Israel: Expert takes a look at mysterious scrolls
Petra sits in the dusty plains of the Middle East, straddling both Jordan and Israel. Today, it is a tourist attraction, with more than a million people heading to its ancient ruins each year. Go back over two thousand years ago and the picture was entirely different: a bustling metropolis that was the heart of the world.
Traders travelling along what would become known as the Silk Road stopped off at Petra, taking in its splendours and learning from its vast array of different and often clashing cultures, but ones that lived together in harmony.
As a result of this melting-pot status, Petra quickly became a political, cultural and economic hub.
The region’s people were known as Nabateans and accumulated masses of wealth, making the neighbouring empires of Greece and Rome green with envy.
The former launched an unsuccessful attack in 312 BC, the first instance of Petra being the target of an aggressive front in history.
Archaeology: The find offered an unprecedented insight into how Petra society worked
Petra: The ancient metropolis is located in the Middle East
While the Nabateans fought back here, later, in 106 AD, they fell to the might of the Roman Empire, which went on to rule over the city for more than 250 years — only leaving after a mammoth earthquake struck the city.
Such a wealth of recorded history has attracted a great number of archaeologists and researchers to Petra, the first to stumble on its ruins being Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt in 1812.
More than a hundred years later, in 1961, a team of archaeologists discovered a mysterious set of documents hidden in southern Israel.
Just like the famous Dead Sea Scrolls, the documents had lain forgotten in a cave for around 2,000 years.
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Ancient history: The Nabateans carved the city’s iconic infrastructure out of the surrounding hills
They were explored during the Smithsonian Channel’s documentary, Sacred sites: Petra’, where the narrator noted: “They [the scrolls] reveal astonishing information about the life of a Nabatean woman called Abi-adan, who lived in the first century AD.”
They showed that she left an orchard of date trees at Maize near the Dead Sea, and the documents are today held by the Israel Antiquities Authority.
Professor Hannah Cotton-Paltiel, of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, is an expert on the scrolls, and noted how the woman appeared to be something of a businesswoman, selling “the same orchard to one person and then to another”.
The first orchard she sold was to a man named Chelaus, a Nabatean strategos, who would have essentially been a provincial governor.
A month later, she sold an enlarged version of the orchard to a man called Shim’on.
Crucially, the documents prove that Abi-adan could read and write, and that her property adjoined the lands of the Nabatean king himself, meaning they would have been in the best-placed area of the city and likely immaculate.
They hint that she just would have been a wealthy and influential woman within the kingdom, as Prof Cotton-Paltiel said: “These are mainly legal documents.
“This is not a diary of a woman.
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Israel: Professor Hannah Cotton-Paltiel has studied the scrolls for years
Nabatea: Abi-adan would have been a wealthy individual with great influence over the kingdom
“But, all the time I feel that behind the documents dictated to scribes there are women who know what they want.
“The sense you get out of the documents is that she was completely independent.”
Professor John Healy from the University of Manchester was keen to highlight the significance of the find on the status of women in ancient Petra.
He said: “It seems that in Nabatea, women could own property, they could transfer property — women had agency in this period.”
Women in other parts of the ancient world would have had nowhere near the same level of equality and privilege.
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But, as the narrator noted, women in Petra appeared to have “extraordinary” status for the time.
By contrast, women in ancient Greece had virtually no political rights of any kind and were controlled by men at nearly every stage of their lives.
The most important duties for a city-dwelling woman were to bear children and to run the household.
In Rome, meanwhile, women were similarly not regarded as equals before the law.
Ancient history: Compared to other parts of the ancient world Petra seemed relatively tolerant
They received only a basic education if they were lucky and had the money, and were subject to being controlled by men, their father before marriage and their husband thereafter.
Turn the clock backwards, however, to ancient Egypt, and things were much better.
Women could have their own businesses, own and sell property, and serve as witnesses in court cases.
And, unlike most women in the Middle East, they were even permitted to be in the company of men, and were allowed to leave bad marriages through divorce and, if they wished, remarry.