Sr Mary reports from Jerusalem

 Last week I visited early Byzantine churches, one after another, among the vast ruins of Petra, 'that rose red city, half as old as time', in Jordan. I was there to accompany a press photographer on assignment from New York. We spent two days on foot and by donkey, traipsing around Petra, in order to see as much as possible of structures that were once churches, as well as current excavations at churches and a monastery complex there. Although explorers, surveyors and archaeologists knew about the probable existence of these early churches; it is historical documents that give clear evidence of their existence as early as the 4th century, when Eusebius mentioned the founding of churches in Petra. By the year 343, Asterius, the bishop of Petra, was present at the Council of Sardica. It was in April of 1990 that the late Ken Russell knew he had discovered a large Byzantine church. Excavations revealed that he was absolutely correct. He had discovered a large Byzantine church with beautiful, complex, rich mosaics, mostly intact, that carpeted the two side aisles of the first Christian site to be uncovered in Petra. In an annex room of this church, 152 scrolls were discovered, and mention was made in those scrolls of the probable name of this church. It was dedicated to 'Our Holy Mistress, the Holy God-bearing Ever Virgin Mary'. The cruciform baptistry, beyond the atrium, but still very much part of the complex, is impressive. Then, just up the hill from this church on a sandstone ridge overlooking Wadi Abu al-Ullayqa, another church was discovered and excavated by Patricial Bikai from 1994-1996. Further excavations, between these two churches revealed yet another complex with a church or large chapel, whose columns are of blue Aswan granite. This building is still in the process of excavation. If you have ever been to Petra, these structures are located along the Roman Road beyond the theatre, high on the hill to the right, just above the temple of the winged lions. We travelled to other structures which were used as churches, but none were as spectacular as the recently excavated ones. An archaeologist told me that there are probably about 50 Christian churches in Petra awaiting discovery and excavation. The community of these churches converted from paganism at a very early date, but like all the other inhabitants of the site of Petra, except for the Bidul Bedouin, they and their ancestors all left this site. The remarkable city of Petra does not have a Christian presence today. There are, however, Christians in Jordan; many of whom are Palestinian in origin, coming to Jordan as refugees from the Israeli occupation of their country. If you even go to Petra, insist on seeing the churches and getting in touch with your ancestors in faith. Look upon the very stones where they celebrated Eucharist in the 4th and 5th centuries. Here is an early link to Palestine Christians, for after the Council of Chalcedon in 451, Petra was under the Patriarch of Jerusalem and Petra was the capital of the Roman 'Palaestina Tertia'. Sr Mary is an Ursuline nun working in Jerusalem

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