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part III - Freemasonry, Religion and Civilisation

W. M. Don Falconer PM, PDGDC

Petra was the capital of Edom and then of Nabataea - a vital crossroads of the ancient camel caravan trade routes north to south between the Mediterranean Sea and the Indian Ocean and east to west between Mesopotamia and Egypt.


An unlikely location


Petra was the ancient town of Sela in the region of Edom or Idumaea, the hill country or mountain of Seir in Genesis 14:6 where Chedorlaomer defeated the Horites. This range of mountains is a rugged escarpment, 25 to 30 kilometres wide, which forms part of the western boundary of the vast Eastern Desert and runs southwards from the Dead Sea on the eastern edge of the valley of Arabah, the southern section of the Jordan rift valley. At the base of the mountain range, in the valley of Arabah, there are low hills of limestone. Above them the main body of the range is comprised of lofty masses of porphyry, towering in cliffs rising 600 metres or more above the valley. The porphyry is surmounted by massive variegated sandstone broken into irregular ridges and grotesque groups of cliffs that vary in colour from buff through yellow ochre and light red ochre to chocolate brown. Further east reaching a height of more than 1,000 metres above the valley, long elevated ridges of limestone gradually slope away to merge into the desert plateau. Petra was a stronghold or fortress in Wadi Mousa, surrounded by massive sandstone cliffs at the western edge of the Eastern Desert escarpment, 200 kilometres south of Amman and midway between the Dead Sea and Aqaba at the head of the Red Sea. In favourable light at sunrise or sunset the sandstone cliffs can take on a pink or red glow, fitting the description “rose pink city” often used to describe Petra. The arid climate has an annual rainfall of 50 millimetres or less, usually falling in spasmodic storms. There are no perennial streams or substantial permanent springs in the vicinity, but thanks to the resourceful inhabitants itinerant caravan traders regarded Petra as a plentiful watering stop.


The name Petra dates from classical times, when Greece began to colonise and establish trading posts in the Levant, the Near East and northern Africa after about 600 BCE. Petra is the Greek word petra meaning rock. It is interesting that the original name Sela was the Hebrew word sela’, or has-sela’, which also mean rock or cliff. Whilst the location of the ancient city is remote and uninviting, the entry into Petra from the desert is positively forbidding. Petra is a few kilometres west of the old King’s Road from Jerusalem to Aqaba, which Numbers 20:14-21 says the King of Edom would not allow the Israelites to move their flocks along to cross over the Edomite lands. The road was an important north-south artery marked by numerous settlements from as early as 2300 BCE, perhaps named after a Canaanite king. A branch also went westwards through Petra to Egypt, descending into the Arabah valley through a steep gorge called Wadi Yitem. This east-west branch connected the Mesopotamian and Egyptian civilisations and became part of the Silk Road bringing spices and silk from China to the Mediterranean Sea. Camels travelling along the route formed the original track, and the Romans later paved the north-south road with stone. The entrance to the desert stronghold begins as a narrow cleft in a wall of rock opening into a chasm called the Siq, an ancient gorge generally about 10 metres wide and with sheer walls up to 50 metres high, cut by a river that has been dry for thousands of years except during the occasional winter thunderstorms. The Siq twists and turns for about 2 kilometres before suddenly revealing the two storey façade of the Khasneh al Faroun or “Pharaoh’s Treasury”, the most renowned building in Petra carved out of the rock, which is still in a remarkably good condition.


Civic Heritage


Palmyra, Jerash and Petra are regarded as the three great classical cities of the Nabataean Empire that were prominent in the affairs of the Near East, especially from about 200 BCE to about 200 CE. Palmyra, the Biblical town of Tadmor, is the northernmost, about 240 kilometres northeast of Damascus. An ancient city based on an oasis in the desert of Syria, Palmyra flourished by about 300 BCE, but it was destroyed in 272 CE after Queen Zenobia led a revolt against the Romans. Jerash is the ancient town of Gerasa, midway between the Dead Sea and the Sea of Galilee in a fertile valley about 30 kilometres east of the Jordan River, near perennial streams. Jerash suffered badly from the earthquakes during the period from 550 to 555, but was shattered by the great earthquake of 747 and lay derelict for centuries afterwards. Palmyra and Jerash both developed and flourished under the influence of Hellenic suzerainty and later were redeveloped and expanded as great Roman cities. Jerash is the “City in the Wilderness” described in the previous chapter. The Roman expansion of Palmyra was similar.


The development of Petra, the southernmost of the three cities, was different. The design of temples and tombs carved out of the sandstone, for which Petra is famous, reveal traces of Assyrian, Persian and Egyptian influence, although the Nabataean style is predominantly classical Greek. The Roman emperor Trajan conquered Mesopotamia in 115 and Petra came under Roman jurisdiction. When Hadrian became emperor in 117 he visited Petra and initiated some Roman changes, including the usual Hadrian’s Triumphal Arch, a street of columns, fountains and a theatre that were integrated into the existing city, not a complete redevelopment as in Palmyra and Jerash. The permanent population during the Nabataean period is estimated to have reached a maximum of about 30,000 and to have averaged 20,000 for at least two centuries. Petra continued to be an important trade crossroads for at least a century under Roman rule, until the route through Palmyra and Damascus to the Mediterranean Sea at Tyre improved and became convenient than the southern route to Egypt. After then the population declined rapidly and few were left to flee Petra in 350 when an earthquake destroyed the residential area. Fortunately most of the remarkable structures carved out of the sandstone survived relatively unscathed. Petra remained in oblivion until August 1812 when Johann Ludwig Burckhardt (1784-1817), a young Swiss with a grant from the African Association of England, went through the Siq west of the old King’s Road and reached Wadi Mousa. He correctly concluded that the ruins at Wadi Mousa had been the residential area of Petra.


The inhabitants of Petra


The earliest known inhabitants of the region were the Hurrians, the Biblical Horites or Horims who were defeated by Chedorlaomer and his confederate kings in about 2100 BCE. Subsequently five local kings drew up their forces and marched against Chedorlaomer’s group, five against four, but the five were defeated. In Genesis 14:18-20 we are told that Melchizedek, the King of Salem and Priest of God Most High, blessed Abram after that event and received from Abram a tithe of all the booty he had received. During the last seventy years archaeological excavations at the site of ancient Mari, half way along the Euphrates River, have unearthed many Hurrian religious tablets dating from as early as 2400 BCE, revealing fresh details of those ancient people and of the marriage and social customs that prevailed during the patriarchal period of Genesis. According to Genesis 36:6-8, some time after Jacob had deceived his father Isaac and cheated Esau out of his birthright, Esau moved his family and belongings to the hill country of Seir. Esau means hairy and Seir means hairy or rough. Deuteronomy 2:12 records that Esau moved into Seir, destroying the Horites as he advanced and settling in their land. Esau’s descendants were the Edomites, usually called Idumaeans by Greek and Roman writers.


The Nabataeans were a nomadic desert tribe who pushed northwards during the period from the sixth to the fourth centuries BCE, when they seized the fortresses of Edom and Moab. It seems likely that the ancestor of the Nabataeans was Nabaioth, who was Ishmael’s eldest son mentioned in Genesis 25:13 and also the brother-in-law of Esau. Genesis 28:9 records that Esau married Mahalath who was Nabaioth’s sister and a daughter of Abraham’s son Ishmael. After seizing the fortresses the Nabataeans gained control of the great caravan routes, established their capital at Petra and developed a remarkable civilisation. They were at the peak of their power from about 200 BCE until about 100 CE. During the reign of Aretas III (86-62 BCE), the Nabataean territory reached the Mediterranean Sea south of Gaza and extended on the eastern side of the Jordan River as far north as Damascus in Syria. In 106 CE Nabataea was annexed to Rome as a province of Arabia. Herod the Great, whose father Antipater was of Idumaean descent, rebuilt and enlarged the second temple at Jerusalem. Another Antipater was the younger son of Herod the Great by Malthace, usually called Antipas and known as Herod the Tetrarch, a great builder like his father. Antipas married the daughter of the last and most famous Nabatean king, Philopatris or Aretas IV, who extended the Nabataean frontiers east as far as the Euphrates River and south to the Red Sea. When Antipas divorced the daughter of Aretas to illegally marry a Roman woman Herodias, Antipas’ niece and also the former wife of Philip his half-brother, Aretas’s daughter fled to Petra before Antipas could detain her. Aretas thereupon declared war on Antipas and defeated him in 36 CE.


The religious precincts


We are told in II Chronicles 25:14-15 that the Edomites were idolaters. Petra was reputed to be a pagan centre, where there were many pillar cults, which seems to have been confirmed by archaeological excavations. The religious facilities belong to two different eras, probably 1,000 years apart. The more recent religious precinct comprises the tombs and temples carved into the cliffs east of Petra’s residential area in Wadi Mousa and a few similar religious facilities in the cliffs to the west There also are several ancient High Places, of which a typical ancient Canaanite High Place of Sacrifice is the most important, similar in concept to the ancient sanctuary at Baalbek, although the location at Petra is more dramatic. Those two sanctuaries at Petra and Baalbek probably were contemporary and might have been in use as early as 2300 BCE, long before Chedorlaomer defeated the Hurrians and Melchizedek, the King of Salem and Priest of God Most High, blessed Abram. The main High Place is located on the Attuf Ridge southeast of the residential area, above the cliffs where so many temples and tombs were carved into the sandstone rock faces.


The date of origin has not been determined, although some have suggested it is Nabataean because of the quality of the stone carving, but taking all relevant factors into account it is probable that the Nabataeans enhanced the facilities of an Edomite or even earlier sanctuary. The ancient religion practised at Petra is not known in detail, but it probably had much in common with that of the early Canaanites and also of the early Egyptians at the “pillar city” of Annu or On. One god, Dusares, whose origins probably relate to the Edomites or even the Hurrians before them, was often referred to as “the god of our Lord” who was symbolised by a block of stone and might also have been represented by obelisks. The Nabataeans are thought to have introduced the other principal deity, the goddess Al Uzza, known as Allat meaning “the Mighty One” in Arabia, but as she was a universal mother figure equivalent to the Egyptian goddess Isis, the Nabataeans may only have changed her name. She was their deity of springs and water. She also was symbolised by a block of stone and might have been represented by obelisks.


The central feature of the main High Place is a large rectangular court, excavated several metres deep on top of a rock outcrop. Two Pilgrim’s Paths provide access to the court from the level of Wadi Mousa 200 metres below, incorporating many long flights of steps cut out of the rock. The High Altar is elevated above and is to the west of the court, carved out of a rectangular block of rock left in situ during the main excavations. A raised platform of rock has been left in-situ in the court, off-centre and to the east of the High Altar, to serve as a Table of Offering. A rock platform overlooks the western end of the court. Adjacent to the High Altar, to the south, is a Round Altar with a small circular pool carved in the centre and a wider and shallower annulus carved around it. A washbasin is carved out of the rock adjacent to each altar.  A rectangular pool or water tank, with steps going down into the water, is on an extension of the rock outcrop on which the court stands. The altars are protected from the sheer drop by a wall of rock that was not excavated. Several channels have been excavated into the various platforms to provide appropriate drainage. George Robinson gives a detailed description and study of the main High Place at Petra in his Sarcophagus of Ancient Civilization. On the same ridge, but across a ravine to the south, two obelisks of typical Nabataean construction are aligned due east to west, standing about 7 metres high and 33 metres apart. They probably represent the deities Dusares and Al Uzza, both of whom elsewhere have been represented in this form. It has been suggested that they may also be related to Jachin and Boaz and with the male and female fertility deities of ancient Egypt.


The Nabataean city


The occupied area was in an undulating valley about 2 kilometres long running from northeast to southwest, flanked by steep cliffs along the eastern and western boundaries. Two wadis run down the valley from the north, one more or less in the middle and the other near to the western cliffs. They join Wadi Mousa, which emerges from the Siq near the southern end of the valley and runs almost due west. The main street in the central city area was midway along the southern bank of Wadi Mousa, about 350 metres long and running from east to west. In Roman times it was converted into a street of columns, the Colonnade Street. A gate at the western end of Colonnade Street was the entrance to the temenos or sacred precinct, almost 200 metres long and about 70 metres wide. The great temple, Kasr el Bint Faroun, was at the western end of the temenos that was constructed during the reign of Obdoas II (30-9 BCE). It was the largest freestanding building in the residential area that substantially survived the great earthquake, having a portico supported by four columns and a marble altar in the open air at the front. The royal palace and gymnasia were on the north side of Colonnade Street near the temenos gate, facing the long flight of steps and colonnade of the propylaea or gateway leading to another large temple. A small temple and baths were adjacent to the propylaea on the west. It is interesting and unusual that all three temples faced towards the north.


Various markets fronted the full length of Colonnade Street on the southern side east of the propylaea. The Roman theatre was away from the central city area, cut into the southern cliffs of the outer Siq, where it emerged into the valley. Hadrian’s Triumphal Arch was further east than the theatre, in the Siq itself. The greater city area was protected by substantial masonry walls on the western and northern flanks and for the full width of the valley at the southern end, a total length of almost 3 kilometres. Almost 2 kilometres of cliff face provided the remainder of the protective barrier. Much later a new northern wall was constructed, about 700 metres long and 300 metres closer to the city centre. Very little of the walls has yet been excavated, but in general they appear to have been at least 2 metres thick, with a flat upper surface suitable for patrols to walk along.  Many of the wide range of carved and excavated structures at Petra could be tombs or temples and differ greatly in style, size and finish. The temples and tombs carved out of the rock, for which Petra is famous, are mostly located in the cliff face to the east of the city. The monuments are decorated in a mixture of rectilinear, Persian, Assyrian, Hellenistic and Roman styles, but the Nabataean classical style is the most dramatic, typified by the Khasneh al Faroun, which will be described in some detail. Those seeking more details of the religious structures and the buildings in the residential area would find Iain Browning’s Petra a comprehensive and interesting source of information.


Nearly all of the temples and tombs are of Nabataean origin. The first excavated structure that is seen when emerging from the Siq is the Khasneh al Faroun, or “Pharaoh’s Treasury”. The name reflects an old Bedouin belief that an Egyptian pharaoh built it to store treasure. Although often called a temple the two-storied structure probably was a tomb, about 30 metres wide and 40 metres high. The single central entrance is about 4 metres wide and almost 10 metres high, with a typical triangular pediment. The lower storey has three pillars on each side of the entrance, with the spaces between the outermost pairs of pillars wider than the adjacent spaces, giving a pleasant appearance. The upper storey also has six pillars, with the outermost pairs directly above those of the lower storey but the central pair much closer together. All pillars have Corinthian capitals with delicately curved acanthus leaves, an unusual feature in Nabataean art. Representations of windows, with arched pediments in the lower storey and plain lintels in the upper storey, are carved between the outermost pairs of columns in both stories and also between the central pair of columns in the upper storey, framing items of statuary. The asymmetry of the two storeys is very pleasing to the eye. Over the two central pillars in the upper storey the lintel and upper adornments are circular in plan and support a huge classical urn, all carved out of the rock. The urn is the traditional storage vessel for the treasure, whether real or imaginary. The classical Greek style of this structure reflects the fact that Aretas III held all aspects of Greek culture in the highest esteem. In some respects the interior of the Khasneh al Faroun reminds us of the pyramids of Egypt. The main chamber is huge, unadorned and cubical in shape, with a smaller chamber on each side and a small chamber behind. It has been conjectured that priests might have used the smaller chambers for worship or ritual purposes and that the small chamber at the rear might have been the tomb of Aretas III, but no records have been found.


Other tombs in the classical Nabataean style of the Khasneh al Faroun include the Palace Tomb, the Deir, the Urn Tomb and the Silk Tomb. The Palace Tomb was the largest, supposedly replicating a Roman palace. The Deir looks almost the same as the Khasneh al Faroun, but it is much wider and has an additional column at each end of both storeys. One of the most spectacular structures is the Urn Tomb, often called the Royal Courts of Justice, which has a courtyard in front, flanked by cloisters and colonnades. It was converted to a Christian church in 446 CE. The Silk Tomb is mundane architecturally, but in favourable light it is remarkable for the sheer beauty of the brilliantly coloured bands of sandstone. Two other excavated structures of entirely different characters are notable. One is called the Obelisk Tomb, which has a façade of four robust circular columns in the lower storey, supporting four squat obelisks of Egyptian style in the upper storey. The other is the Roman Soldiers’ Tomb with typical Roman architecture, which is unlike any other of the excavated structures because it is elaborately decorated inside. These are only a few of the excavated tombs and temples.


Irrigation and the city water supply


Remarkable and aesthetically attractive as the temples and tombs of Petra are, the irrigation and water conservation facilities initiated by the Edomites and the extensive city water supply installed later by the Nabataeans were equally as innovative and involved a great deal of engineering skill and ingenuity. The Edomites were renowned for their ability to husband and utilise the scant water supplies for agricultural purposes and to supply their scattered villages. The meagre rainfall is spasmodic and few of the springs that develop in the valley of Wadi Mousa after a rainfall are a good continuing source of water until the next rainfall, so that the available water was insufficient for the requirements of the city developed by the Nabataeans. Fortunately there is an abundant perennial source of water called Ain Mousa, or Moses Spring, on the escarpment at the edge of the desert some distance from the entrance to the Siq, several kilometres from the central city area. The Nabataeans utilised this source for their city water supply. The following quotation from Ian Browning’s Petra emphasises the capabilities of the Edomites and the Nabataeans in this regard:


“It was quite natural that the Nabataean deities should have a very close approximation with water, for this was the one single factor which made the city possible. Not only did their trade depend on it but also their agriculture was made possible by it. This they developed to a high degree and the remains of he walls of terrace fields can still be seen scattered across the desert surrounding all the known Nabataean settlements. Even the most improbable parts of the desert, where nothing but the wire grass and shiah herb now grows, have these crumbling remainders still holding back the remnants of soil from final erosion, None of this would have been possible had they not been skilled in irrigation.


The Edomites had started the process of water conservation in Petra but it was the Nabataeans who took such great pains to develop this into an elaborate system of control and regulation. Their water engineering was in fact their most impressive achievement: their architecture is remarkable, their pottery exceptionally fine, but their techniques of collecting, distributing and conserving water display outstanding ingenuity, skill and imagination which even the Romans could not better.”


Although the Nabataeans were renowned for their expertise carving in rock and producing excellent clay products, including interlocking earthenware water pipes, their ability to construct masonry structures did not equal that of the Egyptians or Phoenicians. Even so they constructed a remarkably efficient water supply system for the city. If the permanent residents used a meagre 1 litre of water per day, they would have used at least 7.5 million litres of water per annum for two centuries or longer. The average camel drinks about 90 litres when replenishing after a desert trip. We have no way of knowing the frequency of trips or numbers of camels that passed through Petra, but a train of 50 camels passing each way from north to south and from east to west each week would increase the annual water requirement of the city by about 1 million litres. To conserve their limited water resource the Nabataeans installed a storage reservoir in the vicinity of Ain Mousa, called al Birka meaning the pool in Arabic, mostly cut out of the rock. The reservoir capacity was 2.5 million litres, or about 30% of their annual requirement. It primarily collected water from surface runoff, but was supplemented by conduits from Ain Mousa and other springs when water was available from them. An aqueduct several kilometres long was cut in the rock and covered with rock slabs over much of the distance to prevent contamination and evaporation. Passing through the Siq, it conveyed water from the storage reservoir to a subsidiary reservoir in the city. Smaller pipes were also installed to convey water from springs direct to the city reservoir when available. Earthenware water pipes were also used for distribution. The Nabataeans earned their reputation for having a plentiful water supply.

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