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Temple of the Winged Lions

Temple of the Winged Lions

The Temple of the Winged Lions is a Nabataean cult complex prominently located on the northwestern slope of the Wadi Musa, facing the so-called 'Great Temple.' It consists of a sacral building with associated cultic facilities, domestic units, workshops, and a courtyard on the north side.

The main excavations were undertaken by Philip C. Hammond between 1974 and 2005. Among his first findings were fragments of capitals with winged lions, that inspired the building's name. The archaeological outcomes indicate that the temple started its operation at the end of the first quarter of our era, and was in use until the earthquake in May 363 AD.

According to the cultic objects recovered, including the famous eye-stele whith the inscription "Goddess of Hayyan, Son of Nayibat," Hammond concluded that the temple was dedicated to one of the main Nabataean female deities, known throughout the region as 'Allat (the goddess), and also referred to in Petra as al-'Uzza (the most powerful.) This native goddess was obviously syncretised with other deities from the Hellenistic and Roman worlds, such as Isis and Aphrodite.

In ancient times, the temple precinct was connected to the Colonnaded Street by a large bridge over the wadi. An ascending propylaeum, or grand entryway, led to a portico with two enormous columns (approximately 13 m height) and laterally protruding walls, crowned with Nabataean-Corinthian capitals. The enclosing pilasters of this pronaos were decorated with sacred figures carved on inset blocks. The impressive dimension of the column drums can be seen on site. They probably collapsed during the earthquake that destroyed the temple in 363 AD.

The temple's inner sanctuary (cella) measuring 17.42 x 17.42 m features a central podium, or mōtab, the typical Nabataean ‘seat’ of the deity when it is represented as betyl. Around the square platform rise twelve columns which used to bear the famous capitals with the winged lions in place of the corner volutes, probably supporting a kind of baldachin. The winged lions are considered to be apotropaic symbols, acting as guardians of the shrine. Five-step stairways at both front corners provided access through iron doors (as indicated by traces of rust). The podium's floor was decorated with black and white marble slabs in geometric patterns. At the back of the platform there is a small crypt, presumably for cultic elements. Lead staples found suggest that the spaces between the built-in columns were closed off with curtains. Flanking aisles with further columns create a narrow corridor around which the cult platform could be circumambulated in ritual procession.

The inner walls of the chamber, painted in vibrant colors and adorned with elaborate stucco moldings, featured shallow niches for the display of cult objects and gifts offered to the goddess. Findings and calculations indicate that originally there was a second floor. The walls of the colonnaded second story would have had windows.

Excavations that took place at the southwest quadrant in the 1970s and 1980s revealed a series of arches that once stood up to 5.75 m in height, providing structural support for the temple. Additionally, this large vaulted terrace called "the liwan" (high hall open on one side with barrel vaults) by its excavators, which was plastered and painted, may have been used by visiting pilgrims or priests.

A number of rooms excavated northwest of the temple seem to have been built a little later. Their construction method is fundamentally different and they were rebuilt several times. However, their location suggests that they were originally directly connected to the temple complex. Some rooms were perhaps residences for temple personnel. Altars found indicate ritual activities. Others rooms seem to have been workshops, with evidence for grinding pigment, marble-working, production of miniature altars, processing oil, and hammering metal - activities that probably supported the temple's religious operations. In addition to pottery, uncovered objects of everyday life imply the presence of both men and women.

To the north of the temple there is a large, almost square paved area, the so-called North Court. On its eastern side is a monumental entrance, on the western side, a smaller one. The north, west and south walls have two or three steps or perhaps benches on the inside. It is assumed that rows of columns surrounded it with barrier-like protective walls placed between them. The exact function of this enigmatic room remains unknown.

The Temple of the Winged Lions Cultural Resource Management (TWLCRM) Initiative was launched in 2009 as a collaboration among the American Center of Oriental Research (ACOR), the Department of Antiquities of Jordan (DOA), and the Petra Archaeological Park (PAP), the local authority that administers and manages Petra.

The initiative works to stabilize, conserve, and present the temple and its precinct, to rehabilitate the surrounding landscape, through social engagement efforts aimed at involving local communities.

TWLCRM provides Petra’s local, mostly Bedouin communities with employment, training, and educational opportunities, encouraging them to become equal stakeholders in the site’s preservation and sustainability. More info on acorjordan.org

(© Summary and translations: Universes in Universe. From information on site provided by TWLCRM, and other sources including: Christopher A. Tuttle & Tali Erickson-Gini)

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