BMCR 2009.07.57

Petra – The Mountain of Aaron. The Finnish Archaeological Project in Jordan. Volume I. The Church and the Chapel

, , Petra - The Mountain of Aaron. The Finnish Archaeological Project in Jordan. Volume I. The Church and the Chapel. Helsinki: Societas Scientiarum Fennica, 2008. 447; 69 figs. ISBN 9789516533646. €125.00.

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

The Mountain of Aaron is the first of three final publication reports by the Finnish Jabal Harun Project (φ which excavated an early Christian church and monastic complex between 1997 and 2005 (an additional season in 2007 is briefly mentioned in this volume and its results will appear in future publications). This complex is located on a plateau below the summit of Jabal Harun, a few kilometers from the famous Nabataean city of Petra. Since the first century CE, Jabal Harun has been identified as the location of the death of the Prophet Aaron. This volume focuses on a church and chapel which were discovered at the site, while future volumes will concentrate on a Nabataean cult complex, the monastic/hostel structure, and the archaeological survey of the region. The church and chapel were constructed sometime after the mid-fifth century and remained inhabited until at least the ninth or tenth century.

The excavations of the FJHP were inspired by the 1993 discovery of the Petra Church and a cache of sixth century papyri found within the church.1 These discoveries overturned the then-current scholarly consensus that Petra was largely destroyed by the 363 earthquake, which shook the entire southern Levant, and then abandoned. One of the Petra Papyri, still unpublished, mentions “the Sacred House of our Lord the Saint High-Priest Aaron” ἅγιος οἶκος τοῦ δεσπότου ἡμῶν τοῦ ἁγίου ἀρχιιερέως Ἀαρών, and the FJHP set out to determine if the Islamic shrine on Jabal Harun, by tradition dedicated to Aaron, was the successor to an earlier Christian monastic community (12, Petra papyrus inv. 6a.).

Since the publication of the Petra Church, archaeologists have turned their attention to the later Roman/Byzantine remains of Petra and southern Jordan.2 Southern Jordan was administered as one part of Palaestina Tertia, which also included the Sinai Peninsula and the Negev in southern Israel. Scholars have long investigated the early Christian remains in the Negev and the Sinai, but research on southern Jordan in this period is just beginning. Although many projects have been initiated in the past twenty years which have investigated southern Jordan during late antiquity, only a few have reached final publication status.3 Many other projects are published only in preliminary form.4

This volume is therefore a welcome addition to scholarship on the southern Levant during late antiquity. It is geared towards professional archaeologists and historians of the region, and provides comparative material for the study of other sites, especially monastic ones in the region, such as Saint Lot’s tomb (Deir ‘Ain ‘Abata, see note 4). Its most important contribution is the publication of an extensive ceramic corpus, providing the largest ceramic catalog yet published from the post-fourth century periods at Petra and southern Jordan.5 For this reason alone, this work will be one of the most commonly cited by archaeologists of the later-Roman, Byzantine, and early Islamic occupation of southern Jordan.

The volume begins with a summary of the Aaron tradition in Jewish and early Christian writers (5-25). It successfully argues that the region around Petra was associated with the death and burial of Aaron by the first century C.E. and makes a compelling case that the monastery and early Christian chapel on the summit of Jabal Harun were connected with Aaron. This chapter also surveys information relating to early Christians in Petra, and covers the same ground as the first chapter of the Petra Church publication. This information, however, is a useful addition to this volume and serves as an introduction to the early Christian presence in the region.6

Chapter 2 examines the accounts of early travelers and pilgrims to Jabal Harun (27-49). Most importantly, these travelers have preserved details about the now destroyed early Christian chapel which was located underneath the Islamic shrine on the summit of Jabal Harun. The summit is currently off-limits to exploration, making these early accounts our only record of the ruins on the site.

In Chapter 3, Fiema describes the goals and methodology of the FJHP (51-59). Specifically, the project sought to answer the following questions: what was the pre-monastic occupation of the site (if any) and the origins of the monastic community? Was this community economically self-sustainable? How did the usage of the site and material culture change during the period of occupation? Finally, when was the site abandoned, and does the archaeological evidence for abandonment contrast with the Crusader-period literary sources?

Chapter 4 describes the documentation of the site through photogrammetry, which worked towards two goals: to create a 3D model of the site and to develop techniques for using photogrammetry in archaeological projects (61-85). This chapter will be most informative for those interested in the technical aspects of and obstacles to the use of state-of-the-art techniques for the visual documentation of archaeological sites. It is possible to see videos derived from the 3D models developed by the project at The models themselves suggest the possible utility of this technology; the terrain video demonstrates the substantial climb necessary to reach the monastery and shrine.7

In Chapter 5, Fiema provides a description of the FJHP site and associated structures, which he notes will “be superseded by the information contained in the second volume” of the final report which will include the final publication of the archaeological survey data (87-97). The chapter is useful in this volume because it helps to place the church in its local and regional context. The chapter closes with a description of the human and non-human activities (such as earthquakes) which led to the formation of the site.

Chapter 6 begins the reporting of archaeological data by discussing the stratigraphic information relating to the architectural features of the church. The excavators divided the church and chapel into 14 distinct phases (99-185). Phase 1 is the pre-monastic occupation of the site, Phases 2-8 were occupational phases of clearly ecclesiastical use, and Phases 9-14 were probably related to post-monastic occupation. Phases 3, 6, 8, 10, and 12 were phases of destruction, most likely from earthquakes. An appendix discusses a unique find at the site which has few parallels from other sites— a stone “box” with a depression and lid — which has been interpreted as an installation for a relic (177-180).

Phase 2 represented the first construction of the church and connected chapel. Since both structures shared a common wall through which the chapel was accessed, they were probably constructed at the same time. The church in this phase possessed a tripartite nave with a single apse flanked by two pastophoria. The side chapel also contained a single apse, was flanked on both sides by cupboards, and possessed a baptistery cut into the bedrock on the western end. The excavators dated this phase to the mid-to-later fifth century, although most of the ceramic material and a glass lamp could be dated to the early sixth century. Two coins were dated to ca. 402 and 457, the latter providing a terminus post quem (116). The structure was seemingly destroyed by an earthquake (Phase 3) which was dated by glass finds to the mid to later sixth century; however, a radiocarbon date from inside a lamp from Phase 3 indicated a date between ca. 594-650 (118). This may indicate that the destruction occurred later than the date suggested by the material remains from Phase 2, such as the ceramic evidence and glass lamp mentioned earlier. The authors note that this data is contradictory, but prefer to date Phase 2 and 3 based on the material remains rather than the radiocarbon evidence.

Following the destruction in Phase 3, the basilica was remodeled. In Phase 4, the nave’s length was cut in half, with the western half converted into an open air atrium with a porch, which probably served as a narthex. Soon afterwards (Phase 5), a drainage system was added to the atrium and a mosaic floor was placed in the porch. After another destruction (Phase 6), dated to the mid-seventh century, the church was further remodeled, with a completely new roof and roof support system constructed which necessitated the addition of four new pillars in the basilica (Phase 7). In this phase, masonry, covered with a fine plaster, almost completely replaced marble throughout the church. Even more dramatic changes occurred in the chapel, where the original baptistery was covered and a new baptistery was constructed near the bema. Finally, an altar with an interior compartment was erected in the apse of the chapel which may have held relics attributed to Saint Aaron. No relics were discovered, but a marble fragment with the word αρων was found next to the altar from this phase (145, 273). The ecclesiastical function of the structure ended as a result of Phase 8, another destruction layer, dated to the eighth century, possibly connected to the earthquake which occurred in 749 and damaged many sites throughout the Near East.

Chapter 7 begins the analysis of the material remains with a discussion of the marble furnishings and decorations of the church (187-233). Several hundred fragments were discovered, including pieces of chancel posts and screens, altar tables, and supports. The finds are well documented, with descriptions and photographs.

Chapter 8 discusses the two baptismal fonts discovered in the chapel (235-245). It begins by discussing the role of baptism in early Christian practice, and the excavators postulate that these fonts served pilgrims who would have waited to be baptized until undergoing pilgrimage, which was common up to the sixth century.

Next, Chapter 9 describes the mosaic laid out in Phase 5 in the narthex of the church (246-262). The original mosaic depicted a hunting scene with numerous animals, a geometric pattern flanked by birds, and a geometric emblema located in the center of the narthex. The artistic style of the mosaic is completely in line with the late antique Near East, but the use of figures in a narthex is rare. No dedicatory inscription was discovered. The mosaic was repaired many times, probably a result of earthquake damage, but there is also extensive iconoclastic damage to all of the figures. This parallels the purposeful elimination of animal and human figures which is a feature of the middle eighth century in the Near East. An appendix includes a commentary on the animals depicted in the narthex mosaic (263-271).

Chapter 10 and an appendix describe the meager epigraphic material discovered during the excavations, both in Greek and, in the case of two later graffiti, in Arabic (272-285). In addition to the inscription mentioned above referring to Aaron, there is an inscription probably referring to Saint George, a relatively common saint in the southern Levant; a quotation of Psalm 29:3; a quotation from Psalm 91; and a painted plaster fragment referring to John the Baptist, which reads προδομο“forerunner.”8

For archaeologists working in the region, Chapter 11 and its associated catalog may prove to be the most important, for it presents the most extensive published corpus of well-stratified Byzantine and early Islamic material from southern Jordan (286-329). This report illuminates material associated with the dating of the church and chapel; the final report on the pottery with a chronological typology sequence will appear in a later volume. As Gerber notes, the absolute dating of these ceramics is not secure and will need to be tested by the pottery from the rest of the site as well as other sites in southern Jordan; nevertheless, the quick publication of these ceramics will be extremely helpful for archaeologists working in the region because of the lack of published, comparable material.

Based on the fabric, G. concludes that the pottery was produced locally in the Petra region throughout the occupation of the site, despite the lack of known kilns operating in the Petra/Wadi Musa area in this period. G. also argues that Jabal Harun’s later ceramic corpus is composed of finer wares and forms; this is contrary to evidence from other sites in the Petra area, which show a slow degradation of quality over time. The reasons for this observation, if confirmed, are currently unknown.

In Chapter 12, Keller and Lindblom analyze the glass finds from the church and the chapel (330-375). The discussion begins with a brief description of the use of glass in Byzantine churches and their use in the liturgy. Then they present the finds: goblets, cups, lamps, windowpanes, and glass tesserae. Three appendices list the glass finds, windowpane fragments, and metal objects associated with the lamps.

Chapter 13 describes the tiles and bricks from the church and chapel (376-391). The tiles included pan-tiles (tegulae) and cover tiles (imbreces). They are generally impossible to date accurately, and their provenance is also unknown, both because there is very little comparative evidence that has been published. It seems likely that the roof in the Phase 2, 4, and 5 structures was pitched.

Chapter 14 is a catalog of the metal objects found, mostly nails for the roof and nails which attached plaster to the walls, as well as fittings for the marble decorations (392-403). An appendix describes a sword guard which is of an unknown date. Chapter 15 analyzes the plaster discovered at the site (404-423). The chapter begins by discussing the Neolithic, Greek, Roman, and Byzantine use and creation of plaster, then zeroes in on the use of plaster in the Transjordan. In-situ plastering at the site was exposed by the elements after the destruction of the structure, meaning that only plaster discovered within excavation loci still contained paint. The painted fragments were found in the highest concentration in the chapel and many of the fragments contained Greek letters (such as the “forerunner” inscription mentioned above). The plaster in the initial phases was of high quality, and the construction of new plaster in later phases was inferior to this early material.

The final chapter places the church and chapel into its regional context (424-441). Fiema reasonably focuses on the churches of southern Jordan and the Negev, locations which were located within the province of Palaestina Tertia. Fiema describes the comparative churches in a concise and articulate fashion, but I felt that site plans (for at least a few of the churches) would help to convey the apparent similarities with the Jabal Harun church. Strangely, Fiema does not include evidence from the Sinai, which, in addition to Saint Catherine’s, also contained a number of churches such as those at Pharan and many monastic sites. Since all of these churches must have ministered to pilgrims, they could provide additional comparative material.9 The Jabal Harun church retained its monoapsidal form, deviating from most other churches in Palaestina Tertia which were converted to triapsidal basilicas in the mid-sixth century. This transformation is often connected with the increased prominence of saints in the liturgy. Possibly, local tradition held sway at Jabal Harun, or relics of Aaron were stored in the chapel, making a conversion to a triapsidal form unnecessary. The chapter ends by trying to determine what structure the Crusaders, who mentioned a monastic settlement and a church, described, because the church itself had been abandoned. Fiema concludes that the most likely solution is that some rooms of the “western building,” which were not covered in this volume, were still occupied and could have housed a makeshift church for visiting pilgrims.

The volume itself is handsomely presented, with high quality photos, tables, and site drawings. I noticed few typographical errors (for example, the Greek font on pg. 11 bleeds into the English text), further attesting to editorial care. Each chapter’s notes and bibliography are printed immediately after the text, making the checking of notes and citations very convenient. While this means that some secondary literature is referenced multiple times throughout the work, it is preferable to a unified bibliography.

In conclusion, this is an important volume on the early Christian period of southern Jordan. Its large corpus of published ceramic evidence will be especially valuable until the final report is completed. This volume continues to help challenge the notion that Petra was largely abandoned and unimportant after the 363 earthquake and further demonstrates the long history of Christianity in southern Jordan, even after the region fell under Muslimcontrol.


Introduction by Jaakko Frösén

Chapter 1: Aaron in Religious Literature, Myth and Legend by Frösén and Päivi Miettunen

Chapter 2: Jabal Harun: History, Past Explorations, Monuments, and Pilgrimages by Päivi Miettunen

Chapter 3: The FJHP: Background, Goals and Methodology by Zbigniew Fiema

Chapter 4: The Cartographic Documentation in the FJHP Excavations by Hanne Junnilainen, Katri Koistinen, Jaakko Latikka, Henrik Haggrén, Anna Erving and Nina Heiska

Chapter 5: The FJHP Site by Zbigniew Fiema

Chapter 6: The Church and the Chapel: Data and Phasing by Erko Mikkola, Antti Lahelma, Zbigniew Fiema, and Richard Holmgren

Appendix. The Object from Locus E1.09 by Zbigniew Fiema and Marie-Christine Comte

Chapter 7: Marble Furnishing and Decoration by Anna Lehtinen

Appendix. The 2007 finds by Anna Lehtinen

Chapter 8: The Baptismal Fonts by Ann Rajala and Zbigniew Fiema

Chapter 9: The Mosaic by Basema Hamarneh and Karin Hinkkanen

Appendix, The Animals Depicted on the Jabal Harun Mosaic: Biogeography and Archaeozoology by Jacqueline Studer

Chapter 10: Greek Inscriptions from the Church and the Chapel by Jaakko Frösén, Erkki Sironen and Zbigniew Fiema

Appendix. Two Arabic Inscriptions from Jabal Harun by Jaakko Hämeen-Anttila and Kaj Öhrnberg

Chapter 11: The Byzantine and Early Islamic Pottery from Jabal Harun by Yvonne Gerber

Appendix. The Catalog of Ceramics from the Selected Deposits associated with the

Church and the Chapel by Yvonne Gerber and Virpi Holmquist

Chapter 12: Glass Finds from the Church and the Chapel by Daniel Keller and Jeanette Lindblom

Appendix 1. Catalog of Glass Lamps and Vessels associated with the Church and the Chapel by Jeanette Lindblom

Appendix 2. Table of Glass Windowpane Fragments from the Loci associated with Phases 9 and 11 by Jeanetter Lindblom

Appendix 3. List of Metal Objects associated with Glass Lamps by Sari Pouta

Chapter 13: Tiles and Bricks from the Jabal Harun Monastery by Pirjo Hamari

Appendix. Catalog of Tile and Brick Material from Jabal Harun by Pirjo Mamari

Chapter 14: The Metal Objects from Jabal Harun: A Descriptive Catalog of Objects related to the Church and the Chapel by Sari Pouta and Marlena Whiting

Appendix. Decorated Iron Sword Guard (reg. no. 245) by Jon Coulston

Chapter 15: The Analysis of Wall Plaster at Jabal Harun by Christina Danielli

Appendix. Sample Analysis of Wall Plaster: PS 1 and PS 3

Chapter 16: The Concluding Remarks by Zbigniew Fiema


1. Fiema, Z. et al. The Petra Church. Amman, Jordan: ACOR, 2001; Frösén, J., Arava, A. and M. Lehtinen (eds.). The Petra Papyri I. Amman: ACOR, 2002; Arjava, A., Matias B., and Gagos T. The Petra Papyri III. Acor Publications 5. Amman: ACOR, 2007.

2. The Swiss-Liechtenstein excavations of the ez-Zantur site, which overlooks the major monuments along Petra’s colonnaded street, began in 1988 before the discovery of the Petra Church. This team discovered a mansion that was inhabited from the first century B.C.E. until the fifth century C.E. This was the first excavation of a residential area in Petra. Schmid, S. Petra – Ez Zantur II: Teil 1: Die Feinkermaik Der Nabatäer. Typolodie, Chronologie Und Kulturhistorische Hintergründe. Mainz: Verlag Phillip von Zabern, 2000; Kolb, B. Petra – Ez Zantur II: Teil 2: Die Spätantiken Wohnbauten Von Ez Zantur in Petra Und Der Wohnhausbau in Palästina Vom 4.-6. Jh. N. Chr. Mainz: Verlag Phillip von Zabern, 2000. For a summary in English see: Kolb, B. “Petra – from Tent to Mansion: Living on the Terraces of Ez-Zantur.” Petra Rediscovered: Lost City of the Nabataeans. Ed. G. Markoe. New York: Harry Abrams, 2003. pp. 230-38.

3. For example, the Petra Church (note 1) and the later Roman domestic complex at Ez Zantur (note 2).

4. For example, the excavations of Aila, Deir ‘Ain ‘Abata, Gharandal, Humayma, the Petra Street Project, and Udhruh remain published in only a preliminary fashion. For the latest publication of each of the projects with references to earlier material, see Aila: Parker, S. T. “The Roman ‘Aqaba Project: The 2002 Campaign.” Annual of the Department of Antiquities of Jordan (ADAJ) 47 (2003): 321-33; Deir ‘Ain ‘Abata: Politis, K. ” Excavations and Restorations at Deir ‘Ain ‘Abata 1995.” ADAJ 41 (1997): 341-50. Gharandal: Walmsley, A. et al. “Town and Village: Site Transformations in South Jordan (the Gharandal Archaeological Project, Second Season Report).” ADAJ 43 (1999): 459-78. Humayma: Oleson, J. et al. “Preliminary Report of Al-Humayma Excavation Project 2000, 2002.” ADAJ 47 (2003): 37-64; Petra Street Project: Fiema, Z. “The Roman Street of the Petra Project, 1997: A Preliminary Report.” ADAJ 42 (1998): 395-424; Udhruh: Killick, A.C., ed. Udhruh: Caravan City and Desert Oasis. Romsey, Hampshire: A.C. Killick, 1987.

5. Not counting here the final publication of the Limes Arabicus project which investigated el-Lejjun on the Kerak Plataeu just east of the Dead Sea. This region of Jordan appears to have had a very different ceramic tradition than southern Jordan (Parker, S. T., ed. The Roman Frontier in Central Jordan: Final Report on the Limes Arabicus Project, 1980-1989. Washington: Dumbarton Oaks, 2006). For references to the preliminary ceramic reports in southern Jordan, see Gerber (in the reviewed volume, 288-289).

6. I noticed one overstatement in this chapter when it is suggested that Justinian did not show “any interest in Palaestina Tertia” (12). This may have been true of the Jordanian side of Palaestina Tertia, but clearly is not the case for the Negev and Sinai. Justinian is famously known for ordering the construction of the monastery at Mount Sinai which is now known as Saint Catherine’s and may have erected a similar structure at the nearby monastic community at Raithou. See Mayerson, P. “Procopius or Eutychius on the Construction of the Monastery at Mount Sinai: Which Is the More Reliable Source?” Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research. 230 (1978): 33-38 and Dahari, U. Monastic Settlements in South Sinai in the Byzantine Period: The Archaeological Remains. IAA Reports 9. Jerusalem: Israel Antiquities Authority, 2000, pgs. 138-146.

7. I was unable to play these .avi files on a computer running Windows Vista, but they worked just fine in Windows XP.

8. There was a hostel/monastery dedicated to Saint George in the Negev which can probably be identified with the ruins at Mizpe Shivta (Figueras, P. “The Location of the Xenodochium Sancti Georgii in the Light of Two Inscriptions in Mizpe Shivta.” ARAM 19 (2007): 509-26).

9. On the church in Saint Catherine’s see: Forsyth, G., and K. Weitzmann. The Monastery of Saint Catherine at Mount Sinai: The Church and Fortress of Justinian. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1973. For the monastic communities in the southern Sinai, see Dahari 2000 (note 6). For the churches at Pharan, see: Grossman, P. “Excavations in Firan-Sinai (February 1998).” Annales du Service des Antiquités de L’Égypte 76 (2001): 135-42 (with references to earlier work).