Press release 6th October 1998

The Finnish Jabal Haroun Project 98

Jaakko Frösén, University of Helsinki
Zbigniew T. Fiema, Dumbarton Oaks


The Finnish Jabal Haroun Project (FJHP) under the direction of Prof. Jaakko Frösén, has recently concluded its first, two-month season of archaeological exploration in the area of Jabal Haroun, a mountain located ca 5 km west of Petra. The primary goal of the project is to investigate the Byzantine and Early Islamic periods in Petra, both being among the most enigmatic and poorly known in this area. The main site of the fieldwork was a ruined architectural complex on the plateau situated ca 70 m below the mountain's summit which is crowned by the Islamic shrine. Additionally, an intensive survey was carried out in the environs of the mountain. Almost 30 scholars and students from the University of Helsinki and the Helsinki University of Technology, participated in the project, also including two scholars from other countries, and two representatives of the Department of Antiquities.

The religious significance attached to the Jabal Haroun mountain derives from the Jewish, Christian and Islamic traditions which consider the top of the mountain to be the burial place of Aaron, brother of Moses. The presence of religious establishment at the mountain are already known from the Nabataean period through the Greek-Jewish historian Flavius Josephus (1st cent. AD) and also from the Byzantine and Arab sources. Furthermore, one of the documents from among the recently discovered Petra carbonized papyri dated to the 6th century AD (inv. 6a), contains a mention of a "House of Our Lord High Priest Aaron", which confirms the veneration of Aaron in the Petra area during the Byzantine period. Recent explorations considered the ruins located below the summit of the mountain to be a Byzantine monastery which contained a chapel.

The entire site of the monastery, ca 75 x 45 m, was intensively surveyed and mapped. Four excavation trenches were opened which revealed extensive occupation of the site, dated from the Nabataean through the Islamic period, with the Byzantine period being architecturally the best represented. Half of the apse of the aforementioned chapel was fully excavated, revealing at least three major periods of occupation. The center of the apse was occupied by a masonry pedestal, probably for an altar, which was empty inside, thus probably used as a repository of liturgical accessories or relics. An important epigrapic find from the apse area was a fragment of the edge of marble orthostat containing well-engraved four Greek letters which read ]ARVN (in Greek), most probably the name of Aaron, at the end of the line. The major discovery were the remains of a large tripartite mono-apsidal basilica, being ca 24.2 x 14.2 m, located directly south of the chapel. The outline of a half of the central apse of this church has been exposed in one trench. The other trench has revealed the westernmost portion of the south aisle of that church, with a secondary south-north wall dividing the church area in the middle into two equal parts. At least two major occupational phases represented by the floor levels could be distinguished in the exposed part of the aisle.

The archaeological survey of the environs of the mountain concentrated on its western side, including the Wadi al-Ruba'i, a major water catchment area there. Numerous agricultural and water-management related installations, such as barrages, slope terraces, dams, and channels, as well as threshing floors, lime kilns, and probable burials and simple dwellings were all fully recorded. The collected lithic material indicates human presence in the area as early as during the Upper Palaeolithic, but the ceramics were overwhelmingly from the Nabataean and Byzantine periods. Simultaneously, a detailed cartographic study of the mountain and its environs was conducted in way to improve the three-dimensional model of the mountain which has already been developed by the FJHP. For this purpose the latest techniques in cartography were employed including the tachymetry, the digital recording, and the photogrammetry.

Even before the information coming from the 1998 season is fully studied and interpreted, it is apparent that the excavated site should represent a Byzantine monastic establishment in connection with a major pilgrimage center, both related to the veneration of Aaron. At the same time, the survey results attest to a long-lasting, intensive agricultural land-use, enhanced by extensive rainwater catching and management structures. There is little doubt that the Jabal Haroun area remained one of the major food supply areas for Petra during the Nabataean and Byzantine periods.

Updated 9th October 1998 - Authors