Nestled amid the sandstone valleys and cliffs of southern Jordan, the Nabataeans built Petra as their capital more than 2,000 years ago. This nomadic group were traders of frankincense and myrrh, whose kingdom spanned from Damascus to modern day Saudi Arabia. The Nabataeans ruled over the area for several centuries before eventually being annexed by the Roman Empire in 106 A.D.

At the heart of the ancient capital lies a wide, half-mile long colonnaded boulevard. Surrounding this artery were the key institutions and monuments that facilitated daily life in the bustling metropolis. These include the remnants of luxurious pools and gardens, an elegant fountain, and a grand royal audience hall.

At the end of this main street is Petra’s “Sacred Quarter,” which features two large temples. The first is Qasr al-Bint, a well-preserved state shrine to the chief Nabataean god Dushara. The second is the Temple of the Winged Lions, built to honor the goddess al-Uzza.

The Temple of the Winged Lions is a large sacred complex with an ascending staircase, a grand entrance flanked by columns, and an inner cultic chamber with a raised podium. While most of the columns had Corinthian-style capitals, the dozen columns surrounding the main podium were adorned with the unique “winged lion” capitals that give the monument its name.

The temple’s spiritual focus was likely a statue or an unadorned standing stone, representative of the goddess al-Uzza, that was set atop the podium and around which priests and devotees would circle. The walls and columns of the temple’s inner sanctum were brightly painted with floral and figurative designs, while small recesses and niches surrounding the podium held offerings and idols emblematic of the goddess. Thought to have been built by the Nabataeans during the first century A.D., the temple continued to thrive well into the Roman period and only fell out of use following the devastating earthquake that struck Petra in A.D. 363.

Excavation and Conservation:

Western explorers and archaeologists were aware of the temple’s location in the early 19th century, although the building’s nature and function remained a mystery until the 1970s when Philip C. Hammond led the American Expedition to Petra (AEP) that excavated the site. It was during this period that the nominal “winged lion” capitals were discovered perched atop the columns of the temple’s inner sanctuary.

Unfortunately, the AEP never thoroughly conserved the temple they uncovered. The temple’s exposure to wind, water, and erosion, as well as solar radiation, salt efflorescence, and vandalism have caused severe damage. By 2009, it became clear that the temple would not survive if steps were not taken to ensure the site’s preservation.

That year, the American Center of Oriental Research, the Department of Antiquities, and the Petra Archaeological Park established the Temple of the Winged Lions Cultural Resource Management (TWLCRM) Initiative with the aim of preserving the archaeological site. The TWLCRM employs a holistic approach to the temple’s preservation that is environmentally conscious, highlights presentation and touristic potential, shares information, develops and codifies best practices for cultural resource management, and prioritizes community involvement.

The TWLCRM has achieved great success through its grassroots, community-based model of site development. Through its training programs in site documentation, management, surveying, conservation, and site presentation, the project has created more than 800 employment opportunities, and trained more than 400 members of Petra’s host communities in vocational skills related to site preservation and management. More than 60% of those trained have been women, while 75% have been youth under age 30.

SCHEP Support:

Conservation of the temple is ongoing, and beginning in November 2015, USAID SCHEP began supporting a new local non-profit founded by members of the TWLCRM local team—Sela for Vocational Training and Protection of Cultural Heritage—to implement critical tasks in the temple’s problematic “southwest quadrant.” Through its training program in archaeology, conservation, documentation, and site presentation, Sela is providing more than 60 members of Petra’s host communities with much-needed vocational skills in heritage preservation, while also achieving important results on site, including the construction of new, well-defined paths that will link the southwest quadrant to other parts of the site. Sela trainees have also been involved in critical excavations to understand better the temple’s final demise in A.D. 363, and have been essential in carrying out emergency conservation measures that are required before the entire southwest quadrant is ultimately backfilled for reasons of stabilization and safety.

Host Community:

While Sela trainees primarily hail from Umm Seyhoun, the village created to house the Bedouin who were moved out of Petra when it became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1985, Sela and the TWLCRM Initiative place priority on providing training opportunities to all of Petra’s surrounding communities, including Wadi Musa, Bayda, Dalagha, Rajif, and even villages in Wadi Araba. Sela’s equal-opportunity training programs are gender-blind and emphasize the need for establishing merit and experience-based employment in the cultural resource management fields.   

Implementing Partner: Sela for Vocational Training and Protection of Cultural Heritage.

TWLCRM Project Directors:  Dr. Glenn Corbett.

Site Stewards: Eman Abdessalam and Ahmad Mowasa.