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The monumental theater at the end of the Street of Facades’ necropolis gives the visitor an overwhelming proof that Petra was also a true "city of the living". Thousands of people used to gather here to attend cultic or cultural performances. Hewn directly from the rock of the Jabal al-Madhbah, the theater’s semicircular auditorium (cavea) could seat up to eight thousand spectators.
Stonemasons’ marks on column drums uncovered by Philip C. Hammond during his excavations led him to date its construction to the early first century AD, when Petra witnessed an architectural boom under the Nabataean King Aretas IV. After the Roman annexation in 106 AD, the theater was enlarged slicing trough some older tombs, remains of which can be seen on the smoothed rock face in the back.
The theater faces east. Its cavea has about forty-five seat rows divided in three horizontal galleries separated by a semicircular walkway or praecinctio, and accessed through seven radial stairways (scalaria). Social rank dictated the seating order, being the ima cavea, the lowest tier close to the scene reserved for the distinguished audience. The media cavea was for respectable citizens, whereas the summa cavea, the highest rows, for the lowest classes. The semicircular orchestra between seatings and stage, usually for the chorus in dramatic plays, was also hewn out of the rock and had a hard mortar floor.
The scaenae or stage building was built of ashlar and faced with marble. The three stage entrances can be seen on the partially reconstructed structure. The center curved "royal" door or valva regia, reserved for royalty or for the main actor, is flanked by two smaller "guest" doors, the porta hospitalis. The scaenae frons, the architectural background, was typically ornamented with one to three tiers of columns, balconies, and sculptures. Fragments of statues of Aphrodite, Hermes and Heracles that used to be placed during Roman times, were unearthed during excavations.
Two barrel-vaulted entrances on either side under the seating area are connected to an efficient network of passageways and exits for the audience.
Although the structure largely follows the model described by Vitruvius for the construction of Roman theatres, its rock-cut cavea, masonry technique, and rainwater drainage system still visible along the praecinctio and the upper gallery, are definitely Nabataean (Philip C. Hammond.)
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