The Late Petra Project: an Archaeological Study of Settlement in Post-Urban Petra

Before the start of this project, a commonly held notion was that the Petra valley had been more or less abandoned for the whole Islamic period apart from a short parenthesis during the Crusader period, when the Franks were responsible for an important urban revival of the region (Hammond 1970, 39 followed by Vannini & Vanni Desideri 1995, 513; 515; 538). For this reason, it had often been assumed by scholars that most of the pottery of the later periods should be assigned to the Crusader period in Jordan, that is to say the 12th century AD. In testing this theory, however, I was able to verify that it was mainly based on the longevity of the Islamic-period pottery of the Petra region, and that it was easy to confuse it chronologically with that from the Crusader castle of al-Wu’ayra; among the excavated and stratified assemblages, this is the only one both relatively well dated and limited to a narrow chronology (Pringle 1998, 373–376). However, the problem was that no attempt had ever been made to distinguish between ceramics of the Crusader period and those of the earlier and later periods. In summary, in order to be able to comment on the number, nature and location of Crusader-period sites, it was necessary to create a method of study which allowed the decoding of the development over time of those ceramics. Creating a basic ceramic chronology for the Petra region in the Islamic period has allowed some clarity on the chronology of several sites. In addition, the study has included surveys at a number of sites in the Petra and Shawbak region, in order to identify, through a study of Building Archaeology, typical building techniques of the Crusader period in the region, and either confirm or reject the assigned Crusader chronology of several sites. Finally, a comprehensive study of the documentary sources for Crusader-period Transjordan and a preliminary overview of studies of Islamic-period documentary sources have allowed me to reject the assumption that the Crusader period in Petra consisted of a revival, and to conclude that in fact this time period in Petra and in the whole of Jordan was, instead, characterised by sustained continuity and adaptation to the situation that the Franks found when they arrived. In summary, working from a micro to a macro scale of analysis and making a combined use of all these sources has allowed me to conclude that the Petra valley and region were never completely abandoned, but were instead characterised by a continuity of occupation through the whole Islamic period and that, at this time, Petra became a peripheral but agriculturally prosperous location (Sinibaldi 2014; Sinibaldi 2016a).

Figure 1: The approximate location of the sites researched by the Late Petra Project. Bottom, from left to right: the Jabal Haroun, Tomb 303 in the Wadi ath-Thugrah, the Wadi Farasa, al-Wuʿayra castle and Khirbet an-Nawafla in Wadi Musa. Top right: Islamic Baydha village and the direction to Baʿja village, north of it (Image adapted and reproduced with permission from the 1st edition of Jane Taylor’s Petra, London 1993).


Ceramic chronology and Building Archaeology: methodology and results

Most pottery assemblages from the Islamic period in Petra consist of an average of around 90% of handmade pottery, a group produced in Petra from at least the 10th century and until the 20th century (Sinibaldi 2013a; Sinibaldi 2016b); research has therefore largely focused on this group. In addition to the considerable longevity of many elements of handmade pottery, further, significant difficulty in gaining a chronological orientation arises from the scarcity of ceramic imports in all the Petra assemblages—therefore making it difficult to date pottery by association. The study has involved several stratified ceramic assemblages which, overall, covered a long chronology. The site of Khirbet an-Nawafla in Wadi Musa has provided a long, chronologically uninterrupted sequence of ceramics reflecting not only a continuous occupation of the site during the whole Islamic period, but also rich contexts allowing the observation of associations (Sinibaldi 2013a). Other sites have, instead, provided materials for a shorter chronology, but have been useful for observing associations of ceramic types (Sinibaldi 2009; Sinibaldi 2013b; Sinibaldi 2016b). Moreover, the close observation of well-dated Crusader-period ceramics from al-Wu’ayra has made it possible to distinguish Crusader-period characteristics from those of other periods (Sinibaldi forthcoming). After a detailed analysis of these assemblages, I was able to start detecting variations, through which it has been possible to work out the chronologically diagnostic aspects characterising handmade pottery in the Petra region, within the categories of fabric, manufacture, form, firing and surface treatment. This last category was identified as the one with the richest potential in chronological information. This aspect in turn has been analysed by isolating the following diagnostic elements: percentage of painted as opposed to unpainted; slipping; paint colour; decoration patterns; painting quality. All these elements should be considered together. A prime example of longevity is decoration patterns, which, if considered in isolation from other parameters, can be chronologically very confusing. On this basis, it has been possible to outline a basic model of chronological development for these diagnostic aspects (Sinibaldi 2013a) and to propose a chronology for several sites. While the assemblage from excavations at al-Wu’ayra, was already securely dated to 1127/30–1140 to 1188 (see Pringle 1998, 373–376, who corrected the earlier, incorrect chronology by Hammond, based on a misinterpretation of the documentary sources – see Hammond 1970, 34-35, followed by Vannini & Vanni Desideri 1995, 512), a chronology was still lacking for other sites. However, it has been possible to date the settlement at the site of Wadi Farasa to between the 12th century and the 15th century with some re-use in the 18th–19th century; the use of Tomb 303 to the Mamluk period; and settlement at Baydha includes the 7th century, the 11th–14th centuries, as well as a later phase between the late Mamluk and the Ottoman periods.

This basic ceramic chronology, based on stratified pottery, has therefore also made it possible to advance observations on the chronology of sites where pottery was collected by survey projects. The study of ceramics from intensive surveys conducted by the Finnish Jabal Harun Project team (Sinibaldi 2013a) and the Brown University Petra Archaeological Project (Knodell et al. 2017) has revealed that Islamic-period settlement involved both the Jabal Haroun and vast areas between Petra and Baydha, in particular in the Middle and Late Islamic periods.

Figure 2: A jug from the excavations in the Wadi Farasa. (Illustration: M. Sinibaldi, from Sinibaldi 2014, p. 324).


Building Archaeology at the castles of al-Wuʿayra, Shawbak and al-Habis, structures, securely assigned to the Crusader period, has involved recording building techniques and the phasing of construction and then, on the basis of this information, making a comparison between them and other buildings previously assigned to the Crusader period. Beyond allowing me to record precise observations on the building style of the Crusader period, this has allowed me to either reject or confirm the Crusader chronology hypothesized for some structures and sites, and to combine these results with those obtained from the study on ceramic chronology. This has led to the re-dating of some buildings, formerly considered Crusader primarily on the basis of the assumption that standing fortifications in Petra are likely to belong to the Crusader period. A prime example is the fortified structure at the top of Jabal Maddzbah, which, as a fort built on a strategic position, has long been thought to be Crusader, (an opinion first advanced by Hammond: Hammond 1970, 38, followed by Vannini & Vanni Desideri 1995, 512), but is actually built in a radically different way from the castles of al-Wuʿayra and al-Habis in Petra and of Shawbak, and appears to be of a much earlier chronology. One of the several elements supporting this conclusion is the presence of a specific kind of lime mortar in the well-identified Crusader castles, which is actually missing at this site. In addition, neither the tooling of the stones nor the overall building plan correspond to those known in the Crusader period in the broader area of the Kingdom of Jerusalem. In summary, the potential of Building Archaeology for identifying chronologically diagnostic aspects of building styles, has allowed, in addition to, and in combination with a study of ceramics, a clearer definition of the presence of Crusader-period structures and overall presence in Petra.

Figure 3: Study of building techniques of the Crusader period at al-Wuʿayra castle: masonry tooling in the church (right) and mortar slaistering with herringbone patterns on the northwest tower, looking east (photos: M. Sinibaldi, from Sinibaldi 2014, 321).

Conclusions: settlement in Petra after its urban phase

This study of ceramics and building style has demonstrated the effectiveness of having a detailed knowledge of the material culture and its chronology within a specific area for being able to distinguish between periods; such work has made it possible to conclude for the first time not only that the presence and impact of the Crusader phase in Petra has long been largely overestimated, but also that the Petra valley and region were never abandoned.

The fact that the only relatively well-dated and well-preserved medieval structures in the valley belong to the Crusader period has automatically prompted the assumption that settlement in the valley was absent during other periods. However, the scarcity of other later structures, when compared to the large amount of ceramics of the whole Islamic period, suggests an abundant reuse of the many ruins or caves of the Nabataean and Byzantine periods, which has left very limited traces. I conclude that people still lived in the valley where they probably cultivated small patches of land, although, once the Nabataean hydraulic system ceased to be maintained, it became convenient for many gradually to move out of the valley, to places not very far away where fertile soils and proximity to water started:  areas such as Wadi Musa, Baydha and Taybbe, on the slopes of the Shara mountains.

Here, in the villages, the associated study of rural architecture and ceramics can offer crucial information about settlement in the Islamic period, in particular in Baydha, which, in addition to the only two mosques ever excavated in the area, holds the most significant evidence of settlement for the Islamic period for the entire the Petra region. The Islamic Baydha Project also works with the local communities to carry out research into traditional building techniques of the Petra region, which, like ceramics, are characterised by a great longevity in time.

Figure 4: An aerial image of Islamic Baydha (Robert Bewley/APAAME, 2018 (20181017_RHB-0047).

The landscape of Petra saw uninterrupted settlement through the whole Islamic period, as is clearly documented not only by archaeology, but also by documentary sources. In this context, the Crusader period does not emerge as at all dominant over others; on the contrary, it is the Mamluk period which is now starting to emerge as particularly significant.


The Late Petra Project builds on the results of a PhD thesis carried out at Cardiff University on the history and archaeology of the Crusader-period Lordship of Transjordan. The thesis, a study of Frankish settlement, of its economy and of the relationships of the Franks with the local populations, is based on a comprehensive collection of archaeological data and documentary sources and has a focus on settlement of the Crusader period in the Petra region (Sinibaldi 2014).

The project, funded by several grants and fellowships, has been further supported by the Council for British Research in the Levant as a post-doctoral project, and by other grants. The main fieldwork component of the Late Petra Project is, since 2014, the Islamic Baydha Project, a project of archaeological investigations, archaeological training, conservation and community engagement (see Sinibaldi 2016c; Sinibaldi 2020 and the earlier “Archaeology in Jordan” ACOR report, 2018). The author acknowledges the generous cooperation of numerous projects in Petra, whose directors have made available their ceramic material for her doctoral and post-doctoral programmes. The project has analysed pottery from excavations at the sites of al-Wu’ayra, Wadi Farasa East, Baydha, Tomb 303, the Djinn Blocks in the Bab as-Siq, Khirbet an-Nawaflah, Ba’ja and Jabal Harun as well as surveys at the sites of Baydha and Jabal Harun.

The author is grateful to the numerous funding bodies, the Department of Antiquities of Jordan and the Petra Archaeological Park and their staff for their continuous support and for granting permission to carry out surveys at sites of the Petra and Shawbak regions.


P.C. Hammond (1970) The Crusader fort on El- Habis at Petra. Its survey and interpretation, Salt Lake City: University of Utah Research Monographs 2.

A.R. Knodell, S.E. Alcock, C. Cloke, T. Erickson-Gini, C. Feldman, G. Rollefson, M. Sinibaldi, C. Tuttle, T.M. Urban, C. Vella (2017). The Petra Area and Wadi Silaysil Survey: Regional Survey with the Brown University Petra Archaeological Project, American Journal of Archaeology 121/4: 621–683.

R.D. Pringle (1998). The Churches of the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem: A Corpus, vol. 2, Cambridge: CUP.

Sinibaldi (2009). The Franks in Southern Transjordan and the contribution of Ceramic Studies. A Preliminary Report on the Pottery Assemblages of Baydha and Wadi Farasa, Annual of the Department of Antiquities of Jordan 53: 449–464.

Sinibaldi (2013a). The pottery from the 11th–20th centuries from the FJHP survey. Ceramics, Settlement and Pilgrimage at Jabal Harun during the Late Islamic periods, in P. Kouki & M. Lavento, Petra, the Mountain of Aaron. Vol. III. The Archaeological Survey, Societas Scientiarium Fennica: 168–192.

Sinibaldi (2013b). The Ceramic Assemblage from the Later phases at Tomb 303. Settlement in Wadi Ath-Thugrah in the Islamic Period, Annual of the Department of Antiquities of Jordan 57: 167–178.

Sinibaldi (2014). Settlement in Crusader Transjordan (1100–1189). A Historical and Archaeological Study. PhD thesis, Cardiff University. The thesis has been published Open Access since 2016 by Cardiff University; any use of the PhD thesis contents is to be cited as in the reference above. Link to the online publication:

Sinibaldi (2016a). Settlement in the Petra Region During the Crusader Period: A Summary of the Historical and Archaeological Evidence, in M. Sinibaldi, K. Lewis, J. Thompson & B. Major (eds), Crusader Landscapes in the Medieval Levant. The Archaeology and History of the Latin East, Cardiff: University of Wales Press: 81–102.

M. Sinibaldi (2016b). The ceramics from the later phases of occupation at the monastic site of Jabal Harun, in Z. Fiema, J. Frosen & M. Holappa, Petra, the Mountain of Aaron. Vol. II. The Nabataean Sanctuary And The Byzantine Monastery, Societas Scientiarium Fennica: 202–211.

Sinibaldi (2016c). The Islamic Baydha Project, seasons 2014 and 2015, in G. Corbett et al., Archaeology in Jordan, 2014 and 2015 seasons, American Journal of Archaeology, 120/4: 660.

Sinibaldi (2020). Islamic Baydha Project, seasons 2018 and 2019, in “Archaeology in Jordan”, ACOR newsletter, edited by J. Green, B. Porter & C. B. Shelton: 95–97.

Sinibaldi (forthcoming). The Crusader Period, in J. Haron & D.R. Clark (eds), Pottery of Jordan Manual.

Vannini & A. Vanni Desideri (1995). Archaeological Research on Medieval Petra: a Preliminary Report, Annual of the Department of Antiquities of Jordan, 39: 509–540.

Pour citer cet article : Micaela Sinibaldi, "The Late Petra Project: an Archaeological Study of Settlement in Post-Urban Petra", Les carnets de l’Ifpo. La recherche en train de se faire à l’Institut français du Proche-Orient,, le 28 juin 2021. [En  ligne sur]

Micaela Sinibaldi is a Visiting Professor at the Shanghai International Studies University, a Honorary Research Fellow at Cardiff University and the Director of the Islamic Baydha Project in Petra. With K. Lewis, J. Thompson and B. Major she edited Crusader Landscapes in the Medieval Levant. The Archaeology and History of the Latin East, University of Wales Press (2016).




This blog article is based on a lecture given by the author for the Ifpo’s Webinar « Archaeology of the Middle East and North Africa from Late Antiquity to the Ottoman Period. First Series: Lebanon and Jordan » organized between January and December 2021 by the Ifpo (Julie Bonnéric & Valentina Vezzoli):

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