1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Petra

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PETRA (ἡ Πέτρα= the rock), a ruined site, 30° 19′ N . and 35° 31′ E., lying in a basin among the mountains which form the eastern fiank of Wadi el-‛Arāba, the great valley running from the Dead Sea to the Gulf of ‛Akăba. The descriptions of Strabo (xvi. p. 779), Pliny (N.H. vi. 32) and other writers leave no doubt as to the identity of this site with the famous capital of the Nabataeans (q.v.) and the centre of their caravan trade. Walled in by towering rocks and watered by a perennial stream, Petra not only possessed the advantages of a fortress but controlled the main commercial routes which passed through it to Gaza in the west, to Bostra and Damascus in the north, to Elath and Leucè Comè on the Red Sea, and across the desert to the Persian Gulf.

From the ‛Arāba travellers approach by a track which leads round Jebel Hārūn (Mt Hor) and enters the plain of Petra from the south; it is just possible to find a way in from the high plateau on the north; but the most impressive entrance is from the east, down a dark and narrow gorge, in places only 10 or 12 ft. wide, called the Sīḳ, i.e. the shaft, a split in the huge sandstone rocks which serves as the waterway of the Wadi Mūsā. Near the end of the defile stands the most elaborate of the ruins, el-Ḥazne or “the Treasury of Pharaoh,” not built but hewn out of the cliff; a little farther on, at the foot of the mountain called en-Nejr, comes the theatre, so placed as to bring the greatest number of tombs within view; and at the point where the valley opens out into the plain the site of the city is revealed with striking effect. Almost enclosing it on three sides are rose-coloured mountain walls, divided into groups by deep fissures, and lined with rockcut tombs in the form of towers. The stream of Wadi Mūsā crosses the plain and disappears among the mountains opposite; on either bank, where the ground is fairly level, the city was built, covering a space of about 11/4 sq. m. Among the ruins on the south bank stand the fragments of a temple called Kasr Fir‛aun of late Roman date; just beyond this rises a rocky height which is usually regarded as the acropolis.

A position of such natural strength must have been occupied early, but We have no means of telling exactly when the history of Petra began; the evidence seems to show that the city was of relatively late foundation, though a sanctuary (see below) may have existed there from very ancient times. This part of the country was assigned by tradition to the Horites, i.e. probably “cave-dwellers,” the predecessors of the Edomites (Gen. xiv. 6, xxxvi 20–30, Deut. ii. 12), the habits of the original natives may have influenced the Nabataean custom of burying the dead and offering worship in half-excavated caves.[1] But that Petra itself is mentioned in the Old Testament cannot be affirmed with certainty; for though Petra is usually identified with Sela‛[2] which also means “a rock,” the reference in Judges i. 36; Isa. xvi. 1, xlii 11, Obad. 3, is far from clear. 2 Kings xiv. 7 seems to be more explicit, in the parallel passage, however, Sela' is understood to mean simply “the rock” (2 Chr. xxv. 12, see LXX). Hence many authorities doubt whether any town named Sela‛ is mentioned in the Old Testament[3] What, then, did the Semitic inhabitants call their city? Eusebius and Jerome (Onom. sacr. 286, 71 145, 9, 228, 55. 287, 94), apparently on the authority of Josephus (Ant. iv. 7, 1; 4, 7), assert that Rekem was the native name But in the Aramaic versions Rekem is the name of Kadesh; Josephus may have confused the two places. Sometimes the Aramaic versions give the form Rekem-Geya, which recalls the name of the village El-ji, south-east of Petra; the capital, however, would hardly be defined by the name of a neighbouring village. The Semitic name of the city, if it was not Sela', must remain unknown.[4] The passage in Diodorus Siculus (xix 94-97) which describes the expeditions which Antigonus sent against the Nabataeans in 312 B.C. is generally understood to throw some light upon the history of Petra, though it must be admitted that the petra referred to as a natural fortress and place of refuge cannot be a proper name, and the description at any rate implies that the town was not yet in existence. Brünnow thinks that “the rock” in question was the sacred mountain en-Nejr (above), but Buhl suggests a conspicuous height about 16 m north of Petra, Shobak, the Mont-royal of the Crusaders.[5] More satisfactory evidence of the date at which the earliest Nabataean settlement began is to be obtained from an examination of the tombs. Two types may be distinguished broadly, the Nabataean and the Graeco-Roman. The Nabataean type starts from the simple pylon-tomb with a door set in a tower crowned by a parapet ornament, in imitation of the front of a dwelling-house; then, after passing through various stages, the full Nabataean type is reached, retaining all the native features and at the same time exhibiting characteristics which are partly Egyptian and partly Greek. Of this type there exist close parallels in the tomb-towers at el-Hejr in north Arabia, which bear long Nabataean inscriptions,[6] and so supply a date for the corresponding monuments at Petra. Then comes a series of tomb fronts which terminate in a semicircular arch, a feature derived from north Syria, and finally the elaborate facades, from which all trace of native style has vanished, copied from the front of a Roman temple. The exact dates of the stages in this development cannot be fixed, for strangely enough few inscriptions of any length have been found at Petra,[7] perhaps because they have perished with the stucco or cement which was used upon many of the buildings. We have, then, as evidence for the earliest period, the simple pylon-tombs, which belong to the pre-Hellenic age; how far back in this stage the Nabataean settlement goes we do not know, but not farther than the 6th century B.C. A period follows in which the dominant civilization combines Greek, Egyptian and Syrian elements, clearly pointing to the age of the Ptolemies. Towards the close of the 2nd century B.C., when the Ptolemaic and Seleucid kingdoms were equally depressed, the Nabataean kingdom came to the front, under Aretas III. Philhellene, c. 85-60 B C, the royal coins begin; at this time probably the theatre was excavated, and Petra must have assumed the aspect of a Hellenistic city. In the long and prosperous reign of Aretas IV. Philopatris, 9 B.CA.D. 40, the fine tombs of the el-Hejr type may be dated, perhaps also the great High-place. Then the city became more and more Romanized. In A D 106, when Cornelius Palma was governor of Syria, “Arabia belonging to Petra,”[8] was absorbed into the Roman Empire, and the native dynasty came to an end. But the city continued to flourish. It was visited in A.D. 131 by Hadrian, and stamped Adrianè Petra on its coins in gratitude for the emperor's benefactions, the superb Hazne, probably a temple for the worship of Isis, and the Dēr, which resembles the Hazne in design, belong to this period. A century later, in the time of Alexander Severus (A.D. 222–235), when the city was at the height of its splendour, the issue of coinage comes to an end, and there is no more building of sumptuous tombs, owing apparently to some sudden catastrophe, such as an invasion by the neo-Persian power under the Sassanid dynasty. Meanwhile as Palmyra (fl. A.D. 130–270) grew in importance and attracted the Arabian trade away from Petra, the latter declined, it seems, however, to have lingered on as a religious centre; for we are told by Epiphanius (c. A.D. 315–403) that in his time a feast was held there on the 25th of December in honour of the virgin Chaabou and her offspring Dusares (Haer. 51).

The chief god of Petra was Dhū-sharā (Δονσάρης), i.e. the lord or owner of Sharā,[9] he was worshipped under the form of a black rectangular stone, a sort of Petraean Ka'aba (Suidas Lex'. s v. Θεός Αρης, and cf. Epiphan. above). Associated with Dhū-sharā was Allāt, the chief goddess of the ancient Arabs. Sanctuary chambers may be seen at various points in the site of Petra, and many places of sacrifice open to the sky are met with among the tombs, marked by remains of altars. But most eminent of all was the great High-place which has recently been discovered on en-Nejr (or Zibb 'atūf). It consists of a rock-hewn altar of burnt-offering with a place for killing the victims beside it and a shallow court, perhaps intended to hold water, in front: the most complete specimen of an ancient Semitic sanctuary that is known.[10] Not far off are two obelisks cut out of the solid rock which has been removed to the level of their bases; these were either idols of Dhū-sharā and Allāt, or more probably were designed to mark the limits of the ḥaram of the sanctuary. West of the obelisks are three other places of sacrifice; and on the rocks below worshippers have carved their names (CIS. ii. 390-404). En-Nejr, with the theatre at its foot, must have been the sacred mountain, the original sanctuary of Petra, perhaps “the very high mountain of Arabia called Dusarē after the god Dusares” referred to by Steph. Byz. (s.v. Δονσάρη). Christianity found its way into Petra in early times; Athanasius mentions a bishop of Petra (Πετρών τής 'Αραβίας, ad Antioch. 10) named Asterius; at least one of the tombs (the “tomb with the urn”) was used as a church; an inscription in red paint records its consecration “in the time of the most holy bishop Jason” (A.D. 447). The Christianity of Petra, as of north Arabia, was swept away by the Mahommedan conquest in A.D. 629–632. Under the Latin kingdom Petra was occupied by Baldwin I. and formed the second fief of the barony of Krak with the title Chateau de la Valée de Moyse or Sela; it remained in the hands of the Franks till 1189, fragments of the Crusaders' citadel are still standing near the High-place on en-Nejr.

The ruins of Petra were an object of curiosity in the middle ages and were visited by the Sultan Bibars of Egypt towards the close of the 13th century. The first European to describe them was Burckhardt (1812). All former descriptions are now superseded by the magnificent work of Brunnow and Domaszewski, Die Provincia Arabia (1904), who have minutely surveyed the whole site, classified the tombs, and compiled the accounts of earlier investigations; and by the independent researches of Dalman, Petra und seine Felsheiligtumer (1908), and of Musil, Arabia Petraea (1907–1908). The Corpus Inscr. Sem ii. 305 sqq, should be consulted, and the descriptions in Baedeker-Socin's Palestina (7th edition), and Revue biblique for 1897, 1898, 1905. (G. A. C.*) 

  1. Buhl, Gesch. der Edomiter (1893), p 52.
  2. e.g by Driver, Deut. p. 38; Noldeke, Ency. Bibl. col. 1185; Ed Meyer, Die Israeliten u ihre Nachbarstamme, p. 357.
  3. Buhl, p 35 sqq, G. F. Moore, Judges, p. 55 seq., Oxford Hebr. Lex. s. v. םלצ‎; T. K. Cheyne, Ency. Bibi. s. v. Sela; A. Jeremias, Das A. T. im Lichte d. alten Orients, p. 457.
  4. Yakut gives the name Sal‛ to a fortress in Wadi Mūsā, Nöldeke, ZDMG xxv 259 seq (1871).
  5. Brünnow, Die Prov. Arabia, i. 190; Buhl, op. cit. p. 34.
  6. CIS 11 197-226, Cooke, North-Semitic Inscriptions, 78-91, &c.
  7. Four important Nabat. inscrr. have been found, of which three are dated, viz. NSI. p. 250, n=CIS. 11 349, 16th year of Aretas III, i.e. B.C. 70, so also CIS. 11 4 2; NSI 94 and 95=CIS. 11 350 and 354, the latter dated the 16th year of Aretas IV, i.e. A.D. 20 The other Nabat. inscrr. are mostly graffiti, scratched on the rocks by visitors or worshippers at the holy places; CIS. li 355–441,444–464
  8. This is the meaning of Arabia Petraea D10 Cass. lxviii. 14.
  9. The whole range in which Petra lies is called Jebel esh-Sharāt, but it is doubtful whether the name of the god was derived from that of the mountain, see Ed. Meyer, loc. cit. p. 268 and Cooke, NSI. p 218.
  10. First mentioned by E. L. Wilson (1891), rediscovered by G. L Robinson (1900), described by S I Curtis, P E. F Q. St. (1900), and Savignac, Rev. bibl. (1903); with full plan and photographs.