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

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 three large temples. They are  the Qasr al-Bint, a well-preserved state shrine to the chief Nabataean god Dushara; the complex called the Great Temple which had many phases and seemingly changing functions; and 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. They were perched atop the columns of the temple’s inner sanctuary.


Following excavation, the temple’s exposure to wind, water, and erosion, as well as solar radiation, salt efflorescence, and vandalism had caused severe damage . Although there had been some small-scale conservation interventions, much more was needed to protect the site. By 2009, it became clear that the temple would not survive if steps were not taken to ensure its long term preservation.

That year, the American Center of Oriental Research (ACOR), the Department of Antiquities (DOA), and the Petra Development and Tourism Region Authority (PDTRA) established the Temple of the Winged Lions Cultural Resource Management (TWLCRM) Initiative. The TWLCRM Initiative 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.

USAID SCHEP support has focused on conserving exposed structures, specifically the cleaning and removal of destructive salts and cements and the application of clean mortars. Much of this work was done in the southwest quadrant of the temple and in the Cella and on the central podium. SCHEP funds also supported the creation of paths and the installation of interpretive panels to help visitors understand and navigate the temple.


Additionally, SCHEP supported the "Experience Petra" program that allows visitors to the temple to engage in various conservation activities, such as mortaring stones, sifting through dirt, washing and sorting pottery, and documentation. So far, between 2015 and 2018, more than 750 students from across Jordan participated in the program, many of them as part of their first visit to Petra. 

The TWLCRM Initiative has achieved success through its grassroots, community-based model of site development. Through its training programs in site documentation, management, surveying, conservation, and site presentation, SCHEP support led to employment and professional development opportunities for over 100 community members, roughly one third of them female. 


SCHEP Support:

Conservation of the temple has been an ongoing effort. Beginning in November 2015, USAID SCHEP began supporting a new local non-profit company 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. Sela worked as part of the TWLCRM Initiative until July 2017. Through training programs in archaeology, conservation, documentation, and site presentation, Sela provided 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 link the southwest quadrant to other parts of the site. Trainees and the TWL team were involved in critical excavations to understand better the temple’s final demise in A.D. 363, and with the support of PDTRA staff have carried out emergency conservation measures that are required before the entire southwest quadrant was backfilled for reasons of stabilization and safety in spring 2018. Additional work in 2017 and 2018 supported by SCHEP, enabled leading specialists in conservation and geology to help provide capping material for the Cella podium, conserve and support leaning columns, and backfill the Cella floor to help prevent the accumulation and seepage of rainfall. Graphic signage has been created at the Temple of the Winged Lions and new pathways were added, making this site better interpreted and more accessible to community members and visitors than ever before.  

Host Community:

While TWLCRM team members primarily hail from Umm Seyhoun, the village created to house the families who were moved out of Petra when it became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1985, the TWLCRM Initiative has placed priority on providing training opportunities to all of Petra’s surrounding communities, including Wadi Musa, Bayda, Dalagha, Rajif, and villages in Wadi Araba. Recruitment and training was gender-blind and emphasized the need for establishing merit and experience-based employment in the cultural resource management fields.   

The TWLCRM Initiative in Petra is unique for the high level of female participation. To highlight this success, SCHEP worked to support these women and document their sucess. We invite you to help us celebrate the Women for Heritage by watching this video


For some more information on the achievements of the TWLCRM Initiative and its support by USAID SCHEP, see ACOR’s past newsletters for Winter 2017, Winter 2016, and Winter 2015.