I am fortunate enough to have taken an excursion to Petra, Jordan this week with my family, experiencing first hand one of the greatest ancient cities in the world. In the last few centuries of the BCE, Petra was a trading hub for spices and other goods, creating connections with the surrounding countries, most notably Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Iraq, and Syria. As the capital city of the Nabataean Kingdom, before falling to the Roman Empire, Petra held sheer prominence, and its architecture of larger-than-life carved out sand stone structures clearly replicates this greatness. Petra is not just one building, but rather a complex with different constructions, creating a bustling city complete with temples, tombs, treasuries, and theatres. After exploring these ancient sites through our readings in class, it felt surreal to be able to stand in front of these excavations, and while every part was breathtaking, I thought it would be interesting to talk about the amphitheater, which was one of the first to catch my eye.
The main theater was thought to be constructed around 100 AD, after the kingdom lost its independence to the Roman Empire, hence the Greco-Roman presence in its design. It consists of an auditorium with a semi-circular orchestra and an ascending seating area with vertical stairways that divide it into three levels. The excavations show a remaining stage, podium, and side doors, where presumably the focus of the entertainment would emerge from and proceed onto the front platform. The seating area is carved directly from the rock itself, in one piece; though it seems the tomb complexes that were there before had to be transformed, as there are still remnants on the cliff face above. The theater seats anywhere from 6,000 to 8,000 people, meaning a large portion of the city’s population could congregate in one sitting. Although there is no way to know exactly the type of events that occurred in this amphitheater, given the Classical influence, it could have hosted theatrical and musical performances, athletic games, and public meetings. The guides suggest that if Petra was a pilgrimage destination, then perhaps the auditorium was a place for the pilgrims to assemble and conduct their rituals. Regardless, the fact that the architects of this city chose to include such a structure as a theatre highlights the kind of atmosphere Petra attempted to foster – an environment that evokes strong parallels to those of the palatial Minoan complexes Phaistos and Knossos.
Both Phaistos and Knossos, palaces on the island of Crete, had open-aired theaters in which the seats are elevated above the stage, conducive to watching a performance or listening to a speech. The role of these amphitheaters is quite transparent in the broadest sense: they served as convening areas to allow large communities to gather, irrespective of status, and relate over a common activity. In complexes such as Petra, or these Minoan palaces, where it may have been difficult to assemble due to their vastness and citizen’s inevitable different tasks, the theatre acted as a reliable source of unity – one place that could guarantee a congregated community. Letesson describes the importance to a multifaceted approach when analyzing a performance structure like the amphitheater: “At this particular moment, architecture becomes a physical participant in a performance where more senses than vision are stimulated. It is necessary to focus on the social and physical backgrounds behind such organized behaviors. In a general way, performance is a ‘mode of cultural production that works with material and intellectual resources to create meaning’ and it is through its emotional and communicative impact that it becomes meaningful” (Letesson 2006, 95). He argues that it’s not enough to look at the ruins of an amphitheater and wonder what it was like to be a spectator; we should be examining the cultures that existed within the walls, the backgrounds of the citizens, and the social relationships they held with one another to really understand the atmosphere.
While walking around Petra today, it’s hard not to wonder what the city must have been like in its most authentic form, thousands of years ago. After all, in the 21stcentury, the archaeological site is filled with merchants and shops, people selling small tokens and young children offering rides to the tourists on donkeys, horses, and camels. And while this can feel distracting and inorganic, I caught myself retracing my words; perhaps, this is more alike to the ancient times than we think – Petra was a bustling city once upon a time, and it wouldn’t be unusual to also have had shops, animals, and tons of people roaming arounds bargaining with each other. Although not something I initially realized, I think it’s an interesting point to consider.
And lastly, though not really related to my specific focus on the theater, I thought it was necessary to mention the Great Temple – one of the most coveted findings in Petra. While subtle, as you walk up to the entrance of the excavated temple, there is a sign that accredits Brown University and its archaeologists for their rediscovery of this temple in 1992! Even when thousands of miles away, you still find pieces of your home…
Letesson, Q. and K. Vansteenhuyse, K. (2006) “Towards an Archaeology of the Perception: ‘Looking’ at the Minoan Palaces,” Journal of Mediterranean Archaeology 19(1).91-119.
Petra Development and Tourism Regional Authority (2015) “Petra: One of 7 Wonders” <http://www.visitpetra.jo/#slide-5>