The Mosaics of Petra

Where is Petra?

Petra is a spectacular ancient Nabataean city in Western Jordan. With massive façades that have been carved entirely out of the existing red sandstone, Petra’s magnificent temples and tombs are like no other religious buildings in the world, and the surrounding rugged landscape dotted with historical sites are a hiker’s paradise.

Petra has been a city of great religious significance both in ancient times and today.

First, it has a number of connections with the Old Testament: the nearby Ain Mousa (Spring of Moses) is believed to be where Moses struck a rock with his staff to extract water and Aaron is said to have died in the Petra area and been buried on what is today the sacred site atop Jabal Haroun (Mount Aaron). Later, the city built by the Nabataeans was packed with tombs, temples, sanctuaries and altars to their gods. And in its last years, Petra was the home of several Byzantine churches.

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

How old are the mosaics of Petra?

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. Each of the side aisles of Petra Church is paved with 70 square meters of remarkably preserved mosaics, depicting native as well as exotic or mythological animals, as well as personifications of the Seasons, Ocean, Earth and Wisdom. Also surviving are significant remains of the nave’s paving in marble and stone in geometric designs.

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