The Petra Hinterland Social Landscapes Project. Launch of First Season in 2022

By Will M. Kennedy

After some considerable delay due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the first field season of the Petra Hinterland Social Landscapes Project (PHSLP) was finally realized in June/ July 2022. 

It is assumed that Nabataean Petra was greatly impacted by a social structure that was rooted in family, clan or tribal traditions. While such socio-political aspects of Nabataean culture have already been extensively explored in urban Petra, investigations of similar aspects in the city’s hinterland are only beginning to gain wider scholarly attention.

However, important archaeological sites may be identified in the Petraean hinterland as possible archaeological markers of distinct social landscapes in Petra’s surroundings. These include specific cultic sites such as rural sanctuaries or isolated cultic installations, funerary monuments as well as possible rural Nabataean mansions. The identification and analysis of these sites, however, has so far been based almost entirely on very preliminary survey results.

Therefore, the PHSLP seeks to correct the record by providing detailed archaeological data of selected hinterland sites through building historical and archaeological work. Aiming at revising our understanding of the socio-political makeup of Petra’s hinterland, the first site to be studied by the PHSLP was investigated this summer during the first season in 2022.

Known locally as Sahir al-Begh’er, the site is located immediately west of the Nabataean-Roman settlement of Ras Slaysil, about 6 km northwest of Petra, after an extremely steep, 450 m drop along rugged cliffs. 

Figure 1. Team members of the PHSLP beginning the difficult descent to the site of Sahir al-Begh’er. Photograph: W. M. Kennedy.

After a difficult descent along ancient pathways (Fig. 1), the monumental Nabataean structure, referred to in scholarly circles mostly as the so-called “Pond Temple” (as it features well-drafted ashlars and numerous architectural members as well as a probable heated bath system), lies at the very bottom (Figs. 2 and 3). 

Although the area is generally characterized by the rugged, arid terrain of the steep descent (Fig. 3), the site below suddenly reveals an oasis-like micro-environment that is fed by a large pond (Fig. 4).

Figure 4. Panorama views of Sahir al-Begh’er showing the extent of the site with its unique environmental context.  Above: View to the north with the main structures along the northern slope. Photo: A. C. Walther. Below: View to the east with the rivulet and rich vegetation in the centre. Photo: R. A. Eser.

This pond receives fresh water from numerous natural basins further above, but fresh water can also be tapped at the site below from acquifers close to the surface along the bedrock cliff (Fig. 5). 

Figure 5. Temporary camp-site sink provided with fresh water tapped at the site from acquifers close to the surface along the bedrock cliff. Photo: W. M. Kennedy.

Together with the natural outlet of the pond forming a small rivulet that winds along numerous large boulders, this allows the unique vegetation at the site to flourish that includes numerous trees, shrubs and other plants. This also attracts many various insects and animals including frogs, crabs, various forms of dragonflies, birds as well as the occasional snake. Therefore, once down at Sahir al-Begh’er, one no longer has the impression to be surrounded by rough, inaccessibly steep cliffs of rugged stone with no access to water. Instead, one finds oneself immersed in an oasis that is reminiscent of a small river landscape. 

Nevertheless, the extremely remote location and difficult accessibility of the site cannot be overestimated. This set significant organizational and logistical challenges since the project’s beginning as a daily commute between the more immediate Petra area and the site is too strenuous and time consuming. 

There was no electricity or internet/ mobile phone connection available and PHLSP team members camped on-site in simple tents during the work week (= 5 days) (Figs. 6 and 7). 

With no infrastructure available, all necessary office/ computer work etc. had to be conducted during the weekends, when the team sojourned in a rented apartment in the Bedouin village of Umm Sayhoun, Petra. 

Despite all these challenges, the small survey team of the PHSLP 2022 season managed to document a large number of structural and architectural features and to gain significant overall new results (Fig. 8). 

Figure 8. PHSLP team members documenting the architectural remains at Sahir al-Begh’er.  Photo: W. M. Kennedy.

Importantly, all daily needs on-site were provided by two local Bedouin guides – Mr. Suleiman Mohammed al-B’dool and Mr. Mousa Haroun al-B’dool – who also camped with the team at Sahir al-Begh’er (Fig. 9).

Figure 9. All team members of the first PHSLP season in 2022 at Sahir al-Begh’er.  Photo: M. Haroun al-B’dool.

The PHSLP owes them its greatest gratitude for this invaluable help and assistance without which the project would certainly not have been possible. We cannot thank them enough as they truly allowed us to achieve all immediate aims of the PHSLP 2022 season: 

By means of non-invasive survey methods and according to modern building historical and archaeological standards, the project was able to document numerous structural units at Sahir al-Begh’er (opposed to one single building as previously assumed) and architectural blocks. 

All structural units were tachymetrically measured resulting in a new site plan and 3D photogrammetrical models were created from the site as well. These results will be published shortly.

Importantly, the re-evaluation of the site has allowed to convincingly propose an alternative interpretation of Sahir al-Begh’er. Instead of identifying the site as a Nabataean temple, the dispersed structural units (including a bathing/ heating complex, a possible monumental “pavilion” with access to a small pond outlet) considered in their environmental context – an oasis-like, small river landscape dominated by substantial vegetation and a series of small freshwater ponds – point more to an overall non-cultic use that, arguably, ultimately served the luxury needs of the local rural elite in Nabataean-Roman times. In order to further substantiate these results, however, additional work is necessary for future seasons of the PHSLP.

The PHSLP 2022 season was kindly funded by the German Society for the Exploration of Palestine and the Palestine Exploration Fund.

We kindly thank the Department of Antiquities of Jordan for granting the working permit, as well as the Petra Park Authority and Petra Development & Tourism Region Authority for the logistic support. Stephan G. Schmid (Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin) kindly offered the project tools and materials, which is greatly appreciated.

The following persons participated in the 2022 season of the PHSLP: as project director Dr. Will M. Kennedy (Athens); as archaeologists Dr. des. Raphael A. Eser, Angelika C. Walther, M.A. and Anna Bechtle, B.A. (all Berlin). The representative of the Department of Antiquities was Mr. Mohammed al-Qaisi. 

Finally, to emphasize once more: Without the huge efforts and willingness of Suleiman Mohammed al-B’dool, Mousa Haroun al-B’dool, Aziza Suleiman al-B’dool, Ali Mudlik al-B’dool and Rizek al-B’dool, the PHSLP would not have been possible. Shukran gazilan.