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One more secret of Petra

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Tomb in Petra
Tomb in Petra

One of the most interesting – and possibly the most beautiful – cities of the Roman Empire was the former capital of the Nabataean Kingdom: Rakmu, better known as Petra. Incorporated into the empire during the reign of Trajan in 106 CE, it became the capital of the Arabia province and began to develop dynamically.

Today – appreciated by the inscription on the UNESCO World Heritage List and recognized as one of the New Wonders of the World – it is famous primarily for tombs carved in multicoloured rocks, combining in their architecture Arab, Syrian, Egyptian, Greek and Roman influences. But in the heyday of the city, Petra was above all a thriving commercial centre. At the turn of the era, at the end of independence, it is estimated that it had a population of around 30,000-40,000. A testimony to this is the theatre for nearly 10,000 spectators, probably built in the 1st century CE by King Aretas IV, and expanded by the decision of Emperor Trajan.

Theater in Petra

Stone and multi-coloured (both names – Greek Petra – “rock” and Nabatean: Rqm, Rakmu – “multi-coloured” – are therefore the most justified and true) city with its attracted tourists to monuments already in antiquity – for example, the visit of Emperor Hadrian in 130 CE The Emperor, who was an amateur architect, also tried to visit the provinces of his vast country places considered interesting. And that’s what Petra was like then.

Panorama of ancient Petra

Did Emperor Hadrian visit the ancient Nabataean places of worship high above the city centre and the cardo maximus main street crossing them – I dare to doubt. He must have seen – perhaps he had participated in rituals – the mighty temple of Dusara, the local chief god, today called Kasr Bint Firaun by the local Bedouins – the Palace of the Pharaoh’s Daughter – and severely damaged by numerous earthquakes. It was these cataclysms that contributed to the depopulation of the city in the early Middle Ages, and thus – to the preservation of its unusual monuments. Hadrian, while in the city, probably visited the aforementioned local theatre and at night he used oil lamps – also local ones.

This is because Petra was one of the largest centres of production of these “ancient light bulbs”. Of course, not the only one – the production of these everyday objects is actually a mass industry in the Roman Empire. Ease of production and usefulness (and, let’s face it, fragility – that’s the ancient version of the “bulb conspiracy”) meant that – here quite a bold thesis – the oil lamp was the Roman equivalent of a fridge magnet. From Egypt, a traveler brought a specimen decorated with a crocodile, from Carthage by a ship entering the port – from a visit to Circus Maximus with a speeding chariot. Later, such a souvenir could illuminate the room in the insula in the Trastevere. Was it so? It is hard to say – research on the origin of oil lamps – despite the enormous archaeological material – is not that advanced, although it is already known that local schools of ornamentation of these small objects did exist.

Discovered items in Petra

Also, while in Petra, you can come across numerous specimens of oil lamps. Most often at the stands of local Bedouins. Almost 2,000 years after Emperor Hadrian’s visit, I came across such an antique dealer. One could call this Bedouin stubborn (and his family – the sons scour the surrounding mountains and deserts, and the father sells collectables to foreign tourists) a thief stealing the national heritage – but only Jordanian officials can do it, and these do not seem to be interested in this practice. In any case, this Bedouin, apart from Latin and Greek (more from Byzantine than Hellenistic times, but I am not a numismatic expert – the inscription basileus clearly defined the head on the coin as a bust of some Greek-speaking ruler) a collection of Roman oil lamps. It was only after a long conversation that this – brought up in Puritan as if there was no Islamic culture – took out the most valuable (or perhaps the most fascinating) object “from under the counter” – or rather “from behind his coat”: an oil lamp with an erotic scene!

Lamp found in Petra

For the Muslim inhabitants of today’s Jordan or for the first Christians, such a lamp was probably something scandalous – but for the Romans in Hadrian’s time, certainly not. Suffice it to say that there are many such finds throughout the Empire. And with different positions. Were these light sources in the lupanars? Or maybe they were supposed to act invitingly in the bedrooms of the sedate Roman matrons? Hard to say. Probably both – and several others: they matched the light lifestyle of the imperial elite, were a joke, were a funny element of home decor… Maybe they were also souvenirs after visiting the lupanar? They were certainly on the agenda – or maybe at night. And if so, maybe Emperor Hadrian himself used such “erotic bulbs” during his stay in the city. Unfortunately, there are no chroniclers.

Author: Adam Adamas (translated from Polish: Jakub Jasiński)
  • W. Machowski: Petra. Wrocław-Warszawa-Kraków 2007
  • M. Żmudziński: Dekoracje dysków rzymskich glinianych lamp oliwnych jako źródła ikonograficzne do poznania świata antycznego. Wrocław 2015

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