arc Brown University Petra Excavations elephant elephant
  arc The Great Temple elephant elephant
  The Great Temple is now recognized to have been one of the main buildings of the ancient city of Petra. It seems probable that the ancient Nabataeans wished to compete with other city centers in the embellishment of their city. The building of a sacred precinct on the southern citadel hill of Petra was the result of that conscious choice. The intentional placement of the Great Temple on one of the highest points of the site while adapting it to the prevailing east-west topography of the valley and traffic of the city ensured its prominence and importance. The Great Temple stands approximately 25 meters (75 feet) above the Colonnaded Street. It occupied a visible focal point of the inner city and must have left the maximum visual impression on those who viewed it and worshipped in it.

The half-excavated theatre, 1997

The temple is situated on the upper terrace or Upper Temenos of the Temple Precinct at approximately 884.40 m above sea level. It is oriented along a north-south axis with its facade facing north. The Upper Temenos was connected to the city below by a monumental staircase, the Propylaea Steps, which led from the Colonnaded Street to the Lower Temenos which in turn accessed the Upper Temenos by east and west stairways. The Lower Temenos is located at an average elevation of 878.50 m — a differential of some six meters exists between it and the Upper Temenos at 884.41 m.

The Great Temple had a tetrastyle facade (four columns in the front) built above a low podium. The columns on the Temple facade had undergone severe weathering. In 1996 we removed their eroded drums and replaced them with column drums that now stand to average heights of 2.40 m (or 7 feet) above the level of the Temple Stylobate.

A close-up of the theatre seats and the access stairway, 1997

The physical dimensions of the Great Temple are impressive. The structure measures 28 meters (84 feet) east-west, and it is some 42 meters (128 feet) in length. The sandstone porch columns measure 1.5 meters (4.5 feet) in diameter. The porch columns originally measured approximately 15 meters (45 feet) in height — if we add to these dimensions to the as yet undiscovered architrave, the structure would have stood some 19 meters (57 feet) in height. The two eastern columns of the facade oscillated eastwards and collapsed in a northeastern direction and are still in place. The drums were all measured and the height of the temple is based on their measurements. All of the temple columns were set on finely carved white limestone attic bases. The sandstone column shafts were stuccoed in red and white which must have had a dramatic visual impact when set against Petra's rose-red environment.

Double-engaged column (Suleiman column) before restoration at the temple rear with east interior staircase, 1997

The shape and height of the architrave and cornice have presented a serious problem for our reconstruction of the facade and our understanding of the facade and the roof shape. The central Porch columns are widely-spaced (their central interaxial dimensions are seven meters or 21 feet) and the two end columns are located approximately five meters (15 feet) to the east and west respectively. Beyond these end columns at approximately another four-and-a-half meters would have stood the structure's anta or end walls. But of these walls, no traces remain excepting their position which is marked on the surface of the Stylobate blocks.

The deep pronaos of the structure measures 6.5 meters (19.5 feet) in depth and is approximately 25 meters (75 feet) in width. At the entrance to the main room from the pronaos are two columns which have the same diameter of 1.50 meters (4.5 feet) as the porch columns.

The west corridor, 1997

It is here, in the structure's center, that the most impressive discovery was made. Trench 40, measuring 9.8-by-6 m, was located to the west of the Lee Column and extended to the center of the structure - which before excavation we thought to be the rear wall of the curvilinear cella. One-half of an apsidal structure with tiers of seating was discovered, which we tentatively identified to be a small Nabataean structure in the form of a theatron (from the Greek, meaning "a place of seeing"). Facing north, were five extant courses of seats in the cavea (where the seats were placed) with two six-step stairways (scalaria) above a 1.5 m high plastered apsidal wall. The lowest tier was a paved walkway on top of the cavea wall measuring 1.5 m in width and set with alternating white and dark red sandstone pavers.

The west corridor, with arch giving access to the 'adyton', 1997

The projected preserved diameter of the orchestra is approximately 6.4 m. The floor of the orchestra is paved with rectilinear sandstones longitudinally placed, north-south, and perpendicular to the center of the cavea. These were set in place after the cavea was constructed. A line of red pavers led us to speculate that originally this floor may have had a variegated patterned design. Unfortunately, the damage to it is appreciable - perhaps in our future excavations of the remaining part of the structure the floor design may become better delineated.

The cavea seats average 0.40 m in height and 0.55 m in depth. The second to fifth tiers are of white sandstone ashlars which are divided into four wedge-shaped sections (cunei) which are bordered by three staircases - one in the center and two on either side. Although the collapse of the West Colonnade scarred this structure, further evidence for the seating can be found to continue up to the east and west platforms to the rear of the cavea.

The Neil, Joe, and Chet columns in Trench 34, East Temple Corridor, 1997

Of note is that some of the blocks in the seating area are ashlars that are channeled - their tops and facing surfaces have been chiseled out to produce narrow, 0.02 m deep rectilinear channel-like slots. We reason that these may have served as the socles for arm rests or dividers. When studied we hypothesized they may have delineated single and double seats. (Massive collapse also has been evidenced by the channeled ashlars found in the debris that fell into the West 'Adyton' Staircase and the West 'Adyton' Room.)

We projected that there may have been as many as 13 original courses of seats, and estimate the seating capacity of this structure to be a minimum of 560 persons, if not 620.

In the east balk of the orchestra is a collapsed stone feature of four ashlars that has yet to be excavated. This may have served as a platform, or perhaps even an altar - future excavation will clarify the function of this feature.

The theatre does not occupy the full width of the podium, for it is flanked on its east and west sides by monumental antae (pilasters with squared ends), with an additional eight columns adorned with delicately-carved Corinthian capitals. There are also six columns in the rear of the structure which have heart-shaped engaged corner columns. Between the columns and the temple outer walls is a broad corridor. And around the exterior of the structure is a walkway.

The central arch in the 'Adyton' of the Great Temple, 1997

Classically elegant limestone capitals adorned the structure. These had a two-part lower drum carved with bushy acanthus leaves and a beautifully executed four part upper drum carved with fluted cauliculi and all kinds of sprawling vines, fruits and vegetables including pomegranates, pine cones, and acorns bursting out of serrated hibiscus petals. These capitals were further embellished with large deeply-carved corner volutes. The fact that most of the column bases are preserved in situ has been helpful for the measurements of the intercolumniation — the distance between columns. (The interior Temple columns have average diameters ranging between 1.10-to-1.20 m (3.3 - 3.6 feet), and their central interaxial spaces are 3.50 m or 10.5 feet.)

The west 'Adyton' vaulted west stairs and vaulted chamber to the left of where the Latin inscription was found in 1996, 1997

The rear of the structure is two or three stories high and is divided into three parts — to its east and west are vaulted north-south stairways that connect to vaulted east and west rooms that can only be accessed from these stairways. In the rear are east and west stairways that connect to the corridors. In the center-rear is a great vaulted arch that hypothetically may lead to the rear corridor. As this part of the temple is presently undergoing excavation, this layout is an educated guess.

As one of the largest known structures in Petra, the Great Temple should have been dedicated to the most important cult deity of the city. Up to this point in our excavations we have no secure attribution to whom the temple was dedicated and with the recovery of the theater, we must question if it served as a temple or a bouleuterion or odeum.


The Temple west saw the excavation of the West Corridor with frescoed walls standing to a 6 m height. This excavated area, between the West Inter-columnar wall and the West Corridor wall, covered 20 m in length-by-3 m in corridor width-by an average 5.10-m depth. With its completion, this excavation made it possible to accurately measure the Temple length including the south corridor as 42.5 m.

The earliest building phase, Phase O, saw the construction of the West Corridor floor bedding; Phase I saw the construction of the West and Southwest Walkway walls and seven columns of the west Temple, including the southwest heart-shaped corner column and the two rear columns. This phase also included the simultaneous construction of the West and South walls of the Corridor with their frescoed decoration, two doorways (two in the west wall and one in the south wall).

Trench 15, east stairway in the 'Adyton' of Great Temple, 1997

Also excavated in 1998 was a 4-m portion of the Southwest Corridor from the point where the corridor took a turn to the east. It was found that the earliest building phase here, Phase 0, the subterranean canalization system was cut into bedrock at the bottom of the corridor floor. The roughly hewn sandstone canalization capstones measured approximately 1.50 m in length, and were irregular and uneven in appearance. Because this feature was recovered on the last day of excavation, it was not fully investigated and we project it will be found to extend under the east balk of the trench, with a probable connection to the canalization found cut into bedrock under the Central Arch.

The corridor pavement bedding consisted of irregularly set stones and in a few areas there were impressions left by the pavement, but no flagstones were recovered. The bedding was found to be damaged by earthquake fall, and the assumed pre-existing pavement of limestone pavers that had been clearly delineated in the Northwest Corridor had been robbed out. What remained was irregular and uneven in appearance.

Shown on the revised 1998 plan are doorways in the Southwest and West Corridor walls, approximately 2.10 m in width leading into the west and southwest walkways. The southwest doorway in the southwest corridor wall had been purposefully blocked up from the bottom in antiquity; it later may have served as a window (but of this we cannot be sure). Internal buttresses for the doorways were destroyed to support the door, and in the upper levels, doorjambs were found. Future excavation will confirm the wall thickness although it appears to be at least 1 m.

Trench 22: East vaulted chamber of the 'Adyton' the recovery of a column drum, 1997

The lower courses of the heart-shaped sandstone southwest corner column (Leigh-Ann Column) were recovered in excellent condition; it stood vertically plumb and straight to a 4.75-m height. As there was a 0.15-m earth accumulation between the upper drums, the two upper courses were removed for their future consolidation and re-erection. With the removal of these drums, the in situ bonding plaster was found in fine condition along with large amounts of wood and the remains of metal fittings. Each of the eight remaining drum components was also found to be well bonded and to require little reconstruction. Some of the metal fittings were drawn to scale and samples of the wood were collected for dendrochronological analysis. Each of the eight remaining drum components was found to be well bonded and to require little consolidation.

With the removal of the upper courses of this heart-shaped column, we were able to understand how it had been laid. Just before the hewn column was put into place, it was backed with reeds and plaster; once in place, more plaster was poured in, and added to that was yet another plaster coat containing a binder of plaster mixed with ground and crushed potsherds. For reinforcement, the Nabataean masons affixed the drum in place with iron bars that served as clamps to hold the joins between the four or five components of the column. Once the capital was placed, we reasoned that plasterers moved in to stucco the drum components so their height irregularity would be masked from view.

The best preserved columns of the temple rear have as many as 17 in situ drums, rising to an 8.45 m height above the southwest corridor floor. They appear to be in excellent condition for they stand straight and vertical and are braced and supported by the Inter-columnar wall. This southwest area suffered less earthquake impact than either the east and west sides of the Temple or the southeast where in 1997 we excavated and restored the southeast corner heart-shaped column (Suleiman Column).

Frescos and Stucco Decoration

When the visitor views the city of Petra today, most don't suspect that a majority of the surfaces were covered with stucco and that more often than not these façades were brightly painted inside and out. Preserved to a 6-m height the West and Southwest Corridor west and south walls were irregularly built, intentionally constructed to provide the footing for a richly painted plaster decoration that would conceal its inferior workmanship. There are many chinking stones in between its irregularly and roughly-set squared blocks that were faced with mortar, so that the thick (0.17 m) multi-plastered layers would gain a secure placement. The frescoes of the West and Southwest Corridor demonstrate that the Great Temple was lavishly stuccoed and painted, and like the Temple of the Winged Lions (Hammond 1997-8:86,91), there is some evidence of fresco motifs that in antiquity were pecked over and re-stuccoed and repainted in plain colors. First a primary coat of between 10 and 20 mm in thickness was laid, to which was added a fine homogeneous 'skin' of about 5 mm was painted. On the east face of the west and north face of the South Corridor walls were stucco moldings as well as many painted and decorated wall plaster fragments.

The Attic base of the "Vartan" column from Trench 23 in the Pronaos, 1997

The expertise of Nabataean stuccoists is revealed in the architectural stuccos molded and fixed to decorate the upper parts of walls. Here we found the ornamental repertoire of classical moldings with rows of beads and reels, eggs and darts and denticles, enhanced by multicoloring in which yellows, blues, reds, and greens predominate. Often fragments of bright blue painted cornices were recovered near the doorways, so it is reasoned that these fragments were part of their decorative program. Like fragments can be paralleled (McKenzie 1990:Pl. 23a-c) at the Al-Khazna, the Temple of the Winged Lions and the Baths. The areas where smooth stucco decoration survived was decorated with fragments of panels of fine-painted plaster in reds and yellows bordered by dark frames. (The Munsell readings are dark red 10R3/6 for the main panel, yellow 10YR7/8m for the secondary panel, a greenish gray is 5G 6/1, and the border stripe is weak red or 2.5YR 5/4.) The surviving details of the design are not clear, but they may depict an architectural façade, a doorway or entrance. We undertook the preliminary consolidation of one large, 2.80-by-1.00 m in height, fragmented fresco, by supporting it with a mixture of sand mortar and nails as reinforcement. Not only were many dowel holes found in the plaster to provide support, but several dowels with their plaster surround were recovered.

Temple Southwest and Inter-columnar Wall

Phase II, the second and later building phase, saw the construction of the Inter-columnar walls extending between the columns. Particularly impressive were the pristine condition of windows and arches of this western Inter-columnar wall they appeared as if they had been recently constructed. In preparation for the 1998 field season in the 1997 fall additional cleaning, restoration, and anastylosis was undertaken by Dakhilallah Qublan, for this wall had slumped to the west out of position. This made our continued excavation possible. The rear segments of these walls appear to be in as good condition as they were at the time they were laid. This wall's neatly dressed ashlars exhibited fine diagonal tooling, tilted at forty-five degrees. This tooling was used for keying the stucco, but only traces of the stucco covering remained.

As part of the excavation of Trench 59, the east-west southwest stairway was completely excavated. The width of this stairway measures 2.42 m and its length is 9.50 m. Although the upper stair treads had been robbed out, the bottom seven courses were intact and in situ. (This stairway, however, does not appear to be in as good condition as its counterpart on the Temple southeast.) A large number of architectural fragments were found in the collapse resting on these stairs, including several quarter fragments of the upper order of Temple capitals. This may be an indication that the earthquakes that hit this part of the structure shook these walls first to the west and then to the east.

On the basis of Nabataean fine wares, the earliest deposit here is dated from the last quarter of the 1st century BCE.

With these excavations we have confirmed the flow pattern of the Temple west (described earlier), and, fortunately, this is the flow pattern that the modern visitor to the site can follow. After gaining the entrance to the Temple, the visitor can now walk down the West Corridor, passing by the fresco decorations, and mount the southwest east-west stairs which lead up to the Temple center for a view of the inner rooms and the remains of the theatron. Descent is facilitated by the now-consolidated vaulted north-south stairway through the arch into the West Corridor, into the orchestra of the partially-excavated theatron, and from there, back through to the Pronaos and the building entrance.

Central Arch

We anticipated the Central Arch to be an architectural feature whose purpose was only as a support structure for theater seating. Highly informative was the tedious 1998 excavation of the arch and the chamber below it. After repeated three season attempts to stabilize the arch, we were finally able to complete its excavation. Two areas the north and south sides of the Central Arch had been exposed prior to the 1998 season. In the north, the face of the arch and part of the room walls below it were excavated in 1996 and 1997; in the south, the face of the arch, the two central rear columns and the Inter-columnar wall were excavated during the 1996 season. Despite the recovery of ashlars and decorative architectural fragments that had tumbled from above into the arch area, it was our good fortune to find that the majority of the arch remained intact. The preserved height of the arch averaged approximately 3 m from its underside to the floor.

We assume that the Phase 0 remains of the earliest Central Arch deposit were constructed before the Temple was built. Cut into bedrock, the arch chamber floor, measuring 8.52 m-by-3.32 m. was comprised of a larger four-channeled canalization system with an additional smaller series of subsidiary shallow bedrock-cut roughly parallel channels. The opening depth of the larger channels was at 885.848 m and the closing depth was at 885.548 m. The north-to-south line of capstones in the larger main channel consisted of regular capstone construction characteristic of the temple canalization found in the temple Pronaos and Forecourt in earlier years. These blocks are longer than they are wide with average measurements of 0.50 m in length, 0.35 m in width-by- 0.19 m in thickness; they rest on chinking stones which are set above the bedrock cut canalization wall to level them.

In order to expose the interior of the canalization and to collect soil samples, several capstones were removed. Within the canalization was a Munsell dark brown fine silty deposit, 7.5YR 3/4, increasing in depth as the canalization descended from south to north. Found in the canalization was a Nabataean cup. The canalization walls were mortared with a thick, water-resistant very dark gray (5Y 3/1) cement, which was filled and bonded with small rocks and potsherds.

In the areas where capstones were removed, sondages determined the depth of deposit. Initially it was postulated that the canalization was cut into the bedrock in a strictly north-south direction, traveling beneath the southern doorway to the as yet unexcavated south and to the north to continue beneath the north wall, and presumably from there into the central Temple. Beneath one of the capstones where there was also found an east-west intersection, forming a "T" shaped junction. The east branch continued to the east wall, whereas the western branch continued 0.3 m under the west wall, thus the Phase 0 canalization confirmed, once again, to predate the Temple Inter-columnar walls of Phase II and the Phase II walls of the arch in particular.

The base of the Mohammed column from the Pronaos, 1997

Lying above the Canalization System was hard-packed clay "floor." In this Phase I building phase the canalization system was blocked off. The smaller shallow water channel systems were also blocked off; the channels were filled with debris and the clay "floor" was laid down so that the Central Arch chamber walls could be constructed. The north and south portions of the arch have collapsed, but the portion that remained consisted of roughly hewn sandstone blocks measuring on average 0.35 m by 0.55 m, and set in rows of about eight stones. Its 16 courses are set parallel to the bedrock in the southern half of the arch, and they then begin an upward tilt and are built-up towards the north at an angle of 60o. The arch would have extended towards the north wall, which most likely was built up to support it. The arch sandstone ashlars are of better quality than those are in the supporting walls below. These are particularly well cut in the southern half of the arch, and they are set parallel to the bedrock and or pavement that covered the floor. It is justifiable that these stones were hewn and placed with deliberate care in order to support the load-bearing weight of the theater seating. Tentatively, we assume that the public may not have viewed the underside of the arch, but, rather, it served as a support structure for the theater seating and as a ceiling for the room below. It appears that the chamber below may have served not as a public space but as a storeroom, during at least one of its later use phases.

In the Phase III debris above the floor were 160 coins, tentatively dated to the Late Roman period or to the second century CE. This cache was recovered from a 0.8-by-0.8 m square of deposit. This debris is comprised of a compact, artifact-rich layer of moist, clay-like greasy soil which is patchy in areas, and contained bones, burnt residue, charcoal, limestone chips, plaster chips, shells, and some sand. Artifacts included the cache of coins, glass, tesserae, and metal nails. The 101 architectural fragments found in this third phase include: cornice, 27.7%; acanthus leaf, 21.8%; and vine, 18.8%; and other decorated fragments of pomegranate/poppies, corner volutes, pine cones, flower petals, including hibiscus petals, and cauliculi.

The pottery varied in date and vessel forms, and large storage vessels were predominant, although jars, jugs, cooking pots, and Nabataean fine wares were also common. Cat. No. 98-L-2 was a complete Roman lamp in excellent condition that parallels a late 3rd century CE lamp (Rosenthal and Sivan 1978:96). This lamp has a depressed discus, a small central filling hole, a perforated handle, and a rounded spout. The lamp is of pink clay, a Munsell red 2.5 YR 6/6 with splashes of red slip on its upper half. From the preliminary analysis of the pottery, the closing date for the Central Arch deposit ranges from the 1st century CE to the 4th century CE.

Temple East Corridor

Also in 1998 we recovered more of the East Corridor. Trench 58 was a continuation of excavations undertaken in 1996 with dimensions of 11-m north-south-by-3 m east west. The purpose of excavating this area was to remove fallen columns and capitals congesting the east corridor and to expose its corridor wall. Here the initial deposit was clogged with fallen column drums decorated with fruit and acanthus-laden Nabataean floral capitals. Several drums of the Temple East were removed, stabilized, and re-erected.

A number of architectural features in the Inter-columnar wall overlooking the rear east stairway were exposed including two arched windows and an arched doorway. In addition, several elegantly carved floral capitals were unearthed as well as two extraordinary pine cone bosses. Other registered finds from Trench 58 included many red, white and yellow fragments of wall and column plaster, one oxidized coin, and several roof tiles that suggest this served as a storage facility. For temporary safekeeping, the architectural elements were placed along the East Side of the Upper Temenos. As a substantial portion of the fallen columns and capitals on the eastern side of the temple had impeded excavation of the East Corridor it is now cleared so that it can undergo excavation in 1999.

To page 67 (the 1998 Field Campaign Sixth Year)


The 1998 excavation plans had been designed during our post-1997 season work. See the plan of the trenches.

The Great Temple 1998 excavation objectives included further exploration of the Propylaeum, a north south 11 m-by-8 m east-west trench in Trench 51 by K. Haile. In the Lower Temenos, the partially excavated East Exedra had been consolidated during the fall of 1997, and we wished to complete its excavation, and to better understand its interrelationship with the East Colonnade. A large trench, Trench 52, 15.3 m-by-18 m was measured out. With a full season of work under the direction of J. J. Basile, the area was completely excavated.

In the Upper Temenos we wanted to continue our work in the area of the 'cistern' located just behind the East Exedra to determine its floor level and to explore if it truly served as a cistern. Here it was projected that we would excavate two trenches, Trench 53 and Trench 54 which were the continuation of the 1997 excavations in this area. However, the excavation of Trench 53 by L. Bestock was so time-consuming due to the depth of deposit that there was no time to excavate Trench 54.

The excavation strategy for the temple was complex. Of course we wanted to reveal the eastern half of the theatron discovered in 1997, but due to the overburden of earth and collapse, this could not be undertaken until both the East Chamber and the Central Arch had been completely excavated. A trench, Trench 55, which was parallel to both the West Stairs and the West Chamber in the temple rear was excavated by B. Brown, but work here will have to be completed in 1999 before we can continue our excavation of the theatron. Because it required consolidation before it was safe enough for excavation work below the Central Arch had eluded us for four years. Trench 57 was devoted to the Central Arch deposit, which was completely revealed by E. Libonati and M. Prendergast. An additional objective was to work on the Temple west to clear the West Corridor, and if possible to discover if it stopped short or continued beyond the rear of the Temple. For our understanding of the architecture, Trenches 56 and 59 directed by A. A. W. Joukowsky accomplished this objective.

On the Temple East we had been confronted with a massive column fall in the East Corridor, which we cleared in Trench 58 supervised by J. Schwartz. The objective of recording the column fall and moving column drums to the east of the Upper Temenos served as the prelude to their anastylosis. Furthermore, excavation would help to define this East Corridor.

We also wanted to explore the area beyond the Temple Precinct lying to the Temple east, traditionally known as the 'Lower Market.' This large area was designed to be a one-year survey with limited excavation to be undertaken by Leigh-Ann Bedal. This excavator will report (this on in detail.)

Several interdependent projects were also undertaken, such as the plan to create a computer simulation using photogrammetry and virtual reality by E. Vote. Fortunately all of our data collection systems continued to be useful.

The 1998 field season produced more unexpected results.

Click here to view a plan of the temple with named columns.
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