History, Art & Culture, Holy Jordan

Petra’s Monastery: A Nabataean Architectural Jewel

May 14, 2024

The Ad Deir Monastery, situated in the renowned city of Petra in Jordan, is one of the architectural masterpieces (if not the masterpiece) of the ancient Nabataean civilization. This impressive edifice, carved into the rock of a cliff, is evidence to the skill and grandeur of this culture.

Al Khazneh (better known as The Treasury) is surely the best-known attraction drawing visitors as they leave the Siq. In comparison, the Ad Deir Monastery, located at the other end of the immense archaeological complex, receives fewer visitors. And still, it is the second most commonly visited monument in all of Petra. Its distinctive blend of architectural styles is a testament to its crossbred nature, a harmonious integration of various architectural traditions –Nabatean, Hellenistic, Corinthian, Doric, Byzantine. 

The monastery is thought to have been built in the mid-first century CE, although there are uncertainties about its exact role. Although it was initially proposed that the structure may have served as a royal Nabataean tomb, this hypothesis has been challenged. The architectural characteristics of the interior suggest a more diverse function. The presence of a large central chamber and benches along the side walls that could have been utilized as a biclinia (a type of ancient furniture) suggests this might have been a multifunctional space for religious, funerary, and residential rituals.


“Recycled” in the Christian Era

During the early centuries of the Christian era, Petra became an important Christian center in the region, and thus the Ad Deir Monastery took on additional religious significance. Incised crosses have been found on the interior walls of the building, suggesting that it may have been used as a church or hermitage by Christian communities inhabiting the area.

Even after the Byzantines abandoned Petra, Christian communities, including Greek Orthodox hermits and cenobites, continued to reside in the city and its surroundings –this, until the late 19th century.

The Ad Deir Monastery is home to a number of unique natural phenomena and curiosities –as shown by research coordinated by CSIC, published in the Nexus Network Journal in 2013. During the winter solstice, the light of the setting sun enters the monument through the door and shines on the “sacred motab:” a podium where stone blocks representing local divinities such as the god Dushara (the Nabataean version of Zeus) were placed in ancient times. This is quite a spectacular sight, which can only be observed for a few days around the summer solstice. In addition, from the motab visitors can also see how, during the sunset, the light seems to “draw” a lion’s head on the cliffs –the animal representing the ancient Nabataean goddess Al Uzza.

As can be seen, the Ad Deir Monastery in Petra is much more than just an architectural structure; it is a testament to the creativity, prowess, and spiritual life of the Nabataeans and the communities that lived in Petra after them. Its impressive rock-carved façade and multifaceted history, along with the natural phenomena that surround it, render it one of the most fascinating sites in Petra and a must-see destination for those with an interest in archaeology, religious traditions, and ancient history.

By Inma Álvarez
Inma Álvarez

Inma Álvarez is a seasoned journalist with a strong focus on Catholic media. Her career began in 1995 within the Valencia archdiocese. She held significant positions at Alfa y Omega and the Catholic University of Murcia. In 2002, she established the award-winning Veritas news agency. She subsequently served as the Spanish editor for Zenit and Aleteia, where she developed the Travel and Culture section. She is a founding member of both Viator Media and the Pilgrimaps project.

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