiley ©2012

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