Khaznat al-Faroun at Petra, Jordan. Photo taken by Calvin College professor Bert DeVries

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Return to the PETRA homepage April 4, 2005 - August 15, 2005
Lost City of Stone

News: March 29, 2005

World Renowned Archaeologists to Speak at Calvin as Part of Petra

Blue Marble Pulpit
Blue Marble Pulpit
Petra, Jordan, 1st century A.D.
Photo by D. Finnin/AMNH

A blue marble pulpit in the Byzantine section of Petra: Lost City of Stone is a potent symbol of an era in Petra that, until a few years ago, historians didn't believe existed.

On Wednesday, April 13 the archeologist who discovered and excavated that pulpit, Dr. Patricia Bikai, the associate director of the American Center of Oriental Research (ACOR) and her husband, ACOR director Dr. Pierre Bikai, will speak together about the pulpit, the Blue Chapel where it was discovered, two other Byzantine-era Petra churches and a treasure trove of papyrus scrolls found in one of them.

The free lecture, "Churches and Scrolls of Petra," will take place from 12-1 p.m. on Wednesday, April 13 in the President's Board Room of the Prince Conference Center at Calvin as part of Petra's Noon Lecture Series.

The talk will be just one piece of a multi-faceted educational program Calvin has built around Petra: Lost City of Stone, the comprehensive exhibition of Nabataean culture being hosted by the college from April 4 to August 15, 2005.

"We are very, very fortunate to have the Bikais for this series because of the personal role they have played in the excavation and restoration of the churches in Petra and in their more general leadership through ACOR in the larger archaeological development of Petra and Jordan," says Bert de Vries, Calvin professor of history and archaeology (and a friend of the Bikais).

The blue pulpit was unearthed in the Blue Chapel, a possible former residence for the bishop of Petra.

Blue Chapel Is One of Three Byzantine-Era Churches

Easily identifiable in the rose-red city because of its blue, granite pillars, the chapel is one of three Byzantine-era churches discovered on a ridge north of Petra's colonnaded main road. The three churches are evidence that, contrary to accepted wisdom, Petra remained a vital place — and hosted a surprisingly strong Christian community — well past the AD 363 earthquake that was thought to have crippled and emptied the city.

Patricia Bikai will also talk about the Petra Church (identified by Kenneth W. Russell in 1990 and excavated by an ACOR-appointed team after his 1992 death) which still boasts elaborate floor mosaics of animals, vegetation and mythological figures in its two long side aisles. The cache of 140 papyrus scrolls, which were carbonized due to an early 7th-century fire, was discovered in that sanctuary.

The scrolls (the records of one extended family) provide a glimpse into life in late-era Petra says Patricia Bikai.

"We get some insight into how the area functioned," she says. "Among the documents is a will dividing property among three brothers. From this we learn that, for example, that they owned vineyards and had slaves."

Talk Will Also Look at Ridge Church

Patricia also will talk about Ridge Church, the oldest Petra church, which she excavated.

"One day," she recalls, "toward the end of the Petra church project, we walked up to the top of the ridge to see what was up there and noted another Byzantine Church with its walls literally falling down the hillside. I felt sorry for it and decided to do a small conservation project."

Dr. Pierre Bikai will give an overview of U.S. archaeology in Jordan, highlighting ACOR's projects in Madaba, "the City of Mosaics," the Amman Citadel and at Islamic Ayla. These three projects were begun by de Vries in his tenure as ACOR's director from 1988-1991 and continued by ACOR after he returned to teaching at Calvin.

The Citadel's temple colonnade, Patricia says, has become the symbol of the city of Amman, and is often on the U.S. evening news as a backdrop. The walled city of Ayla, she adds, is one of the oldest of Islamic sites.

ACOR's many high-profile projects, in Petra and elsewhere, are exciting, but sobering.

"If you dig it," says Patricia, "you must publish it, conserve it, and make it accessible to the public. Archaeology is not an Indiana Jones adventure. It comes with very serious responsibilities."

Waves of sand