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The Petra scrolls

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A hugely significant archeological find was made by accident in a storage room at the northeast corner of the Petra Church on December 4, 1993: archeologists stumbled on a cache of 152 papyrus scrolls, tumbled higgledy-piggledy from the shelves that presumably once carried them, which had lain buried beneath 4m of rubble. Analysis of the scrolls is still incomplete, but they have given tantalizing glimpses of life in Byzantine Petra, a period that is rarely accounted for.

The whole archive seems to have belonged to one Theodore, born in 514, who at the age of 24 married a young woman from a family already connected with his own by marriage in a previous generation. Theodore became archdeacon of the “Most Holy Church of NN in the metropolis” – presumably the Petra Church. Most of the documents date from a sixty-year period, roughly 528 to 588, and comprise property contracts, out-of-court settlements and tax receipts, providing a wealth of detail about everyday life. Transfers from one family to another of vineyards, arable land, orchards, living quarters and stables within a 50km radius of Petra were all dutifully recorded. One man’s will specifies that after his mother’s death, all her assets were to be donated to the “House of Aron”, the Byzantine monastery atop Jabal Haroun. Farmers, tailors, doctors, slaves and soldiers are all mentioned by name, including one Abu Karib ibn Jabala, known to have been a military commander of the Arab tribes.

Petra was decisively Christian at this time, and monks and priests feature prominently, not least a Bishop Theodore, who may have been the same Theodore who took part in a synod at Jerusalem in 536. Another reference is to a priest “of her, our All-Holy, Praised Lady, the Glorious God-Bearing and Eternally Virgin Mary”, indicating that there may be a church to Mary yet to be uncovered in Petra. Only once the content of the scrolls has been fully published can investigation proceed any further, but this is just another sign that archeologists have only just begun to scratch Petra’s surface.

Separately, Jane Taylor’s fine book Petra and the Lost Kingdom of the Nabataeans includes a fascinating chapter on an earlier Nabatean archive, left in a cave above the Dead Sea by Babatha, a Jewish woman living in the second century AD. Worth a read.

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