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Petra: The Definitive Guide

Petra Monuments
Text from "Petra Book" by Jane Taylor

Qasr Al-Bint View in Photo Gallery

At the foot of al-Habees and the towering rock of Umm al-Biyara, stands the building for which the Arched Gate and paved temenos were designed, the least damaged by time or earthquakes of all the built monuments of Petra. Its full name, Qasr al-Bint Far'oun (the palace of Pharaoh's daughter) indicates that it too is touched by legend. The princess, it is said, announced that she would marry the first man to channel water to her palace. Since two men succeeded on the same day, the princess asked both how they had done it. The first declared that it was by his own power and that of his men. The second replied, 'With God's power, my power and the power of my men and my camels'; and the princess chose this more modest and godly suitor. As she did so, the wing of a locust fell into the channel of the rejected suitor, and this fragile object halted the flow of water and could not be removed, thus confirming the princess's wise choice.

The name of the building belies its function for this was no palace but the most important temple in Petra. Passing beneath the triple-arched gate, worshippers made their way across the long, narrow temenos to sacrifice at the open altar which faces the temple. The priests would mount the steps and pass under the high arch into the temple itself. In its heyday the walls were covered with decorative plasterwork both inside and out, some of which can still be seen on the outside. Inside only small fragments survive, but the base stone is pocked with holes that once held the elaborate, all-covering plaster in place.

In the holy of holies at the back of the temple stood the image of the deity to whom the temple was dedicated, the focus of worship. In 1959 Peter Parr found a gigantic marble hand, part of the cultic statue which must once have stood at least six metres high in this sanctuary. Its human, rather than block-like, form shows clearly that it represented one of the foreign deities with which the Nabataean gods were identified. Fragments of two dedicatory inscriptions in Greek were also found here one to Aphrodite and another to Zeus Hypsistos ('most high'). While Dushara was identified with Zeus, this particular definition of Zeus as 'hypsistos' is more commonly associated with the adopted Syrian god Ba'al-Shamin. This may indicate that this important temple had a dual dedication to Ba'al-Shamin-Zeus and to al-'Uzza-Aphrodite.

Qasr al-Bint was once thought to date to the second century AD, in the early years of Roman rule in Petra. But during the 1964 excavations in the temenos a Nabataean dedicatory inscription to Aretas IV was found on a statue base in the bench which had been added to the temenos wall. In 1990 Dr Fawzi Zayadine found another dedication to Aretas IV in a similar position. These revised all thoughts of a Roman date and the temple is now revealed as Nabataean, and not later than the turn of the millennium. Since the temple itself must have pre-dated both the temple wall and the (missing) statue of Aretas IV with the inscription on the base, it is thought that it may date to the time of Aretas' predecessor, Obodas III, or even Malichus I.

Excavations by French archaeologists, who have been working in the temenos and surrounding areas since 1999, have added to our understanding of what happened in this part of Petra before, during and after the Nabataean period. Soundings done both within the temenos and beyond the western wall of the precinct, indicate that it was occupied in the Hellenistic period, and that there were houses here before the Nabataeans paved the temenos. Also in the Nabataean period, a substantial building was constructed immediately to the east of the temple with its monumental entrance opening directly from the temenos, it was clearly an integral part of the temple complex, though its function is still unclear.

Sometime after the Roman annexation in AD 106, a smaller marble-clad altar was constructed in the north-west corner of the temenos; and later a western wall was built with an imposing curved exedra in the middle, flanked by columns and niches. Inscriptions found during the excavation of the exedra refer to Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus, co-emperors in 161-169; and the discovery of a bust of Lucius Verus in the wadi nearby in the mid-1990s, and another of Marcus Aurelius next to the exedra in 2004, suggest that this whole structure may have been built in their honour. The complete white marble statues would have stood more than life size. Both the exedra and the upper part of the temple were damaged in the fourth century (probably in the earthquake of 363), after which the exedra was levelled and a house was built over and behind it, only to be destroyed in the following century.

In the Byzantine period the area was reoccupied and part of it became a cemetery; and in the twelfth century the Crusaders used some of the fallen stones from Qasr al-Bint to build the small fort on top of the rock of al-Habees behind the temple.