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Petra and the Bible

Dr. Philip C. Hammond,
Emeritus Professor of Anthropology
University of Utah
Adjunct Professor of Anthropology
Arizona State University
June 2005

A few years ago, Harrison Ford, as "Indiana Jones," galloped through the gigantic geological cleft called the Siq, at the entrance of ancient Petra in Jordan, in search of the Holy Grail.

He did not find it, but he came face-to-face with that magnificent royal tomb called the "Treasury of the Pharaoh" and inadvertently participated in one of the many folkloric biblical relationships at Petra.

He had already bumped into another one when he entered the nearby town of Wadi Musa, whose ancient name was El Ji but now renamed for the tourist trade, and he went past the famed "Spring of Moses," which local folklore tells us was a result of Moses striking the rock to bring forth water for the wandering Hebrews in their Exodus from Egypt.

Strangely enough, the cleft through which Indiana Jones passed is also attributed to that same blow by the staff of Moses. "The Treasury of the Pharaoh," which was used in the motion picture, is so-called locally because Bedouin tradition says that the Pharaoh, encumbered by his treasures, was pursuing Moses all the way to Petra. As a result, he magically created a repository on top of that great carved monument into which he placed his gold for safekeeping. Bedouin bullets have attempted to shatter that urn for some generations, as the pockmarks show.

Another biblically related monument is the "Palace of the Pharaoh’s Daughter," also attributed to the hand of the Pharaoh. He had discovered that, along with the encumbrance of his treasure, he had brought his daughter. As a result, the local Bedouin tell us, he again magically created a palace for her and left her there.

Local tradition associates the mountain known as "Jebel Haroun" with the burial of Aaron, the brother of Moses, where a pilgrimage site has long been established. It apparently was also accepted as such by early Christians at Petra and, later, by Muslims as well.

The wadi, or stream bed, which bisects the ancient city of Petra is also referred to as "Wadi Musa," confusing it with the town outside the site.

Petra, long touted as a "lost city," was accurately located by the early Christian geographer, Eusebius. It was also well known as "The Valley of Moses" by the Crusaders in the 12th century, who established a major fortress just outside and a mini guard post inside the basin. The name "Valley of Moses" was learned from the local Bedouin and was simply another supposed connection to Moses’ visit to Petra.

When these attributions were made, cannot, at the moment, be definitely ascertained.

There is actually only one specific biblical reference to Petra in either the Old Testament or the New Testament. That one reference pertains to the war of King Amaziah with the Edomites and relates to his a victory over them and the casting down of 10,000 of the vanquished from a "Rock." That location is known in the Bible as "the Rock of Edom" and is probably the mountain today called "Umm Il-Biyarah ("The Mother of Cisterns") because of the many cisterns on its peak.

Indiana Jones made his way through the entrance to Petra, but did St. Paul? Here again is one of the great enigmas. We are told in the New Testament by Paul that he sojourned for a while in the "desert." At that point in time, the "desert" could well have included the major city of Petra. The Romans had not yet occupied it, and it was still a capital city of the people called the Nabataeans.

The only real connection we can make to Paul’s visit there was his later visit to Damascus in Syria. In the pagan world of his day, Paul was generally considered as something of a rabble-rouser, and he may have chosen Petra as a major city in which to preach the new faith. Although Petra was cosmopolitan, the local religion, which may have been a royal cult as well, could hardly have been pleased at the appearance of someone trying to proselytize Christianity, and Paul’s visit would hardly have been particularly welcome.

This seems to be illustrated by the story of his difficulties in Damascus. Although Damascus was not under Nabataean rule, there was probably a Nabataean community left over from early temporary dominion continuing trade relationships there. This may explain why the "ethnarch of the Nabataeans," the person in charge of the local ethnic community, may well have been instructed by the king of the Nabataeans to arrest Paul and send him back to Petra for trial. Acting on some kind of local intelligence, we are told that Paul escaped over the wall of the city in a basket!

Other biblically related information about Petra only appears in the intertestimental volumes of the Bible, most particularly in the book of II Maccabees. There, occasional references to the Nabataeans, but no specific reference to Petra, appear. The Jewish historian Josephus also devotes a fair amount of time to various aspects of the relationship between the Nabataeans and the Jewish state. He likewise relates military and other events concerning the Nabataeans and the Jewish authorities, as well as the diplomatic visit of a Nabataean representative called Syllaeus to the court of Herod the Great. This resulted in a disruption of Nabataean–Jewish relations because of the latter’s wooing of Salome. Ultimately, during the invasion of Egypt by Octavius Caesar, Herod was told to wage war against the Nabataeans in 31 B.C. A later event, also recorded by Josephus, had to do with Nabataean troops assisting Trajan in the siege of Jerusalem.

Herod is also an oblique "reference" to the Nabataeans and to their capital city. Herod’s mother was a Nabataean and his father an Idumean. He spent some ten years of his childhood at Petra and had close political and commercial relations with the Nabataean city. His "Idumean" ancestry also linked him to the Nabataeans since the "Idumeans" were really Edomites, dissatisfied with the arrival of the Bedouin tribes to Petra, who departed to the southern part of ancient Palestine. The Greek word for "Edomite" is "Idumean."

None of this later history provides any biblical connections with Petra, but it does, of course reflect the biblical influence, both Hebrew and Christian, upon the folklore and actual history of the region.

Nowhere in my over two dozen excavations and surveys at Petra have I encountered any specific biblical ties to the site at all. In recent times however, in a electronic survey which preceded the last 20 seasons of work there, the outlines of an apparent church structure were noted, which have been excavated by another archaeological group. That excavation unearthed the mosaic floor of a Christian church from later in the 6th century A.D. In addition, a hoard of burned manuscripts was also found. Subsequently, that organization has recovered other Christian churches.

It is known that Christians during the early Byzantine period around the 4th century A.D. existed at Petra as a couple of inscriptions indicate. Later, during the early 11th century, the Crusaders, under Baldwin I, were beseeched by a group of Christians, calling themselves the "Monks of St. Aaron," to succor them from the inroads of the "Saracens." This was caused by the incoming of the Muslims into the Petra area and was speedily taken care of by the Franks, only to be repeated later on during the period of the Latin Kingdom’s control of the southern area of Jordan.

The author wishes to thank Lin Hammond for editorial assistance in the preparation of this article.

See other articles by Philip Hammond, Petra http://www.bibleinterp.com/articles/petra.htm

and Petra: Myth and Reality http://www.saudiaramcoworld.com/issue/199105/petra-myth.and.reality.htm
 

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