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Petra: The Definitive Guide

Petra Monuments
Text from "Petra Book" by Jane Taylor

The Monastery View in Photo Gallery

At the top of another of the mountains surrounding Petra stands one of the most prodigious of all the façades – ad-Deir, the Monastery. Its name, like that of the Treasury, is a misnomer, relating to its Christian use in the fourth or fifth centuries when crosses were incised on the back wall of the alcove in the interior, and on some of the roundels of the Doric frieze.

A processional way leads uphill along pathways and great sweeps of rock-cut steps until it opens out into a wide terrace, dominated by this monument. Its size dwarfs mere mortals who stand before it like ants before a colossus – yet ants such as these, with improbable tools, cut this vast façade from the rock some 2,000 years ago.

The design is clearly modelled on the Treasury, with its two levels and the circular tholos between a broken pediment. But it is much larger and less elaborately decorated, and its niches contain no statues. In place of the Treasury's floral and foliate motifs, the Monastery has a simple Doric frieze and plain Nabataean capitals. The court in front was once bordered by colonnades on either side, of which only a few column drums survive; and on the slope immediately above it is a large circular area, whose function is unclear. In both these areas large congregations could take part in religious rituals and festivals, whose precise nature is unknown.

The grand ascent, the scale of the façade, and the great open terraces in front of it, all indicate a place of special sacredness. Its original function, long the subject of imaginative guesswork, was revealed during clearance work in 1990-91: it was a triclinium, a feasting hall with benches around its sides, used for banquets in honour of a dead person. Even the identity of that person may be guessed at, thanks to an inscription beside the processional way, which refers to 'the symposium of Obodas the god'. It is known that Obodas I was deified soon after his death in 86 BC; this triclinium, though believed to date to the later first century AD, may have been created as a meeting place for the sacred association dedicated to his cult.