en zh es ja ko pt

Volume 42, Number 5September/October 1991

In This Issue

Back to Table of Contents


Myth and Reality

Written by Philip C. Hammond
Photographed by Vivian Ronay

When Harrison Ford finally found the Holy Grail inside the Khaznat al-Faroun at Petra, at the climax of the film Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, a new myth was born. But Ford, and his scriptwriters, were only following in a long line of people who have contributed to the myths, misinformation and confusion surrounding the fabled "rose-red city" of Petra - not only since its rediscovery in 1812 but as far back as the Middle Ages.

The list of misconceptions with which Petra has been plagued over the centuries is almost overwhelming. Most are harmless errors in names, dates, attributions and the like, but, taken as a whole, they detract greatly from the reality of this important scenic and archeological site.

Since Indiana Jones had to reach his goal via the Shiq, the two-kilometer (2200-yard) chasm leading into Petra, perhaps that is a good place to begin a demythologizing tour of the site. The Shiq is a great cleft in the earth, formed in the hazy depths of the geological past by the same earthquake activity that has plagued the area ever since. Its narrow, winding route through the lofty cliffs which protect the site on the east remains one of the great experiences for the visitor today, and is probably responsible for the belief that it was here that Moses struck the rock to secure water for his wandering people after the flight from Egypt - the first of the Moses-linked stories now associated with the whole Petra Basin. The wadi (valley) that bisects the ancient city center was dutifully dubbed Wadi Musa (Valley of Moses), a name first encountered in the records of the Crusaders.

The Crusader leader Baldwin, just before he became king of the Latin Kingdom in AD 1100, was summoned to Petra by "the monks of Saint Aaron," those records show, who claimed they were being harassed by "the Saracens." After rescuing the monks, Baldwin returned to Jerusalem to be crowned and - to rethink Crusader strategy in his new kingdom. He soon discovered that there were no fortified points south of "The Castle of Saint Abraham" at Hebron, and he hastened to mend that deficiency. Along with the fortresses still standing today at Kerak, Sho-bak, Tafilah and elsewhere in Jordan, a fortress was erected in the "Valley of Moses" and the legend of Moses' visit to Petra was thus given official recognition. Obviously, the monks of Saint Aaron had much to do with this whole affair, the better to establish their right to demand Crusader protection.

Little deceits can get out of hand, however, and soon other signs of Moses' visit appear at the site. The Khaznat al-Faroun, where Indiana Jones made his great discovery in the 1989 film, is another victim of the early monks' tales. Khaznat al-Faroun means "the Treasury of the Pharaoh" - and a myth goes with the name: The Pharaoh of Exodus, having mobilized his forces to recapture the fleeing Hebrews, had reached Petra - after his slight embarrassment at the Red Sea. But by then the weight of his treasury, thoughtfully carried along, had begun to slow the progress of his army. As a result, the story goes, the Khaznat al-Faroun was created, by magic, and the Pharaoh's wealth deposited in the urn-like decoration on its top. One can still see the pock-marks of Bedouin bullets, fired at the "urn" in the vain hope that Pharaoh's gold would come tumbling down!

In reality, the Treasury is a Nabatean tomb, probably royal, possibly even that of the famous King Aretas IV, Petra's most enthusiastic architectural developer. The almost 40-meter-high (131-foot) facade, hewn out of the living rock of the cliff which faces the city side of the Shiq, is only one of more than 800 carved monuments attributed to the Nabateans during their occupation of the site, from sometime before the third century BC to the late fourth century of our era. Inside the massive doorway, the tomb chamber lacks the decor found by Indiana Jones - there are no Crusader statues, huge stone lions or inset seals in the floor - and represents instead the typical, rather plain interior design of Petra's funerary monuments. It is, of course, the facade itself, one of the finest examples of Nabatean carving, which even after some two millennia still awes the beholder who enters its forecourt from the winding Shiq.

Somewhat later in Petra's history, probably also at the hands of Crusaders or monks, another splendid royal tomb, situated high on a mountain top, was refurbished for religious use and received the name ad-Dair, the Monastery. Originally neither a church nor a monastery, the tomb is today one of the site's main tourist attractions, with the connotations of its fictitious name still firmly fixed.

Other tombs have likewise been given gratuitous names, even if no grand legends are attached. For example, the ones which span part of the western face of the mountain, Jabal al-Kubthah, through which the Shiq meanders, are known today as the Royal Tomb Group, with each tomb facade possessing a rather fanciful title - Three-Storied, Silk, Corinthian, Hall of Justice. Since only one of Petra's tombs has any inscription on its facade at all, inventing popular names for the more impressive ones has become a tradition for map-makers and tourist guides. Probably, in the course of time, each tomb will also achieve a story to go along with its name. This is, of course, relatively harmless myth-making - as long as listeners don't take the matter too literally or too seriously.

But tombs are not the only monuments at Petra which have acquired names and legends. The few standing ruins on the site which escaped total destruction during the devastating earthquake of May 19,363 - along with many no longer standing -were, and still are, fair game for the same treatment.

The great masonry-built temple to the Nabateans' chief male deity, Dhushares, is a prime example. Awed by the size of the building, myth-makers again invoked the magic of the Pharaoh, and to this day the building bears the name Qasr Bint al-Faroun, the Palace of PhaVaoh's Daughter. Here, again, the excess baggage of the pursuing monarch was at issue; this time, however, it was his daughter who was slowing him down. Therefore, the Qasr had to be built in which to park the young lady against later recovery, after her daddy caught up with Moses.

Even a solitary column, left standing after the earthquake's ravages, has been linked to the Pharaoh's fictitious visit to the site: it has been given a rather obscene name that has remained something of an embarrassment to guide-book publishers, who never translate the Arabic.

The temple that this author has been excavating since 1974, probably dedicated to 'Allat, the Nabateans' supreme goddess, has fallen into the name trap as well. Because of feline decorations on the capitals around the altar platform, the "Temple of the Winged Lions" now occupies a prominent place in the clouded annals of Petra, and poor 'Allat is left out of the picture completely.

Less devastating to the innocence of tourists, but absolutely horrifying to scholars, has been the myth-making of map-makers, right up to the present day. The first of the modern cartographers was the self-proclaimed rediscoverer of Petra, Swiss adventurer-scholar Johann Ludwig Burckhardt (See Aramco World, September-October 1967). On August 22, 1812, Burckhardt, traveling in disguise, persuaded the Bedouin inhabitants of the small settlement of El-Ji (now Wadi Musa), just outside Petra, to guide him to a local mountain called Jabal Haroun, after Aaron, the brother of Moses. He passed through the Shiq and into the ancient site, as far as the foot of the mountain, beyond which his now-suspicious guides would not take him. Having duly sacrificed a goat to the memory of Aaron, Burckhardt hurriedly left the area, but observed enough around him to produce a map - and the notation in his journal that he had rediscovered Petra.

In reality, Petra was never actually lost, although it had been somewhat misplaced since the days of the early Islamic geographers - who had visited the site but were not particularly concerned about its name - and its appearance on the famous Peutinger Table, a 12th-century copy of a map of Roman-period trade and population centers. As late as 1778, Volume II of The Works of Flavins Josephus, produced in London by Fielding and Walker, included a map based upon the Onomasticon of Eusebius, which accurately located Petra from the ancient distances recorded in the latter work. But as far as the Western world was concerned, those earlier records of Petra's location became irrelevant as people read and appreciated Burckhardt's adventures.

Burckhardt's map, however, raised new problems relating to the topography and place names of the site. In his rapid overview of the area, Burckhardt picked out certain major landmarks - the Khaznat al-Faroun, the Theater, the Qasr and others -but his memory of their locations was only relative and the names he used to identify them - for example, "Kasr Faroun" for Khaznat al-Faroun - were somewhat confused. However, he opened the way for other intrepid travelers. More accurate topography and locations were established, and monuments and other features began to receive new names.

The first truly scientific study of the site, and quite a definitive one, was done by R.E. Briinnow and Alfred von Doma-szewski in 1897-98. Maps, sketches, photographs and architectural analysis of the monument types were augmented by same-language references to the reports of all previous travelers to the site. As a consequence, the names given to features up to that time became frozen in the literature, subject only to later attempts to modify them in the present century and the addition of new names for newly discovered spots.

One of the great miscarriages of map-making, still found in guide-books and modern literature, was the "plan" of the ancient city drawn by the eminent German scholar A. Wiegand for Bachman's volume on the site published in 1921. Wiegand examined the evidence of fallen wall lines in some detail and proceeded to outline what he thought were sub-surface buildings, and even to identify their functions. Some modern writers still display Wiegand's plan as a real picture of a city still buried beneath the sand!

Fortunately, with the beginning of archeological work at Petra, modern aerial and photogrammetric surveys have laid out the site with precision. The latest map, produced by the Jordanian government, finally gives the visitor a reliable picture of the site, the actual nature of some of its remains, and the location of its principal monuments.

As more fact was gradually sifted from fancy, myth-making at Petra had to turn to other aspects of the site, and the architecture of Nabatean tomb facades and other visible ruins presented an appealing field.

Briinnow and von Domaszewski were really the first scholars to attempt a classification of Petra's architecture, and their descriptive approach opened the way for a series of later classifications that used different criteria and different dating methods. Unfortunately, until modern archeological work was done on the site, all of these largely lacked a firm basis. Very recent architectural analyses, along with information from excavations, seem to give us more reasonable information about Nabatean architectural style, origins, and dates. Likewise, experts' views on the origin of what is called the "Nabatean Order" in architecture have changed. Scholars now recognize that most of the Near East was flooded with Hellenistic architectural and artistic craftsmanship before a distinctive Nabatean style developed, and that the Nabateans also had a penchant for borrowing ideas as they traded throughout the Roman world. The result of these two factors was a characteristically eclectic mix of tastes.

It was this question of outside influences on Nabatean architecture that allowed for the most extensive myth-making. Initial discussion of foreign influences in the Nabatean architectural orders - such as "Assyrian" crow-step decoration, "Egyptian" moldings, "Roman" canons, and so on - led to suggestions that outsiders had not only influenced architectural style, but had in fact built the monuments as well. Remnants of Western colonial bias strengthened the claim that it was only after the conquest of Arabia by the Romans that certain of Petra's more elaborate monuments could have been created. However, the subsequent excavation of the Main Theater clearly demonstrated original Nabatean construction. Since then, the bias against Nabatean originality and artistry has largely evaporated, and the creative abilities of this early Arab people are being recognized and appreciated more widely.

The city of Petra itself has become still another source of broad-gauge myth-making, much of which can be traced back to one Reverend George Robinson. Beginning with his publication of The Sepulcher of an Ancient Civilization in 1930, a multitude of uninformed authors, including some who had never seen the site and lacked any previous experience in Middle Eastern archeology and culture, have proclaimed that Petra was always a "dead city" - a city without a population. The degree of supposed deadness varies from one author to another, depending upon the particular degree of ignorance involved: Some vitality is grudgingly permitted by those who see Petra as an ancient ceremonial or administrative center, but even in those cases no major population is acknowledged as having been present.

The tendency to view Petra as a mausoleum on a grand scale has even reached into official circles, thanks in large part to a survey conducted some years ago by a former US Park Service employee, who even found the Bedouin then living at Petra detrimental to the desired funereal atmosphere.

Yet if one climbs even a small hill near the site and looks down, the extent of the ruins would suggest quite another viewpoint. A city of the dead hardly needed the expanse of recognizable business district along the Paved Street, nor an impressive public theater, nor baths, nor the two major temples now brought to light, nor a magnificently laid-out hydraulic system piping in water from miles away, nor the multitude of cisterns to capture rainwater - not to mention the remains of villas and other living quarters whose floor plans dot the basin.

Certain ancient sources, it is true, suggest a non-urban situation at Petra. The historian Diodorus of Sicily, writing in the first century BC, gives us the earliest authentic description of Nabatean Petra. Relying on first-hand accounts of the late fourth century BC, he describes a non-sedentary, non-agricultural "barbarian" people who harry their neighbors and who have chosen to dwell at Petra in order to live a wild and solitary life. A few scholars, commenting on Diodorus's account, have suggested that he was, indeed, describing Nabatean life at Petra - but life as it was in the late fourth century, some three hundred years before his own time. Too few other commentators have appreciated the time gap between the description and the report of it, and have sought to characterize Nabatean life at Petra in Diodorus's terms. Yet Strabo,writing at about the same time as Diodorus, gives a much different picture. Drawing on an account from a living informant born in Petra, Strabo describes the city as governed by a royal family, abundant in resources, and bustling with a cosmopolitan population. Based on today's archeolo-gical evidence, the latter portrayal of both people and city is accurate. Still further, the Nabatean origin of Petra's technology and public works can no longer be denied. Indeed, after Rome's annexation of Nabatea in AD 106, it was not long before the city was recognized as a metropolis in the official sense, a title not bestowed by the Roman Senate on "dead" cities.

Most of the ancient sources left one question begging in their descriptions of the Nabateans: the origin of the people themselves. Although Diodorus does casually place Nabatean villages in the area of the modern Gulf of Aqaba, he neglects to say whether this was an original homeland or simply an extension of the Nabatean kingdom from Petra at a later time. Numerous studies have been undertaken in an attempt to solve the problem, and the bulk of evidence, it would seem, places the homeland of the Nabateans somewhere in modern Saudi Arabia, from which they migrated along the coast, finally settling at Petra.

A recent study by this writer suggests another overlooked possibility. From hints dropped in the contemporary literature, from the strange migration of the indigenous Edomites at Petra to the west - where they became known as Idumeans - and from the question of the origin of the rather advanced technologies displayed in Nabatean art, metallurgy, hydraulics, architecture and other fields, it is possible to recognize in the later Nabatean culture a remarkable blending of two early Arab peoples - the long-sedentary Edomites and the vigorous, mercantile, caravaneer-ing Nabateans. The synthesis of the two resulted in one people with a combined strength in both technology and trade, with the more vigorous Nabateans providing the final national name for the blend. Those Edomites discontented with the new scheme simply migrated to a new home and received a Hellenistic version of their original Semitic name in later literature. By the time of Diodorus's first-century-BC report, the symbiosis had been forgotten.

There is one final myth about Petra that should be mentioned, especially after Indiana Jones' recent visit: the nature of the real archeological fieldwork involved.

The drama of Indy's triumphant dash to the Khaznat al-Faroun, the romance of a "lost city" of magnificent stone monuments, the promise of stupendous discoveries in the next trowel-full of earth all obscure the everyday grind of the archeologist's labor - the price of the knowledge that he or she uncovers about an ancient culture, its nature, its development and the processes that brought it into being.

There is romance, of course: Anyone who has ever visited Petra has felt the site's dramatic pull upon the senses. Yet there is also the drudgery, dust and frustration that accompany excavation - and disappointment, too. Petra does not reward the archeologist with treasure in the commonly accepted sense. Rather, there is a daily mass of broken pottery, corroded coins, mutilated architectural debris, unknowable fragments and the constant knowledge that each season of work is only a pitiful drop in the bucket of research that really needs to be done in Petra and surrounding sites.

Yet there do come, now and again, complete vessels, readable coins, bits of inscriptions, decorated fragments, architectural surprises and the other finds that delight the hearts of dedicated excavators. These discoveries, along with the other material remains and the intricacies of the depositional strata of occupation - not the imaginative legends - are what really tell the story of Petra and her people. They are the building blocks for reconstructing the culture of a people, for understanding their history and its chronology, and for seeking out the processes that made them what they were. They are what make the people and the city, the rose-red city of Petra, come alive once again.

Philip C. Hammond, professor of anthropology at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, is director of the American Expedition to Petra. This is his second article for Aramco World.

A Day at the Dig: What is a day of digging really like at Petra?
Written by Philip C. Hammond

This writer has directed archeological excavations at the Temple of the Winged Lions for the past 15 years, with earlier periods along the city wall and at the Main Theater. The daily routine is part of a life quite different from that of Indiana Jones. More than 200 Arab, American, European and Japanese students have shared that experience at Petra, and helped bring back to life the people of ancient Nabatea.

Morning begins at the grim hour of 4:30 a.m., generally to the sound of the director's tape-recorded bagpipe music, thoughtfully supplied by a colleague at the university. Breakfast is at five a.m. - provided the propane cylinder isn't empty, the cook hasn't overslept and the water supply hasn't broken down- with porridge as a main menu item. Site crews and lab crews are at work by six, with the expedition's student participants rotated on a weekly basis through the various jobs that make up archeology today: supervising (and doing!) the actual digging, surveying, processing the material remains recovered in excavation and recording the results by making drawings, taking photographs, and filling out endless forms. Break time comes at 10 a.m. - a half hour of sardines, bread, jam, tea and just plain rest. Then more work until one p.m., when activity on the site stops for the day and lunch follows.

The menu depends on the supplies currently available in the market at Wadi Musa, and tends to feature rice in great abundance. After lunch, people read, sleep or go for a swim in the small pool in Wadi Siyagha - or make the 40-minute trek to the "real" pool at our neighborhood four-star hotel. "Pottery mat" takes place at six p.m., when the sherds and other artifacts of the previous day are examined, discussed and sampled for later drawing. Dinner is at seven - with more rice. At eight, the on-site crews gather at the "Daily Progress Chart" on the wall of the old Nazzal's Camp, the dig headquarters, and work up the stratigraphic results of the day's excavations.

While all this is going on, the field laboratory is busy processing each day's recovered artifacts for registration and interpretation. Pottery sherds are washed, sorted and photographed; bones are identified; stone and plaster are brushed off; metals are cleaned; and the records begin to mount up. Records are the life-blood of a dig, for archeological excavation is destructive, and the only way a site's history can be reconstructed is from whatever is recorded - notes taken during excavation on-site, notes taken in the lab, sherd drawings, photographs, and a host of other records, including actual material samples.

Such is the routine five days a week, for the six to eight weeks of an archeological season. Fridays are days off, for trips around the Petra Basin and similar exhausting recreational activities. Saturdays are devoted to drawing pottery sherds-1065 of them last season - for dating and comparison with published examples from other sites in the Middle East.

But it's not all work, either. Thirty-five years of contact with the Bedouins at Petra open the way for invitations to mansafs - traditional feasts at which roast goat is usually served - weddings, dances and all sorts of other local events. Dart games, card games, music, reading and occasional birthday and un-birthday parties round out the days. People get to know each other through conversation, in campor at Petra's "general store." An R&R trip to the beaches of Aqaba relieves the monotony at mid-season, with an occasional need for recuperation after, the visit.

Myths aside-though we have our own myths and legends as well - such is the reality of archeology at Petra.

This article appeared on pages 32-41 of the September/October 1991 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for September/October 1991 images.