The Affluent Society?

Part of the Petra exhibition.

Wall mosaic tiles Glass Petra Church, Petra, JordanAD 550 - 600Judging from wall mosaics that survived elsewhere, the designs at Petra's main church would have included scenes from the Old and New Testaments and images of saints and the Holy Family. They would also have included portraits of prominent people, all enhanced by the use of gold leaf and colorful floral elements. Those on display, highly fragmentary due to the collapse of the building in antiquity, include a fragment of a plant, a male face and a female face with a lock of hair. The style of the Petra wall mosaics may be a clue to their date of origin: their similarity to the sixth-century mosaics from the Monastery of St. Catherine, a celebrated church in the Sinai, suggests artisans at the same workshop created both.Department of Antiquities, Amman, Jordan
Photo: © Cincinnati Art Museum; Photographer: Peter John Gates FBIPP, ARPS, Ashwell, UK

For all its size and grandeur, Petra's cathedral provided no sanctuary from natural disaster. Archaeologists have found nearly 4,000 fragments of shattered marble in its ruins, the result of a fire that raced through the structure in the late 500s. The fire also charred--but did not destroy--more than 140 papyri, records of a single well-off Petra family that were stored in a room adjoining the church. One of the most important manuscript finds since the Dead Sea Scrolls, these documents illuminate the social and economic state of Byzantine Petra.

Taken together, the lavish church decorations, the propertied citizens--and the luxury goods found even in outlying towns--create a picture of prosperity and deepen the mystery surrounding the region's decline. When, exactly, did it begin?