Light and Shadows over Petra: Astronomy and Landscape in Nabataean Lands
Nexus Netw J
Juan Antonio Belmonte*
A. César González- García 0
Instituto de Ciencias del Patrimonio Incipit 0
Santiago de Compostela 0
Andrea Polcaro 0
Università degli Studi di Perugia Perugia 0
0 Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias La Laguna , Tenerife, S
A statistical analysis of the orientation of Nabatean sacred monuments demonstrates that astronomical orientations were often part of an elaborated plan and possibly a trace of the astral nature of the Nabataean religion. Petra and other monuments in the ancient Nabataean kingdom have proven to be marvellous laboratories for the interaction between landscape features and astronomical events, showing impressive hierophanies on particular monuments related to cultic times and worships. Among other findings, the famous Ad Deir has shown a fascinating ensemble of light and shadow effects, perhaps connected with the bulk of Nabataean mythology, while from the impressive Urn Tomb, a series of suggestive solstitial and equinoctial alignments emanate which might have lately helped its selection as the cathedral of the city. This paper demonstrates that the sky was a substantial element in Nabataean religion and reveals new evidence for cultic worship centred on the celestial sphere.
Nabataean architecture; Nabatean religion; archaeoastronomy; Petra; Ad Deir
The god’s name means “He of Shara”, Shara being the mountain range to the east of
Petra where the ancient site of Gaia (presumably the previous capital city) is located.
There is evidence of a certain syncretism with the god al-Kutba, meaning the “writer”
and, consequently, with the Babylonian god Nabu [Gawlikowski 1990]. In this case, the
planet Mercury would have been one of his celestial manifestations [Pettinato 1998].
Dushara has sometimes been identified with the Greek gods Zeus, Dionysus or Ares,
although the latter is a less common association. Archaeological evidence suggests that he
was a deity related to the cult of the deceased.
However, there has been much discussion regarding the head female divinity of the
Nabataean pantheon. In Bosra, the northern Nabataean capital during the crepuscular
reign of king Rabel II (71-106 AD), the main goddess was Allat, meaning simply “the
Goddess”. With a hypothetical solar character (since Sams, the sun, was a female divinity
in pre-Islamic Arabia), she has been identified with Athena or Atargatis [Healy 2000].
Her name is also present in Wadi Ramm (ancient Iram). However, in Petra, this name is
never found, whilst many inscriptions in Nabataean script have been found mentioning
the goddess Al Uzza. Her name means “the Most Powerful” and she was the
personification of the evening star, the planet Venus, identified with the Greek Aphrodite
and the Cananaean Astarte, and also with the Egyptian goddess Isis. In Nabataean
inscriptions found in Petra and Iram, she is mentioned in close relationship with Al
Kutba and of course Dushara but we still do not know the exact ties between them.
Indeed, in the area of Petra, Dushara and Uzza were undoubtedly at the head of a
pantheon with many layers of meaning [Zayadine 2003].
2 Statistical analysis of orientations
In December 2011, deliberately in coincidence with the winter solstice, our team,
consisting of two archaeoastronomers, specialists in ancient Mediterranean cultures and
statistical analyses of series of data (see, for example, [González-García and Belmonte
2011]), and an archaeologist working in the Levant, notably in Jordan and Syria [see, e.g.
Polcaro 2012], travelled to Jordan with the aim of performing a primeval
archaeoastronomical analysis of Nabataean monuments in the region. Our goal was to
analyse a statistically significant sample of temples and other sacred buildings, which
would permit archaeological confirmation of suspected astronomical activities by the
Nabataeans relating to religious practice [Belmonte 1999]. Fig. 1 illustrates the sites from
which data have been collected (including the city of Petra itself), while Table 1 shows
the raw data for the different sites and monuments. The sample includes the datum of
the commemorative temple of king Obodas at Avdat obtained during a visit to the Negev
region in 2008.
The data sample includes 92% of the temples known, including those in Petra and in
other Nabataean settlements of the kingdom such as el Qsar, Dhat Ras, Tannur, Dharih
or Wadi Ramm (fig. 2). In Petra, data includes temples plus the majority (~80%) of the
accessible highplaces (open-air altars carved on the rock in the top of cliffs and
conspicuous mountains), including the best known at Djebel Madbah (fig. 2a), and a few
of the most representative monuments excavated and sculpted in the sandstone walls.
Although the number of rock-cut chambers present in the last census of the city is quite
high [Lehme 2003] not all of them had a marked religious character. Our intention was
selecting those architecturally significant for which a religious character behind its
mortuary use has been definitely proven such as Ad Deir or Monastery, the Urn Tomb
(fig. 2c) or the most controversial of them, Al Khazna or Treasury (fig. 3d) [Stewart
h~10½E / ~ 10¾
490 Juan Antonio Belmonte – Light and Shadows over Petra: Astronomy and Landscape…
Fig. 2. Images of different kind of monuments of Petra measured, analyzed and discussed within
the text: (a) Madbah highplace; (b) the Obelisks or Zibb Attuf at Djebel Madbah; (c) The Urn
Tomb at the cliffs of Djebel Khubtha; and (d) the splendid façade of Al Khazna.
Photos: J.A. Belmonte
In total, our data includes fifty temples and other cultic structures from all over the
ancient Nabataean kingdom, which we estimate to be a statistically significant sample of
all religious structures known up to date.
492 Juan Antonio Belmonte – Light and Shadows over Petra: Astronomy and Landscape…
Data were collected using high precision compasses and clinometers and corrected for
magnetic declinations. Magnetic alterations are not expected in the Nabataean territory,
where most of the terrain is limestone or sandstone. The measurements included in Table
1 have an average error of ¼° in azimuth and ½° in horizon altitude, which translates
into an error ~¾° in declination. Fig. 4 illustrates the results of our work. Fig. 4a shows
the orientation diagram of the sample in azimuth where it can be observed that the axes
of most structures are concentrated either in the solar arc or in a general orientation
towards the meridian. Fig. 4b shows the astronomical declination histogram, a
magnitude independent of geographic coordinates and local topography. The declination
histogram was calculated using a density distribution with an Epanechnikov kernel with a
pass band of 1½°. This histogram is similar to the one discovered for neighbouring
cultures with a strong astral component in their religion, such as ancient Egypt
[Belmonte, Shaltout and Fekri 2009] and shows a series of significant peaks. Significance
is estimated by the following procedure. The mean is first computed and subtracted from
the data, then the data are normalized with the standard deviation of the measurements.
Any peak rising above the 3 level could be considered as having a degree of confidence
higher than 99% within this particular significance test.
Fig. 4. Main outcomes of the archaeoastronomical analysis of Nabataean monuments. a, left)
orientation diagram of the structures (dot-lines for Roman period ones); b, right) declination
histogram of the set of monuments. Dashed and continuous vertical lines stand for major lunastices
and solstices, respectively. Horizontal dot-line stands for the 3 confidence level. Roman numbers
identify peaks discussed within the text
Some of the peaks of the histogram, of a probable astral – presumably solar –
character, might be interpreted in light of Nabataean beliefs, considering, among other
sources, that Strabo1 reported that the Nabataeans worshipped the sun on the roof of
their houses. Peak I, centred at –0¼° could indeed be catalogued as equinoctial. Scholars
have suspected that the temple of Tannur may be associated with the equinoxes
[Villeneuve and Al-Muheisen 2003; McKenzie 2003], presumably a moment for
pilgrimages to the top of the mountain where the temple is located (see fig. 3). This fact
is hardly surprising considering the abundance of astral symbolism in the sculpture
recovered at Tannur and the neighbouring temple of Dharih. This may suggest that the
equinoxes were important marks in the Nabataean sacred time and a possible way of
controlling time within the framework of a lunisolar calendar. The results of this study
confirm this suspicion, since there is a significant general trend in the data to the time
frame of the equinoxes (declination 0°). The Urn Tomb (fig. 2c) and the Obelisks at
Djebel Madbah (fig. 3b) are also relevant in this context, as we will see below. Peak II at
24¼° is certainly solstitial, while peak III, centred at –25¼° could be related to any of the
celestial bodies moving close to the ecliptic and relevant in Nabataean religion: the winter
solstice sun (according to Epiphanius’s Panarion), Venus or Mercury, as stated above.
For the additional peak above the 3 level within the solar range in fig. 4, at a declination
of ~8°, there is however no direct or simple astronomical explanation.
To understand peaks IV and V we must take into account that the Nabataeans were a
people of presumably Arab lineage. Peak IV, centred at 60¼°, is certainly the
accumulation peak to northern directions related to the average latitude of the Nabataean
Kingdom: 30°N. This could be connected with the large number of monuments which
were oriented towards north, including the main temples at the colonnade avenue in
Petra. One of those temples was the singular Qsar el Bint, arguably the main sanctuary of
Dushara, situated at the convergence of the main caravan roads leading to the city centre
which was possibly founded by King Obodas III (28-9 BC), and completed by Aretas IV.
It was severely damaged by an earthquake (perhaps the one that nearly destroyed the city
in 363 A.D.) but recent excavations have recovered part of the starry decoration in stucco
[Larche and Zayadine 2003]. An additional, although less significant peak (V) is located
at a declination –52¾°, very close for the epoch to the declination of the bright star
Canopus, which could however be interesting in a most general context.
According to Arabic sources of the early Muslim era, the Ka’aba in Mekka had a main
axis orientated to Suhail (the Arabic for Canopus) and the stars of the Handle of the
Plough (Alkaid had a declination of 60° ca. 1 A.D.) and a minor axis oriented according
to the solstitial line [Hawkins and King 1982]. The black stone was embedded in the SE
corner of the monument facing the equinoxes. It is certainly curious that some
Nabataean monuments reproduce the same pattern of alignments as those classically
reported for a hypothetical pre-Islamic Arabic temple such as Ka’aba. The last surviving
inscription in the Nabataean language dates from 356 A.D., a quarter of a millennium
earlier than the arrival of Islam but the Nabataean divinities were certainly worshiped in
the region; the sanctuary of Al Uzza at Wadi Hurad was destroyed by Khalid Ibn al
Walid at the commandment of Mohammed immediately after the capture of Mekka. It is
worth noticing that “by Allat, Al Uzza and Manat, the third of the triad” Kuraish
performed “tawat” in Ka’aba [Zayadine 2003], although the impossibility of carrying out
archaeological excavations in the Holy Mosque disables any further conclusions.
However, most of the peaks in the histogram can be interpreted at the light of Nabatean
beliefs, reinforcing the astral character of the religion and showing that the equinox and
perhaps the solstices were important for their time-keeping.
Peaks IV and V in fig. 4b correspond to the accumulation peaks related to northern
and southern azimuths. These correspond to areas where a large number of declinations
are available within a certain azimuth interval and consequently some of the peaks
towards these directions could have a spurious nature. We have been puzzled by this
possibility since our research group started statistical analysis of temple orientation in the
Mediterranean region, but it was difficult to prove with samples of a high variability in
latitude and horizon angular heights. In order to test this phenomenology in a compact
geographical area, we have performed a preliminary test of our Nabataean data by
comparing the distribution of declinations of our sample with that arising from a
homogeneous set of orientations with the same population. Fig. 5 shows the result of this
comparison after subtracting such distribution and normalizing by the standard deviation
of the homogeneous sample. We can see that the vast majority of the relevant peaks are
still present, including peak IV towards northern declinations which is certainly
significant. However, peak V is absent and seems compatible with a homogeneous
494 Juan Antonio Belmonte – Light and Shadows over Petra: Astronomy and Landscape…
distribution. Consequently, it must be considered with more caution. This test is still a
preliminary trial and must indeed be refined. It does not include the effect of varying
horizon altitudes and in its present state may not work well for larger geographical areas
such as ancient Egypt. However, it behaves reasonably well for the Nabataean realm and
the results seem robust.
Fig. 5. Results yielded by a new analysis of the data in an attempt to test the significance of the
peaks of accumulation. The observed declination histogram f(obs) is compared with the one that
would be yielded by a uniform distribution of azimuths with the same number of data f(unif) and
expressed in unit of the standard deviation of this second distribution. Peak IV is still significant
within the distribution but peak V, which had already a low significance, loses all its weight
3 Light and shadow effects
The aim of our campaign in Nabataea was to observe the effect of the winter solstice
phenomena at some of the most impressive monuments of Petra. Belmonte 
suggested a phenomenology related to the solstices for some of the most singular
monuments in Petra, such as the Monastery or the Treasury. On-site observation would
enable us to directly witness light and shadow effects that may have been of significance
to the Nabataeans.
The most impressive light and shadow effect at winter solstice occurs at Ad Deir (the
Monastery). It is unclear whether this is the temple of one of the most important
Nabataean divinities, Dushara or Uzza, a heroon for one of their deified kings such as
Obodas I, or the unfinished burial place or cenotaph of one of their last kings, such as
Rabel II. Its use as a church in the Byzantine era and its internal distribution suggests
that this was originally a sort of monumental cella or biclinium with a cultic podium (a
môtab ) at its rear [Wenning 2003]. Indeed, Ad Deir would have been a prominent
festival venue, with an elaborated staged ascent from the centre of the city, a vast court in
front of it and a series of related monuments such as a stone circle, an altar and the
temple-like building known as structure 468 situated in front of it. The orientation of
the structure, shown in Table 1, and especially in fig. 6, strongly suggests a winter solstice
Fig. 6. Winter solstice sunset at Ad Deir: a, left) the light and shadow effect in the innermost sacred
area of the structure, the môtab ; b, right) the accurate solstitial phenomenology associated with the
site. Dotted line corresponds to the path followed during winter solstice sunset by the upper limb
of the sun for the first century B.C. Photos: J. A. Belmonte and A.C. González-García, respectively
On the one hand, fig. 6a shows the light and shadow effect produced at the interior
of the monument at the moment of winter solstice sunset. The light of the setting sun
entering through the gate of the monument perfectly illuminates the sacred area of the
deep interior of the building where the môtab for the installation of the sacred baetyls is
located. The effect is spectacular, and would have been observable only a week or so
before and after the winter solstice. On the other hand, winter solstice sunset, as observed
from the môtab itself, is produced in a most peculiar way on a rock with the aspect of the
head of a lion – the sacred animal of Al Uzza – as shown in fig. 6b. At the present time,
the sun sets at least twice, first on the axis of the monument, then re-appearing in the
northernmost corner of the rock before setting the second time and disappearing. The
phenomenon would have been still more impressive two thousand years ago, when the
northern rim of the disk of the sun had a declination close to 23½°. We believe that this
extraordinary ensemble of solar hierophanies, perhaps in combination with the visibility
after sunset of other celestial bodies such as the Evening Star, clearly reinforces the idea
that the Monastery was one of the most important sacred enclosures of the Nabataean
realm. Ad Deir would have been the ideal place to celebrate, on dates close to the winter
solstice, the birth of Dushara from his own mother-cum-consort Al Uzza, the goddess of
As mentioned above, the knowledge of the equinoxes was of particular importance to
the Nabataeans, and may have been a key element for the control of a lunisolar calendar
[Villeneuve and Al-Muheisen 2003]. Interestingly, our new data confirm the equinoctial
alignment of the impressive Zibb Attuf, the “Pillars of Merciful” (fig. 2b), popularly
known as the Obelisks. These giant carved markers could have been used to control time
through the use of shadow casts at sunrise. However, in the mid-1990s [Belmonte 1999],
the most inspiring equinoctial relationship was suggested for the Urn Tomb, the most
impressive and better preserved of the so-called royal tombs at the western cliffs of Djebel
Khubtha (fig. 2c) and the impressive mountain of Umm al Biyara (see fig. 1). This sacred
mountain was very important for the Nabataeans, not only due to its unassailability, but
also because it was the main source of water for the city (the Siyagh Spring, the only large
permanent water supply in Petra, was located at its base).
496 Juan Antonio Belmonte – Light and Shadows over Petra: Astronomy and Landscape…
Fig. 7. Sunset phenomenology in the western horizon (a) related to the solstices and the equinoxes
as seen from the Urn Tomb enclosure (b). Our data suggests that the site and the internal
distribution of the monument were deliberately chosen with an astronomical objective in mind.
Photographs by J. A. Belmonte; Urn Tomb plan (c) adapted from [Guzzo and Schneider 1997]
The royal tombs seem to have been built in that sector of Djebel al Khubtha where
sunset at the equinoxes was visible over the top of Umm al Biyara. For example, the
wellpreserved gate of the Urn Tomb was centred at equinox sunset over the central part of
that particular mountain. Our new data (see Table 1) plainly confirm this earlier result
but to a much higher degree of sophistication.
This is demonstrated in Table 1 and fig. 7. The Urn Tomb has a quite elaborate
design, with a large court in front of the structure and a big hall excavated into the
sandstone of the cliff, suggesting that it was used not only as a tomb (perhaps of King
Malichus II) but also as a place for other religious activities or festivals, possibly related to
the cult of the dead, in apparent connection to the autumnal equinox. On 21 December
2011, sunset at the winter solstice was observed from the court in front of the Urn
Tomb. During the sunset, the sun passed behind a conspicuous landmark in the distant
western horizon. Most important, the last rays of the sun illuminated the northeast
corner of the inner hall after crossing the main gate of the tomb. The phenomenon, in
combination with the confirmed equinoctial alignment (see fig. 7), proved quite
Sunset at the equinox took place between two distinct features on the summit of
Umm al Biyara.2 Surprisingly, our measurements (see Table 1) also indicate that sunset at
the summer solstice occurs in between another couple of this kind of “natural” features
further to the north in the distant western horizon and that this new alignment
completes the symmetry of the main hall of the tomb (see fig. 7). This impressive set of
three alignments within the plan of the tomb in combination with significant features in
the distant horizon can hardly be ascribed to chance. We argue here in favour of a
deliberate attempt to convert the hall of the Urn Tomb, whatever its actual purpose –
certainly religious – into a kind of time-keeping device that would have been very useful
in controlling time and the calendar, be it sacred or profane. We may conclude that this
is the result of an original Nabataean design, considering the findings in other buildings
commented on throughout the present paper.
Interestingly, Bishop Jason converted the Urn Tomb into the cathedral church of
Petra on 24 June 446 A.D. [Fiema 2003]. We may thus suggest that this formidable
enclosure, indeed a place with a sacred character, was selected as the new cathedral of the
city because it included such notable grouping of alignments, so useful for Christian
worship. The three alignments would have offered markers, of an excellent and precise
nature, for the determination of Christmas Eve, on 24 December, Easter (through the
observation of the spring equinox), and Saint John, on 24 June, precisely the date of
consecration of the new cathedral.
Finally, Al Khazna, or Treasury (fig. 2d), is possibly the finest monument ever erected
by the Nabataean kings. Located at a breath-taking position at the exit of As Siq, the
narrow canyon that approaches the city from the east, it is the first large building that a
visitor to Petra faces when entering the city through Siq. The discovery in recent
excavations of what seems to be a couple of traditional burial chambers cut into the rock
just below the impressive façade of the Treasury3 has reinforced the idea that this
magnificent monument was something more than a simple royal tomb. This fact suggests
that, even if it was the tomb of an important king, such as Aretas IV, or the heroon of
King Obodas – both alternatives are the most popular – it might have acted as a sort of
sanctuary where the genius protector of the city, a manifestation of Tyche represented in
the façade of the building, would have been venerated. In the well-known zodiac-stone
498 Juan Antonio Belmonte – Light and Shadows over Petra: Astronomy and Landscape…
found at the temple of Tannur, Tyche is represented dominating the scene and associated
with a crescent of the moon (fig. 8). It is worth mentioning that the large cliff enclosing
the Siq only makes it possible to see a very small section of sky at ~18° of angular height
from the sancta sanctorum of the monument, thus breaking any solar alignment (see
Table 1). However, bearing these considerations in mind, it is possible that lunar events
could be compatible with the orientation and layout of the internal structure and the
external decoration of the monument. This fact, provided it could be proven in the
future, would reinforce the sanctuary nature of the building.
Fig. 8. A reconstructed plaster copy of the portrait of Tyche discovered at the temple of Tannur
surrounded by the zodiacal signs. This is just one of the examples of astral symbolism in Nabataean
relics. Original fragments at the Museums of Cincinnati and Amman. Photo: J. A. Belmonte,
courtesy of the Amman Archaeological Museum
The statistical analysis of our sample of data, together with the analysis of the light
and shadow effects confirmed in several monuments of the city related to the consistent
use of the equinoxes, the solstices and perhaps other conspicuous astronomical features,
undoubtedly points towards the importance of astral elements in Nabataean religion.
These events could have been used to mark times of worship and, most important, to
control a calendar, and certainly convert the city of Petra, “a place of awe-inspiring
crystallization of natural beauty and the unique artistic creation of the Nabataean will”
into “a gift from their gods, shaped by the supernatural and holding a holy meaning”
[Jowkowski 2003: 214], as our work has started to unveil.
We thank Dr. Efrosyni Boutsikas for critical discussions and reading of the manuscript. This work
is partially financed under the framework of the projects P310793 “Arqueoastronomía” of the IAC,
and AYA2011-26759 “Orientatio ad Sidera III” of the Spanish MINECO.
About the authors
Juan Antonio Belmonte is a staff astronomer at the Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias in Tenerife,
Spain, where he has lectured on history of astronomy and archaeoastronomy and investigates in
exoplanets, stellar physics and cultural astronomy. He has published or edited a dozen books and
authored nearly 200 publications on those subjects. He was the Director of the Science and
Cosmos Museum of Tenerife from 1995 to 2000 and President of the European Society for
Astronomy in Culture (SEAC) from 2005 to 2011. He is advisory editor of the Journal for the
History of Astronomy. In the last years he has been performing extensive research on the
astronomical traditions of ancient civilizations, concentrating in the ancient Mediterranean
cultures. Born in Murcia (Spain) in 1962, he studied physics and received his master’s in 1986 at
Barcelona University and his Ph.D. in astrophysics at La Laguna University in 1989.
A. César González García (Valladolid, 1973), Ph.D. in astrophysics (Groningen, The Netherlands)
has held postdoctoral fellowships at the IAC (2003-2006 and 2010-2011) and the Theoretical
Physics Department – UAM (2006-2010), where he has investigated the evolution of galaxies and
archaeoastronomy (working on the possible astronomical orientation of megalithic monuments in
central Europe). Since 2010 he is the holder of a Ramón y Cajal fellowship to work on cultural
astronomy of Mediterranean cultures. He is now based at the Instituto de Ciencias del Patrimonio
(Incipit-CSIC) at Santiago de Compostela (Galicia, Spain). He has been vice-president of the
European Society for Astronomy in Culture since 2011. His main research lines are centred in
three issues: modelling of the possible astronomical orientation of classical cultures; possible
astronomical and landscape relations of Iron Age sanctuaries; the study of the orientation of ancient
Andrea Polcaro is contract professor of archaeology of the Ancient Near East at the Università di
Perugia, Italy. In 2007 he defended his Ph.D. thesis on Oriental archaeology at the Università degli
Studi di Roma “La Sapienza”. His main research activities are archaeological excavations and
surveys in the Near East and studies on ancient Near Eastern religions, with an extensive interest in
archaeoastronomy. He has been member of the Italian Archaeological Mission at Tell
MardikhEbla, Syria, under the direction of Prof. P. Matthiae, since 1998. From 2004 to 2007 he was also a
member of the expedition to Khirbet al Batrawy (Jordan) and of the archaeological surveys on the
Bronze Age monuments at Wadi az-Zarqa, directed by the Prof. L. Nigro.
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