Petra's Great Temple: The Great Temple - Archaeology Magazine Archive

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The Great Temple "Petra's Great Temple"
Summer 2000


Bird's-eye view of the Great Temple (Artie Joukowsky)

In the last quarter of the first century B.C., construction of the Great Temple began in earnest (see plan), perhaps executed by trained craftsmen from Alexandria. The Lower Temenos (temple enclosure) with its beautiful hexagonal pavement was built, flanked by a grand triple colonnade capped with carved elephant heads. The Temple was covered in colorful plaster and a system of channels carried water through the site.

King Aretas IV--responsible for a great number of construction projects in the first half of the first century A.D.--may have overseen a remodeling of the Great Temple. He created the Upper Temenos level and changed access patterns: staircases were blocked and walls were built between columns. (If you're excavating a column imbedded in a stone wall and find that traces of plaster are evident all the way around the column rather than just on the visible face, you can infer that the wall was a later addition.) In the middle of this colonnaded temple, a Theatron was built to seat 600 people, with sight lines clear down to the colonnaded street below.

The Great Temple underwent further reconfiguration in the first centuries A.D., including the construction of the Propylaeum (main gate), which may have linked the Lower Temenos to the colonnaded street. An earthquake in 363 brought a major collapse, after which the Byzantines removed architectural materials from the Temple for reuse on- or off-site. The Temple itself was used for industrial and domestic activity during this time. In the modern period, Bedouin farmers including the grandfather of our own site foreman tilled the soil overlying the Lower Temenos.

Was the Great Temple A Great Temple at All?


An inscription that may refer to the Great Temple was found at this Byzantine Church.

Across the colonnaded walk from the Great Temple, on a hill offering an unbeatable view of the site, is a Byzantine Church with a whimsical mosaic floor. There, archaeologists from the American Center for Oriental Research (ACOR) discovered an inscription that may allude to the Great Temple down the hill. It proclaims the command of King Aretas IV that a temple to Dushara, the principal Nabataean deity, be built incorporating a theater. Perhaps that order initiated the addition of the Theatron to the Great Temple; a rededication to Dushara might have followed. Still, little that can be conclusively attributed to cult activity has been found. Where else do a colonnade and a theatron coexist in a temple? Perhaps, some archaeologists have posited, this was not a temple at all, but rather a government or administrative center. Although we may never know for sure, continued excavation and artifact analysis may open new windows.

Reconstruction in Action


Plaster is reapplied and columns reassembled to give the Temple a facelift.


As archaeologists uncover more of the Great Temple day by day, those areas already exposed are given a face lift: shored up for safety and preservation, plastered over in spots to capture the colorful effect the ancient architects intended, and re-assembled to illustrate the former glory of toppled colonnades, stairs, and walls. Informed guesses guided the height of reconstructed columns until the paved court revealed a uniform pattern of dents where the falling columns landed--guesstimates had been almost exactly accurate.

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© 2000 by the Archaeological Institute of America