Petra PDF Print E-mail
Written by Stephen Langfur
Article Index
The Siq
The "Treasury"
"Qasr al-Bint"
Civic Center
"Deir" ("Monastery")
High Place

The Civic Center

The alignment of Petra's main street shifts direction at one point. Qasr al-Bint, its temenos and the Temple of the Winged Lions are all on one axis. The so-called Great Temple, the Garden, the Pool and the Colonnaded Street are on a slightly different line. At the point where the axes met was a gate (the Temenos Gate), so angled as to minimize the feeling of a change at ground level.

We can understand the shift if we recall a few things. Of all these buildings, Qasr al-Bint came first. It was positioned parallel to the scarp on its west and faced the point where Wadi Musa left the city, entering the mountains. Qasr al-Bint marked the end of Wadi Musa, just as the Treasury marked its inner-city beginning. These two were contemporaries, fashioned (if we follow McKenzie's logic based on inscriptions at Hegra) by the same masons in the 1st century BC. Between the two were the Temple of the Winged Lions, the "Baths" (perhaps part of a palace), and Petra's first well-built houses, containing sandstone walls and stone floors. These replaced the rough dwellings of uncut limestone that had been here since the third century BC.

It was King Aretas IV (9 BC - 40 AD) who, early in his reign , conceived the plan that included the "Great Temple," the pool and the garden. If you enlarge the map on the left, you will see that they form a unit. The "Temple's" lower platform was built on walls and arches to match the level of the garden, and there was ready access between them through the (eastern) colonnade. The portico wall spans both. Aretas wanted the complex to front on a grand street. The course of the street was determined by its glorious end points: the Treasury and Qasr al-Bint, as seen in the map above. The course, in other words, was determined by the bed of Wadi Musa, whose water was channeled and whose flash floods were tamed by numerous dams. 

The "Great Temple"

The "Great Temple" was indeed great, but what was it? No one knows. The archaeologists of Brown University, who have been digging it out of a heap of rubble since 1993, found cultic objects (two stelae, a horned altar, a figure incised in stone, a head of Tyche), but these are so tiny compared to the size of the whole, and were found in such odd corners, that they do not seem directly related to its main function. One would expect an altar. One would expect dedicatory inscriptions (but see below for one possibility). To those who gave the structure its present name, its form resembled that of a Hellenistic temple with a colonnade surrounding a cella , but the Brown excavations later revealed "that the columns stand inside the building" (Taylor , p. 109). Such an arrangement is typical not of a temple, rather of the secular, royal audience halls that the Greeks called basilicas.

A hint of such use may be found in Strabo (Geography, Book XVI, Chapter 4, Pars. 21 and 26):

The [Nabataean] king is so democratic that, in addition to serving himself, he sometimes even serves the rest himself in his turn. He often renders an account of his kingship in the popular assembly; and sometimes his mode of life is examined. 

Around 106 AD, when Rome annexed the Nabataean kingdom, the cella was transformed into a theater. Where once (if it ever was a temple) stood the image of a god, now sat 640 Nabataeans! A god, one would think, might resent being thus displaced. However, if the structure had originally functioned not as a temple, rather as the audience hall of King Aretas IV, the transformation into a theater makes sense. For, in keeping with Roman policy, Petra no longer had a king. Instead, it had a municipal and regional council.


We know that Petra had a council around this time. An ancient, well-preserved legal document, one of 35 belonging to a Jewish woman named Babatha , tells us so. We find no other building in Petra that would have been suitable for a council.

We cannot entirely rule out the possibility, however, that the structure might have been a temple. Martha Sharp Joukowsky and Joseph J. Basile cite Arthur Segal , who finds small sacred or ritual theaters at several places in Roman Palestine and Provincia Arabia. Like the theater in the upper building, these are often too small to seat a large city audience; they lack stage buildings; and they command a good view. Moreover, in the Petra church, whose builders used decorative pieces from the "Great Temple" and other monuments, fragments of an inscription were found:

[This is the...,] which Halpa'la, [son of...,] made, and these are the theatron to Dushara {and the ...}, in the month Tebet in the year eleven of Haretat (Aretas), king of the Nabataeans, who loved his people.

If the words "theatron to Dushara" refer to the small theater in our edifice, then the cella was transformed into a ritual theater dedicated to the same god. No blasphemy. But the inscription gives a date. The eleventh year of Aretas IV (often said to "love his people") would have been 2 or 3 AD, whereas the small theater is usually dated later.

If the "Great Temple" was a temple nonetheless, what was its relation to Qasr al-Bint? We should recall the brand new Herodian temple in Jerusalem, the largest building ever built at a single go; it featured a huge lower platform for the hundreds of thousands who visited during pilgrimage festivals. Aretas IV was influenced by Herod's architecture in a major way. (We shall see this in the adjoining pool.) Although the design of the "Great Temple" more closely resembles that of Herod's Temples to Augustus in Caesarea Maritima and Sebastia, the idea of a huge platform for the people may have come from the one in Jerusalem. The temenos of the Qasr al-Bint could not accommodate a crowd, whereas the lower platform of the new temple could. Also, Qasr al-Bint may have been built many decades before the new temple. In that case, the population would have grown, necessitating a larger temenos. 

A temple, then, after all? We must leave the question undecided.

david-bjorgen-elephant-deta.jpgThe whole structure was covered with stucco and brightly painted in red and yellow. The lower platform included something uniquely Nabataean. The Ionic capitals of its 120 columns had elephant heads instead of the usual volutes . "Sculpted from limestone and covered with a light plaster film," writes Joukowsky , "their wrinkled skins, their provocative eyes, their small well-defined veined ears, their tusk openings (no tusks have been recovered), and their curving trunks are remarkable in that each elephant face has a character, a personality of its own. Some elephants appear to be pacific while others reflect anger or anxiety; some appear to be more feminine while others are more 'macho' and larger in appearnce - their poses are often remarkable in their expression." 

The elephants on these columns were of the Asian sort, such as the Persians had used against Alexander the Great in 331 BC. The Seleucids later used them against the Ptolemies at Banias (Paneas), and the Ptolemies went into a panic . Having taken over the Holy Land, the Seleucids later used elephants against the Maccabees. Meanwhile, the Ptolemies of Egypt were so impressed that they began importing and training elephants from southern Africa. This led to the development of harbors on the east African coast that later competed with Petra.

Pool and Garden

It is always a surprise to find a spring when hiking in the desert. At Petra the Nabataeans exploited this effect. They had a big swimming pool and a garden. They could make the city dance with water. Strabo heard about this from his friend Athenodorus, who stayed in Petra in the late first century BC: "Within there are abundant springs of water both for domestic purposes and for watering gardens." (Book XVI, Chapter 4, Par. 21.)

Most of the water came from seven springs, of which 'Ain Musa was the chief. Channeled through the Siq, it supplied not only basic needs but also water for the Nymphaeum , the pool and the garden. The supply could be supplemented when necessary by a large reservoir called Zurraba. Located just east of the Siq, Zurraba collected runoff. This flowed five miles in a pipeline around the mountain called al-Khubta, cascading down a 60-foot-high chute to fill cisterns by the Royal Tombs. Any overflow went to the nymphaeum, the garden, the swimming pool and the "Great Temple," which contained an intricate underground system of canals. (Enlarge the map, which is based on an article by Charles R. Ortloff .)

Zurraba was not alone. As the map indicates, dozens of dams and cisterns have been found in the hills around Petra.

herodiumwithlowerpooltb0214.jpgWhen King Aretas IV built the "Great Temple," his concept included a large swimming pool and a garden beside it. (The "temple" and the pool share the same style of masonry in the first phase of their construction.) He had models. The Hasmoneans   had built recreational swimming pools surrounded by gardens in the desert beside Jericho, channeling water from Wadi Qilt. When Herod built his Winter Palace there, he included a pool measuring 90 by 42 meters! But the model that seems to have been foremost in Aretas' mind was Herod's pool at Herodium on the edge of the desert near Bethlehem . Water was channeled in from "Solomon's Pools," a reservoir. The Herodium pool also had an island pavilion (circular, though), as well as surrounding gardens and colonnades.

The relations between the Nabataeans and Herod (whose mother was Nabataean) were chequered. Around 31 BC they erupted briefly in war. The first five years of Aretas' reign (9-4 BC) were the last five of Herod's life, and the new king must have been impressed by the architectural wonders that the old man had accomplished. With the exception of Jerusalem, all of Herod's many palaces had swimming pools and gardens. Such projects spelled majesty and power. Given Nabataean wealth and the general peace, Aretas poured his energies into achieving similar things. 

Where the pool was concerned, he didn't have the space to out-Herod Herod, but he ordered his laborers (the Nabataeans, according to Strabo, had few slaves) to perform a special feat. Beside the planned "Great Temple" or "Royal Hall" rose a hill of rock. They chiseled the pool into this, leaving escarpments 55 feet high on the southeast corner. These form the deep shadow in the map below.   


Anyone acquainted with the desert heat can imagine how cruel it must have been, on the part of a king, to restrict the use of a pool to the royal entourage. Perhaps a nymphaeum already existed to spray all comers. Or perhaps Aretas was generous with his pool. The inscriptions describe him as he "who loves his people."

Love played no great role in the family relations between Aretas and the Herodian line. His daughter married Herod's son Herod Antipas . At some point in the 20's AD, Antipas fell in love with Herodias, the wife of his half-brother Philip. He divorced the Nabataean woman, much to her father's rage, and married Herodias. John the Baptist pronounced the marriage illegal. Antipas imprisoned John, and at the request of Herodias' daughter had him beheaded.

Aretas' domain extended, at one time, all the way to Damascus, as we hear from the Apostle Paul:  "In Damascus the governor under King Aretas guarded the city of the Damascenes desiring to arrest me. Through a window I was let down in a basket by the wall and escaped his hands." (2nd Corinthians 11: 32-33.)  

The Theater

Herod was the first to build theaters in the land. Aretas IV had these before his eyes as well - for example, the one at Caesarea Maritima, whose cavea was carved into a ridge.  Petra's theater is difficult to date, but on the basis of the masons' marks on the segments of its pillars, scholars put it in Aretas' reign. His workers carved it out of the rock face at a place where the towering cliffs on the East, West and South would shield the spectators' eyes from the sun. To maximize the acoustics, they followed the instructions of Vitruvius . It is thought that 3000 people (in a city of about 30,000) could have watched a show. There are three tiers of seats. The topmost is more roughly cut than the others, leading some to think that it may have been added later. What is more, it interferes with some tombs. The descendants of the interred, who were slated to join their ancestors there, may not have been happy about this. One can imagine the discussions in the royal audience hall or city council (depending on the date), when the idea of expanding the theatre was broached. 

The theatre would have been vulnerable to runoff from the mountain into which it was carved. The designers installed an elaborate underground drainage system to keep the orchestra from flooding.