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Khirbet et-Tannur

Khirbet et-Tannur

The Nabataean temple ruins atop of Jabal et-Tannur overlook the confluence of Wadi al-Hasa and Wadi La‘aban north of the modern town of Tafila. From the 2nd century BC through to the middle of the 4th century AD the sanctuary was an important pilgrimage place for the Nabataeans to worship, and celebrate seasonal rituals and banquets. With no spring for water supply, it was not a permanent settlement. It functioned in connection with the neighboring village and temple of Khirbet edh-Dharih, some 7 km south on the old caravan route coming from the capital city of Petra.

While the Dharih temple is well preserved and easy to reach at road level right beside the King's Highway, the sanctuary on the Tannur summit just reveals some foundation walls and architectural details. Nevertheless, the half-hour walk up the south-east slope of Jabal et-Tannur from the gravel track to approach by car is a rewarding effort: One can retrace the pilgrimage path of the Nabataean worshippers while enjoying magnificent views.

Temple and Gods

The sanctuary consisted of a temenos (temple enclosure), with a forecourt and roofed colonnaded walkways on the north and south sides connecting to rooms equipped with benches on three sides, called triclinium for resting and ritual banqueting.

The inner temenos (sacred area) was an unroofed square enclosure (ca. 10 x 10 m) with an altar platform in the center that had a frontal niche to host the cult statues of the main god and goddess. A male cult figure holding a lightning bolt and flanked by bull calves was found during excavations, probably the supreme god Dushara with attributes and iconography adopted by the Nabataeans from neighbor cultures. From the goddess Allat only one foot and a part of her lion throne were found. Placed between them might have been the zodiac ring encircling a bust of a Tyche, carried by a winged Victory (Nike), another one of the famous discoveries at Khirbet et-Tannur. The upper zodiac piece is in the collection of the Cincinnati Art Museum, USA, together with the main cult statues. The sculptures date from the main construction phase of the first half of the 2nd century AD. The altar niche was surrounded by an elaborate decoration including busts also representing zodiac signs, from which two have survived: the personification of Pisces (in Amman) and Virgo (in Cincinnati).

A staircase led to the altar's roof, where a sacred flame was lit and animal sacrifices were burnt. Incense, grains and offering cakes were burnt as offerings on either side of the altar niche, and on smaller free-standing altars scattered around the site as well.

The east-west axis alignment of the sanctuary ensured that the rising sun would illuminate the altar niche during the spring and autumn equinoxes, when special rituals and celebrations took place to ensure agricultural abundance. The remains of ceramic lamps with nozzles on several levels suggest night-time processions and rituals to worship zodiacal deities appearing in the starry sky.

The eastern façade of the inner temenos was also richly decorated. The famous relief known as the Vegetation Goddess, veiled by leaves and framed by flowers with an eagle above her comes from a semi-circular pediment over the main portal. Both sculptures are today on display at the Jordan Museum in Amman. Scholars suggest to see in her the goddess of the nearby spring of La‘aban. An inscription found on site dated 8 or 7 BC mentions building works dedicated by the guardian of this spring. After 2000 years, this name lives on in the name Wadi La‘aban, the river bed connecting Khirbet et-Tannur and Khirbet edh-Dharih.

Excavation and reassessment

Khirbet et-Tannur was excavated in 1937 by the American archaeologist Nelson Glueck (1900-1971), then director of the American School of Oriental Research in Jerusalem, in cooperation with the Department of Antiquities of Transjordan. At that time, it was the custom to divide the main findings between the location's country and the excavator’s institution. In 1939, Glueck shipped ASOR’s objects to the Cincinnati Art Museum, his hometown in the USA.

After Glueck's death in 1971, his scientific records and samples went to the Semitic Museum of Harvard University, Cambridge, MA. In 2002, the Oxford archaeologist Judith McKenzie started an extensive analysis and reevaluation of the materials and documents, together with a multidisciplinary team. These studies resulted in the two volume publication: Judith S. McKenzie et al., The Nabataean temple at Khirbet et-Tannur, Jordan. American School of Oriental Research, Boston, in collaboration with Manar al-Athar, University of Oxford, 2013. An accessible version for the general public and students is the booklet A Gem of a Small Nabataean Temple. Excavations at Khirbet et-Tannur in Jordan by Marlena Whiting, and Hannah Wellman. Manar Al Athar, University of Oxford, UK, 2016.

Location, access:

Khirbet et-Tannur
On the King's Highway, between Kerak (40 km) and Tafila (30 km)
Located on top of Jabal Tannur, a hill right beside the Tannur Dam, 7 km from Khirbet edh-Dharih
About 100 km north of Petra
Location on map

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