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Every day hundreds of tourists stare in awe at the magnificent tombs in the ancient city of Petra. Indeed, they are among the most fantastic tomb facades in the world. But Petra is not the only Nabataean city with carved tomb facades. The cities of Egra in the Sinai and Meda’in Saleh in Saudi Arabia also have Nabataean tombs with facades.

For many tourists, the facades are everything and having gazed at their intricate designs and grandiose style and having photographed them, they move on to the next facade and the next. Some tourists, however, step inside some of the tombs to look around. Many are captivated by the rich colors in the sandstone walls. Others are amazed at the huge rooms that have been carved inside of some of the tombs. Few, however, look for places where the bodies were buried. And this is where the puzzle really begins. Some tombs have a few graves, some have very small graves, and some seem to have no graves at all.

In the page dealing with “The Price of Honor” , we will look at some of the reasons why the Nabataeans might have carved such rich and elaborate facades over their tombs. In this webpage, however, we want to examine the inside of the tombs, and the function of the five burial cities: Petra, Meda’in Saleh, Mampsis, Egra, and Elusa.

The Tombs
Many people, including myself have sometimes wondered if the monuments in Petra were really tombs or did they serve other purposes, like functioning as warehouses for storing incense, spices, and other trade goods. The answer is found in several inscriptions that have been discovered in Petra and Egra.

One inscription found at Egra on a tomb that is dated to about 27 AD states:

“_This is a tomb made by Arwas, son of Farwan, for himself and for Farwan, his father, hipparch, and for his wife Qainu and Hatibat and Hamilat, and for whom ever produces a signed writ by the hand of Arwas or by his sisters Hatibat and Hamilat, daughters of Farwan the hipparch, only he may be buried in this tomb who has such a writ, only he may be justified in burying in this tomb. In the month of Nisan in the year thirty six of Aretas, King of the Nabataeans, who loves his people. Made by Aftah son of Abdobodat and Huru son of Uhayyu, sculptors._”

Another tomb in Egra had this inscription:
This is the tomb made by Wshuh daughter of Bagrat, and by Qayamu and Mashkuya her daughters, of Teima, for each of them, and for Amirat and Usranat, and Elanat their sisters, daughters of Wshuh and for their clients.”

Note that Bagrat and Teima were located quite some distance from Egra. From this, it appears that the dead were transported to these central burial places and not buried in their home villages.

In Petra this inscription was found at the Turkamaniya Tomb: “This tomb and the large and small chambers inside, and the grave chambers, and the courtyard in front of the tomb, and the porticos and dwelling places within it, and the gardens and the triclinium (dining hall), the water cisterns, the terrace and the walls, and the remainder of the whole property which is in these places, is the consecrated and inviolable property of Dushares, the God of our Lord, and his sacred throne, and all the Gods (as specified) in deeds relating to consecrated things according to their contents. It is also the order of Dushares and his throne and all the Gods that, according to what is in the said writings relating to consecrated things; it shall be done and not altered. Nor shall anything of all that is housed in them be withdrawn, nor shall any man be buried in this tomb except him who has in writing a contract to be buried according to the said writings relating to consecrated things, for ever.”

These inscriptions leave us with little doubt as to the function of these monuments. They were built as tombs, but not for one person, but for extended families or for whoever received written permission to be buried there.

The Number of Tombs
There are over one thousand burial monuments in Petra and several hundred others in the other burial cities. If these were for family and tribal units, then the tombs in total could have contained tens of thousands of people. Added to this, there are extensive Nabataean graveyards located near Petra and the other cities where the more common people were buried. This adds up to a lot of graves.

As we mentioned above, it seems that the Nabataeans wealthy were mostly buried in these five Nabataean burial cities. There were three cities in the Sinai/Negev, one in the inner kingdom (Petra) and one in Saudi Arabia. These cities are also important cities, in that they were located at the junctions of major trade routes.

Therefore, it appears that the Nabataean dead were transported to these cities for proper burial. Most likely there was something in Nabataean culture or religion that encouraged people to think of them spending eternity along side of their family and relatives.

The Builders of the Tombs
From the inscriptions written above, we see that the tombs were made by Nabataean sculptors and not by imported slaves or laborers.

A City of Tombs
Today only a few archeologists believe that originally Petra was not a proper urban city, but that it was more like a religious city. They say that it functioned as the center for the twice-yearly festivals, and it functioned as a burial city. It was complete with several temples, a festival theater, a nymphaeum, a bathhouse, a sacred way, a monumental gate, many pools, and several other public buildings. The temples and other public buildings occupied the central valley, where the Royal Tombs were situated.

Along with this, the people who maintained Petra had to live there. This included priests, sculptors, grave diggers, temple attendants, administrative staff for the many public buildings, merchants who sold temple and burial paraphernalia, and other support people who ran services that provided things like food and water. If there was a royal court in Petra, then this would have entailed another whole group of people. These people alone may have numbered several thousand, along with their spouses and families.

Some writers have estimated that Petra might have had a population of 20,000 to 30,000 inhabitants. Interestingly enough, few academic sources substantiate these figures. There was a limited amount of room within Petra’s city walls. If we calculated, say, 10 people to a household, this would come to at least 2000 large houses. The problem with this is that there was very little room within the city proper for private housing. The great majority all of the buildings uncovered to date have been public buildings. As an example, consider the market places. For years, part of Petra was deemed as having upper, middle, and lower marketplaces. When archaeologists decided to excavate the lower market in 1998, they discovered a series of public pools, gardens, and waterworks.

Most archeologists, however, now believe that Petra was a large, urban center. The Petra Scrolls clearly tell us of the crowded living conditions within the city during the Byzantine era, but little is known of Petra during its purely Nabataean days from around 60 BC to 200 AD.

As the Nabataeans were nomadic people who traditionally lived in tents, it is assumed that for the first several hundred years of their occupation of the Inner Kingdom that they lived in tents, and did not erect stone houses. This is true in most of the Nabataean cities. It is only during the latter part of the Nabataean kingdom that suddenly the Nabataeans began constructing houses, and then they were often of incredible size, varying from 600 to 2000 square meters.

So, did people live in cities surrounded by the dead? The answer is not clear, but it may have been that most of the Nabataeans lived in tents scattered across the countryside, or in small centers such as Selah. Many also lived in smaller villages raising camels and horses. This would have required large tracts of grazing space. Others would be away with the caravans or trading ships.

So it only makes sense that they would cluster their public buildings around one spot, where the temples and Royal courts and tombs were located. As for housing, perhaps for many years, and particularly during public festivals, the majority of people lived in tents.

Burial Practices
If the Nabataeans traveled so widely, what would have happened to them if they had died while they were in a distant county or somewhere in the deserts of Arabia? This is a key question to understanding the Nabataean burial rites. A small group of archeologists feel that the Nabataeans practiced bone collection and buried the bones rather than complete bodies. This system of burial was used by the Persians and also by some Jewish groups during the Second Temple period.

In the Persian setting, the bodies of the dead were placed in a Tower of Silence. Such towers were about 8 meters (25 feet) high, built of brick or stone, and contain gratings on which the naked corpses were exposed to the elements. The vultures did not take long, an hour or two at the most, to strip the flesh off the bones. The bones were then left to dry in the sun, and were later buried or kept in an ossuary, or special storage place for the bones of the dead.

In the Jewish setting, the bodies were placed on a rack, so that once the flesh and organs had been stripped away by vultures, or decomposed, the bones would fall through the rack into the carved out space below. After the bones had dried, they would be collected and placed in a place of permanent abode. Some of the Jews of the Second Temple period practiced this type of burial. Thousands of small stone ossuaries have been found in and around Jerusalem where bones were kept. This allowed people who lived away from Jerusalem to still be buried in the Holy City.

Interestingly enough, around the city of Petra there are a number of high platforms that seem to be exposure platforms. If the Nabataeans really did practice this form of burial, then a Nabataean who died while on a caravan journey would have his body exposed to the elements, the bones dried, and then transported back to one of the sacred burial sites. Those who died near the burial cities would have been exposed to the elements on a high ledge in the city itself. There are a number of things that support this theory.

High Places
Scattered around the burial cities are hundreds of high places. Some of these are proper high places with evidence of altars, and other items. Others are different. In most of these cases steps lead up the side of mountains or rocks to a small flat ledge or surface area. On many of these ledges or hilltops, there is little room to stand. I suspect that these places were not actually high places in the religious sense, but that they were places where the dead were exposed to the elements. Visitors to Petra unknowingly pass many of these spots as they walk among the tombs.

The Robinson High Place in Petra

The Robinson High Place in Petra

One of the many highplaces in Petra

One of the many highplaces in Petra

Archeologists such as Glueck have noted the strong Iranian/Parthian elements that were mixed into the construction of Nabataean temples. If the Nabataeans adopted certain aspects of Iranian religion into their temple architecture, would it not also follow that they might readily adopt the Iranian/Persian practice of drying bones and then burying them?

Among the various forms of buildings and monuments in Petra, there are obelisks, or triangular shaped statues. These can be found on tombs, such as the Obelisk Tomb, or located individually, such as the two located near the high place. It is interesting to notice that freestanding obelisks from the same period have also been preserved in India and Egypt. The Indian ones were called ‘stambha’ and were considered as an image for the supersensory presence of a deity. Similar rock tombs are also found in India, which were created as early as the lifetime of Buddha (sixth century BC).

Burial Sites
Most of the monuments in Petra have very few graves in them. Many have small storage places, which would have been sufficient for storing bones.

A tomb north of el-Habis, excavated by Horsfields had a rounded narrow grave with stone covers. The grave was so narrow that the corpse must either have been forced into it, or else, the bones were placed there later. In these graves, Horsfields found seven skulls and a mass of bones piled in confusion.

In Egra, there are some seventy tomb monuments. One monument, Tomb B11, is dated by an inscription to 50 BC. It has one large chamber excavated at ground level, apparently for the burial of two persons. In addition, six niches of different lengths were cut into the walls at different heights. None of these is deep enough to contain a whole corpse. This is typical of most of the tombs in the area, as well as at Petra. Tomb A6 has one large hall where three walls have troughs cut at their bottom. Each of these is subdivided by thin partition walls into twelve square compartments of 40 cm square. The archeologists thought that this might have been for the burial of children, but children would never fit into a spot this small. But the bones of the dead certainly would.

Exposure Platforms
All around Petra are steps to the tops of hills, with little on top for markings except a rectangular cut hole. Some of these are 1.5 - 2 meters long and .5 meters wide. While some archeologists have taken these as water storage tanks, I do not understand how one could collect the water on the top of these rocks, nor is there any way to use the water afterwards.

A good example of one of these exposure platforms in on a rock beside the jinn rocks near the Obelisk Tomb on the way into Petra. Every person going into Petra walks past this rock. The rock in question is round and has steps cut into it on two sides leading to the top. On the top of the rock, a rectangular hole has been cut, and around the edges of the hole is a groove where the rack would have been placed. As the vultures stripped off the flesh, the bones would have fallen into the hole underneath, and would have been later retrieved for burial in one of the nearby tombs.

Exposure Platform near the entrance to Little Petra

Exposure Platform near the entrance to Little Petra

It is also important to notice how close the jinn rocks are located to this ossuary rock. It is as if the jinn rocks were there to protect the dead bodies from evil spirits until the bones were clean and ready for proper burial. Another jinn rock located beside the stairs that lead to the high place in Petra is also located very close to several exposure platforms.

Why did the Nabataeans use this form of burial?
First, the use of communal graves for families and tribes makes sociological sense, as the Nabataean culture was structured on a tribal basis. As the larger family would have established its own particular tomb, members of that family would want their bodies buried in this tomb, even if they died many miles away. The practice of drying and transporting bones would have been a practical way to deal with people who died while on journeys to distant places.

This would explain the tombs that are present at Egra, Petra, and Meda’in Saleh in Saudi Arabia. Each of these centers was a stopping place along the caravan routes, and the bones of the dead could be buried there in style. This also explains why inscriptions in Egra indicate that people living in Teima were buried in Egra. It also explains why there are so many tombs at Petra and so little space for the living.

Ancient Evidence
Archeologists and historians have long puzzled over a statement made by Strabo. He tells us “They have the same regard for the dead as for dung, and therefore they bury even their kings beside dung heaps.” (Geography XVI.2.26)

This statement seems to make no sense, as the Nabataeans had great regard for their dead, as is evidenced by the magnificent tombs. For years, historians have wondered if Strabo was mistaken. But how can we, thousands of years later, question the account of someone who was actually present at the time?

To understand Strabo’s statement, we must try to think as Strabo thought. He was a Roman who had spent much time in Rome and Egypt, where burial customs were very different. He must have been very puzzled by the method with which the Nabataeans treated their dead. They put the bodies outside where they would stink, and be covered with vultures, insects, and other carrion. To Strabo this must have seemed very disrespectful. The Romans would have used massive amounts of incense to mask the smell of burning flesh, as they cremated the bodies and interred the ashes.

However, if we think in terms of bone collection, then Strabo’s account makes sense. The Nabataeans would have put the bodies out, near the dung heaps. Then, once the bones were collected they would have had a ceremony to inter the bones in the family burial place.

Along with this, we must consider that the garbage dump in most ancient cities was just over the city wall. Most people simply threw their garbage off the wall where it rotted. Outside of Petra’s city walls are mounds of broken pottery, evidence that the Nabataeans also practiced this. Excavations at Petra now support the presence of large cemeteries just beyond the city walls. These cemeteries were probably for common people, but it demonstrates how the dead were buried near the garbage dumps. All of these things may help explain Strabo’s statement.

The Broken Pottery
Most of the tombs in Petra and other locations seem to have areas in or near them for serving meals. Many had decorated dining halls built right into the tombs. Strabo also tells us that the Nabataeans prepared meals to be eaten in groups of thirteen persons. (XVI.4.26)

The Turkamaniya Tomb inscription mentioned graves, chambers, a courtyard, porticos, dwelling places, gardens, dining hall, water cisterns, terraces, and walls. Tourists today can still see that large hall from which a narrow passageway leads to an equally large burial hall. The first hall was probably used as a dining room. This kind of arrangement can be seen in other tombs easily accessible to tourists, such as the Obelisk tomb, the Treasury, and the Urn Tomb.

Remains of memorial meals have been found in Mampsis and Elusa. An area outside of the tombs had places for fires, washing, and hundreds of broken clay pots, as if they were used for cooking. In this case there were more than 100 dishes, small jugs and cups and one or two lamps scattered around, and parts of large water jars. In some tombs there are clear cup-marks and grave runnels indicating that the Nabataeans either had commemorative services, offerings, or meals.

Some archeologists have deduced that commemorative meals were held during the day, and that at the end of the meal, the dishes were all broken. In one place a stone was found that was used to break a large stack of dishes, still lying among the broken pottery. It is interesting to note that in Jewish law, dishes used in a cemetery were always considered unclean and not usable afterwards.

From examining the pottery, it seems that the Nabataeans produced pottery of inferior quality for the use in cemeteries. From the areas around the tombs, archeologists have determined that funerary meals included olives, dates, fowl, and sheep.

Recently, archeologists digging in the catacombs under Rome have come to the conclusion that in some instances people would gather in the Roman pagan catacombs to hold commemorative meals before the graves of the dead that they were remembering. If this was practised in Rome, would it not be reasonable to assume that it was also practiced in Petra?

One would also assume that in a burial city there would be shops selling dishes, food items, incense, etc. There is evidence that shops were located along the Colonnade Street in the center of Petra. While some feel that these shops are proof of a large urban center, they could equally support the theory of a large religious center.

It is also interesting to notice the huge amounts of broken pottery that are lying around Petra and other religious sites of the Nabataeans. This pottery was produced in three qualities. First and foremost was the finely painted, eggshell thin, high quality pottery found around dwelling places. Second, a good quality pottery, but smaller in size was used in temple worship. Third, lower quality pottery with poorer quality artwork was found around the tombs.

Strabo tells us that, at the turn of the millennium, “The king holds many drinking-bouts, in magnificent style, but no one drinks more than eleven cupfuls, each time using a different golden cup” (XVI.4.26) demonstrating the Nabataean’s flagrant use of many dishes.

The practice of bone collection would explain why the Nabataeans made trips to Petra and the other burial cities. These trips would appear as pilgrimages to us today. People would gather at the burial site to worship in the temples, participate in burial ceremonies, and partake of the memorial meals for the dead. From inscriptions found in and around Petra, it seems that they had two festivals each year to do this.

On these occasions, they would have paid tribute to their own family dead and perhaps to their dead leaders, such as Obodas II. It is unclear if a memorial meal was eaten once, or if people would return each season on pilgrimages to eat or drink at the tombs of their dead relatives. If this is the case, then it is easier to understand how a cult could develop and how eventually a Nabataean leader could be deified.

It is also interesting to note that as far as we know the dead were never buried with their riches or any offerings of any kind, although sometimes women had some jewelry with them.

With the coming of Christianity in the fourth century, the custom of bone collection and meals celebrating the dead was discontinued.

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