Last week I visited early Byzantine churches, one after another, among the vast ruins of Petra, “that rose red city, half as old as time”, in Jordan. I was there to accompany a photographer who was sent from New York to get pictures of these churches for an article about them
Last week I visited early Byzantine churches, one after another, among the vast ruins of Petra, “that rose red city, half as old as time”, in Jordan. I was there to accompany a photographer who was sent from New York to get pictures of these churches for an article about them. We spent two days on foot and by donkey traipsing around Petra, so that we could see as much as possible of structures that were once churches, as well as current excavations at churches and a monastery complex there.
Although explorers, surveyors and archaeologists knew about the probable existence of these early Byzantine churches; it is historical church documents that give clear evidence to their existence as early as the 4th. century, when Eusebius mentioned the founding of churches in Petra. By the year 343, Asterius, the bishop of Petra, was present at the Council of Sardica.
It was in April of 1990 that the late Ken Russell knew he had discovered a large Byzantine church. Excavations revealed that he was absolutely correct. He had discovered a large Byzantine church with beautiful, complex, rich mosaics, mostly intact, that carpeted the two side aisles of the first Christian site to be uncovered in Petra. In an annex room of this church, 152 scolls were discovered and mention was made in those scrolls of the probably name of this church as the church of “Our Holy Mistress, the Holy God-bearing Ever Virgin Mary”. The cruciform baptistry, beyond the atrium, but still very much part of the complex, is impressive.
Then, just up the hill from this church on a sandstone ridge overlooking Wadi Abu al-Ullayqa, another church was discovered and excavated by Patricial Bikai from 1994-1996. Further excavation, between these two churches revealed yet another complex with a church or large chapel, whose columns are of blue Aswan granite. This church is still in the process of excavation.
If you have ever been to Petra, these structures are located along the Roman Road beyond the theatre, high on the hill to the right, just above the temple of the winged lions. We traveled to other structures which were used as churches, but none were as spectacular as the recently excavated churches. An archaeologst told me that there are probably about 50 Christian churches in Petra awaiting discovery and excavation.
The community of these churches converted from paganism at a very early date, but like all the other inhabitants of the site of Petra, except for the Bidul bedouin, they and their ancestors have all left this site and the remarkable city of Petra does not have a Christian presence today. There are, however, Christians in Jordan; many of whom are Palestinian in origin, coming to Jordan as refugees from the Israeli occupation of their country.
If you even go to Petra, insist on seeing the churches and getting in touch with your ancestors in the faith. Look upon the very stones where they celebrated Eucharist in the 4th. and 5th. centuries. Here is an early link to Palestine Christians, for after the Council of Chalcedon in 451, Petra was under the Patriarch of Jerusalem and Petra was the capital of the Roman “Palaestina Tertia”.