The “rose-red city” of Petra in southern Jordan, famous for its rock-cut monumental buildings, was once the setting for a thriving Christian community with several significant churches. An early account tells of Christians in Petra being martyred during the persecution of emperor Diocletian at the beginning of the 4th century, for refusing to offer sacrifice to Roman gods. Nevertheless, a Christian presence persisted. Bishops from Petra attended Church synods and councils from AD 343, indicating that the city had become a significant Christian centre.
The Roman historian Epiphanius mentions that the conversion of Petra’s residents was a slow process throughout the late 4th and 5th centuries. Then a monk called Mar Sauma arrived with 40 brother monks in AD 423. They found the gates locked against them, but a rainstorm struck with such intensity that part of the city wall was broken, allowing them in. Since the storm had broken a four-year drought, the water-dependent Nabateans saw the event as miraculous and even pagan priests converted to Christianity.
In biblical times Petra was a city of the Edomites, whose ancestor Esau settled there after he was tricked out of his rightful inheritance by his twin brother Jacob. Scholars believe Petra was then called Sela. By the middle of the second century BC, the Edomites had been displaced by the Nabataeans. These former nomad herdsmen made Petra their multicoloured sandstone capital city, transforming it into a desert oasis by using ingenious aqueducts and cisterns to conserve water from flash floods. The Nabataeans also controlled trade routes from Arabia to Mesopotamia and Syria, exacting high tolls from caravans which passed their way. One tradition has the Three Wise Men buying their gold, myrrh and frankincense at Petra on their way to Bethlehem.
The greatest Nabataean king was Aretas IV (9 BC to AD 40), whose rule extended as far north as Damascus. His daughter Phasaelis was married to Herod Antipas, who divorced her to marry Herodias, his brother’s wife. Aretas IV then marched on Herod’s army, defeated it and captured territories along the West Bank of the Jordan River.