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 "Deir" ("Monastery")

The Treasury is easy to reach, but Petra's second great monument, the "Deir" or "Monastery" (so called because it was used as a chapel in the Byzantine period) requires an uphill walk of about an hour, much of it on steps carved into the rock. To judge from the cult niches en route, these steps belonged to a Nabataean processional way, a via sacra. At first, as the Deir comes into sight, the similarity to the Treasury is striking, especially in the upper portion: it has the broken pediment , the tholos , and the urn on top. On a closer look, however, differences emerge. In the lower part of the "Treasury" you can walk around the pillars, but the Deir's are engaged in the wall, making it seem flatter. The designs in the Deir lack the delicate grace of those in the Treasury, and there are no figures - no Tyche or Dioscuri.

Capitals comparedGiven the absence of figures, one might suppose that the Deir is older, on the theory that the Nabataeans started out with simple forms, bare stelae for example, and that later, influenced by the Hellenistic world, they added figures to their repertoire. It is not quite so. There may indeed have been a period of simple forms at Petra, extending from the 3d century BC until the 1st. But according to McKenzie's dating, when the façades and monuments appear at Petra they do so with the full Hellenistic fittings, figures and all. After this initial absorption, the simpler forms reassert themselves. She writes (p. 117): "It is possible that the fine decoration on the early monuments, such as the Khasneh [Treasury], was done by imported craftsmen from Alexandria who trained Nabataean labour to do the blocking out. The Nabataeans then preferred the blocked out form as the finished form on their later monuments, such as the Deir." McKenzie dates the Deir to the latter half of the first century AD.

The Deir may have had figures, however: the niches, which resemble blocked windows, seem designed to hold statues. As ever in Petra, enigma prevails.

Both the Treasury and the Deir are about 120 feet high, but the Deir is 150 feet wide compared to the Treasury's 90. You can get an idea of its size from the photo on the left, showing one corner.

What was the function of this immense rock carving high above the city? It does not seem to have been a tomb: there are no burial chambers inside. This lack makes sense. An inscription chiseled above a niche near the Deir asks people to remember one Ubaydu "and his associates of the symposium of Obodat the god." The grave of the king-god Obodat or Obodas was not in Petra: a historian named Uranios (century unknown) wrote that the city of Oboda (Avdat) in the Negev was the place "where King Obodas, whom they deified, is buried." The Deir was the place in Petra where Obodas' symposium met, held a banquet and worshipped him, but his grave was in Avdat.

Obodas the God

The name Obodas belonged to three Nabataean kings. Whoever was the one to be deified, he was apparently the only Nabataean king to receive this honor and the only Nabataean divinity to have a personal name. He appears as a god in several inscriptions, some of which mention of statues of him. (If the niches of the Deir contained statues, his was probably among them.) After the Romans annexed the Nabataean kingdom in 106 AD, Obodas' name was combined with that of Zeus. Avdat has a well-preserved Roman building over whose door is a dedication to Zeus Obodas.

Which of the three Obodases became a god?

At first glance, the most likely candidate is Obodas III, who reigned from 30 – 9 BC.  Before his time, the future Avdat was a mere camel station, not a fit place for a royal grave. At his death, however, it was probably a city, for his successor, Aretas IV, extended it with an artificial platform and furnished it with a temple.

Obadas III was "an inactive and slothful man in his nature…" according to Josephus . It does seem, indeed, that he left a great deal of diplomatic work to his clever, scheming, ambitious advisor Syllaeus (for whom Herod's sister Salome conceived a fruitless passion). Around the time when this Obadas started his reign, Augustus became emperor in Rome. About seven years later, casting his eye on the spice trade from Arabia, Augustus dispatched an army. Obadas III and Syllaeus had little inclination to give up the Nabataean monopoly, but they did not want to collide head on with the powerful emperor. They pretended to cooperate. Syllaeus undertook the delicate task of guiding the Romans toward the incense groves in southern Arabia while sapping their strength in the desert. He succeeded, and those Romans who survived went home. 

The contact with Augustus bears on the question of deification. Augustus allowed the provincials to worship him as a god. Herod built temples to him, for example, in Caesarea Maritima, Sebastia and Banias. In fact, there were plenty of precedents: Alexander the Great had been deified in Egypt and Asia during his lifetime, and later the Ptolemies (chief trading partners of the Nabataeans) had been deified post mortem. But the deification of Obodas III would have made a political statement. Unlike Herod and other client kings of Rome, Obadas III was formally independent. One way to affirm this independence would have been to claim an equal footing with Augustus.  

On a closer look, however, another good candidate arises: Obodas I (ca. 96-85 BC).
Josephus tells us that he defeated the most ruthless of the Hasmonean kings, Alexander Jannaeus. The latter had conquered much of the area between Petra and Damascus. Obodas I vanquished him near the Golan Heights, massing his camels to drive the Hasmonean army into a deep gorge (Jannaeus barely escaped). The victory expanded Nabataean power to such an extent that the Seleucid king of Syria, Antiochus XII, felt threatened. He marched southward in 88-87 BC. Near Jaffa he crossed a trench that the Hasmoneans had dug to stop him, but then, writes Josephus , he veered off to fight the Nabataeans instead. Their army was probably nearby. They pretended to retreat, drawing Antiochus into an area they found conducive. This may have been the Negev. In the battle that followed, Antiochus was killed. Since Obodas' reign comes to an end at this time, It seems that he too was killed. If these things happened in the Negev, as appears likely, then his soldiers might have buried him at the nearest camel station, which would have taken his name. (Petra was not yet established as the burial place of Nabataean kings.) His victories, which rescued and enriched the Nabataeans as a people, followed by his untimely death, may have led them to recognize him as a god.  

If the Deir was a temple to Obodas I, how do we explain the gap between his death in 87 BC and its carving more than a century later? It is possible that the "Treasury" was the first temple to Obodas. On this theory, the Treasury gradually attracted other traditions as well, leading a group of Obodan purists to commission the Deir up away from the hurly burly; they ordered that it be carved along the general lines of the Treasury below.  

The only other KIng Obadas, the Second, came to power in old age and ruled very briefly (62-59 BC), leaving a few coins with his image.

Whichever Obodas was the god, the Nabataeans appear to have taken his deification quite seriously. The symposium mentioned in the inscription near the Deir would have met regularly to feast and perform ceremonies. There is an area that seems to have been set aside for this: a large oval of stones in front of the "Deir" at a slight remove. Beyond that are benches carved in the rock for the congregation.