Protecting, Preserving, and Presenting Cultural Heritage in Petra: The Temple of the Winged Lions Cultural Resource Management Initiative

treasury, petra, tweissi

Figure 1: Petra’s most famous icon, the Al-Khazne (‘the Treasury’) tomb façade with tourist camel riders (Q. Tweissi).

By: Christopher A. Tuttle

Two hundred years ago, on 22 August 1812, the ancient city of Petra was re-identified by the Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt, the first European on record to have visited the site since the 13thcentury. Word of his discovery quickly spread and other visitors soon followed in his footsteps—inaugurating a bicentennial of exploration and research at this amazing site located in what is today southern Jordan.

Petra served as the capitol city for the kingdom of Nabataea from at least the second century BCE until Trajan’s annexation of the region into the Roman Empire in 106 CE. Under Roman rule, the city retained its importance and became the administrative center for the new province of Arabia Petraea. Although heavily damaged by a major earthquake in May 363 CE, the city continued to play a significant role in the region during the Byzantine period when it served as an episcopal see of the Christian church. In August 636 CE, the forces of the Rashidun Caliphate decisively defeated the Byzantine armies in the Battle of Yarmouk, driving them from the Levant; the status of the city seems to have faded rapidly during this early Islamic period as the new regime focused its centers of power elsewhere. The city once again assumed some political importance for a short period in the 12th century CE when it served as a military outpost and archbishopric in the Lordship of Oultrejordain, a territory conquered by Crusaders from the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem. This European control of Petra ended with the defeat of the Crusaders by the Ayyubid sultan Saladin. Although a growing corpus of evidence indicates that there was inhabitation in and around Petra during the medieval Islamic period, the city itself does not seem to have played any major political roles at the time. During the 14th century, under the Mamluks, a shrine commemorating the burial place of the Prophet Harun (Aaron, the brother of Moses) was constructed on nearby Jabal Harun, continuing a tradition of pilgrimage to the site that had begun in the Byzantine Christian period.

The Petra Archaeological Park was established by the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan in the latter half of the 20th century. Recognition of the park’s multiple outstanding universal values led to it being inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1985. While the site has attracted tourists since Burckhardt’s day, the number of visitors has steadily grown since the granting of its World Heritage status and as a result of its appearance in popular media, such as Agatha Christie’s 1938 novel Appointment with Death and the 1989 film Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. In 2007, Petra was also named one of the ‘New Seven Wonders of the World’ in a popularity-based internet competition on 07-07-07.

Petra, which means “rock” in Greek, is renowned for its rupestral monuments—predominantly tomb façades—that are carved into the sandstone cliffs encircling the ancient city. This same multi-colored sandstone, hewn from innumerable quarries in the surrounding mountains, is also the primary construction material employed for the free-standing buildings of Petra. This colorful stone, dominated by reddish, amaranthine and umber hues, imparts much of the city’s beauty and majesty. This same stone, however, is also the source of many of the challenges faced today in protecting and preserving this unique cultural heritage resource for the future.

Sandstone is inherently fragile and is prone to severe weathering by a host of different agents. These include not only the obvious agencies of wind, water, and use-related erosion, but also the detrimental impacts of solar radiation, rising damp, and efflorescence of salts that were deposited during the sedimentary formation of the stone layers. Figuring out how to set standards and procedures that mitigate these and other types of site damage in sustainable ways is a central challenge facing those working in Petra today.

petra salt damage

Figure 2: The façade of Tomb 609 in the Wadi Mu’eisra East after it collapsed following the winter rains in 2010. The white film visible on the cliff face are salts, which were a major contributing factor for the collapse (C.A. Tuttle).

Situated on the north slope of the Wadi Musa, which bisects the ancient city center, is the constructed ‘Temple of the Winged Lions’ (TWL). The temple is thought to have been built in the first quarter of the 1stcentury CE and dedicated to the worship of a Nabataean goddess who, at some point, may have been syncretized with the Hellenistic Isis, as traces of this cult were also found in the building. The TWL precinct and some surrounding ancillary areas were excavated between 1973 and 2005 by the independent American Expedition to Petra (AEP) project directed by the late Dr. Philip C. Hammond.

TWL aerial view

Figure 3: Aerial view over the Temple of the Winged Lions, looking west southwest. Aspects of the excavation impact zone, such as soil and rock dumps as well as lapidaria can be clearly seen (C.A. Tuttle).

Most of the stone conservation problems found in Petra are evident in the TWL precinct. The monument complex also embodies a number of other major issues that should be addressed when dealing with comprehensive cultural resource management at archaeological sites. These include the lack of any conservation or restoration of the precinct structures, debilitation of the landscape surrounding the excavation site, insufficient publication of the data recovered, and the absence of any presentation materials that inform visitors about the monument in its context. Given the diverse range of problems it encompasses, the TWL is ideal for implementing a program to develop standards and procedures for sustainable conservation, preservation, and presentation in Petra.

In 2009 the Temple of the Winged Lions Cultural Resource Management Initiative (TWLCRM) was launched by the American Center of Oriental Research (ACOR) in Amman, Jordan, in partnership with the Jordanian Department of Antiquities and the Petra Archaeological Park, and with cooperation from a large number of international organizations and missions. The project is presently undertaking a multi-year campaign for the re-documentation, conservation, preservation, restoration, presentation, landscape rejuvenation, and re-publication of this important monumental complex. The project received some of its required funding through a 2011 U.S. Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation Large Grant. Additional monies are derived from a USAID endowment for cultural heritage work in Petra that is administered by ACOR. Fundraising efforts continue, however, in order to ensure that all of the TWLCRM project components can be completed.


Figure 4: The Temple of the Winged Lions Cultural Resource Management initiative’s logo, inspired by the eponymous capitals found inside the temple (Q. Tweissi).

The TWLCRM initiative is based on a grassroots model designed around the belief that cultural resource management efforts can only be sustainable through the direct involvement of the local populations whose lives are tied directly to the site. A significant portion of the team’s efforts during the first year of field work has been focused on social engagement and capacity-building within the immediate communities that interact with the Petra Archaeological Park. These efforts have included identifying junior team members and training them in required skills, creating a women’s cooperative for producing needed supplies, and establishing equal opportunity employment practices to help ensure that any economic benefits generated by the project reach as wide a section of the populace as possible. All of these efforts are undertaken in the form of a dialogue between the TWLCRM expert team and members of the local communities in order to promote different educational aspects for both parties. This direct engagement approach is beneficial in fostering both a greater comprehension about the values of cultural heritage resources (beyond the mere economical) and the importance of participating in order to create sustainable preservation of the resources for the future.

Local team members have been trained at present in a variety of documentation skills. One team is learning to identify, record, and catalogue the diverse range of architectural elements scattered across the TWL site. A second team is working with the conservators to document and record the different types of deterioration affecting the standing structures so that suitable interventions can be designed; this work has to be done stone-by-stone since frequently individual building elements exhibit multiple types of deterioration, each of which will require different conservation techniques. Recently, one young woman asked to work with the team surveyor so that she might learn about this skill (there are no women surveyors in Jordan!).

Many of the in situ architectural elements—walls, floors, foundations—are in dire states of preservation and are at great risk of further damage and even collapse. The TWLCRM initiative requires thousands of sandbags for buttressing, covering damaged surfaces, and controlling foot traffic in dangerous areas. Sandbags, however, are not readily available nor cheap in Jordan. To solve this problem, the project created a cooperative in three local communities, constituted of women in need of independent incomes, to make the required sandbags. Recycled burlap (jute) rice bags are obtained and distributed to the cooperative members. These bags are too large for the project’s needs, so the women hand-modify them at home with their families using needles and jute twine. Once filled on site, another group of women is employed to sew the bags closed. The project estimates it will require about 12,000 bags; approximately 80% of the entire amount spent on each bag goes directly to the women. The TWLCRM is planning to open this service to other projects as a means of making the cooperative sustainable.

TWLCRM team members sewing sandbags

Figure 5: TWLCRM team members in the field sewing closed the full sandbags, a wall of which can be seen behind the ladies (Q. Tweissi).

Archaeological work has been conducted in Petra since the early 1930s. Despite this history, employment opportunities for women in the cultural resource projects have been scarce, generally limited to picking up trash and making tea for the laborers. The TWLCRM initiative has begun changing this status quo through employing teams of women to work on the site during the field seasons. As part of the land rejuvenation aspect of the project, all of the original soil and rock dumps are being removed from the excavation impact zone, which extends nearly 200 meters in all directions around the perimeter of the actual monument. The soil dumps are excavated and the dirt transported to sifting stations by a male team. The soil is then screened by an all women team who collect and sort the material culture remains for cataloguing and study. Women are also employed to clean and then bag all of these materials. When necessary, the project employs one woman each day to assist with a form of “day care” on site for the children of the team members who have to come to work with their mothers.

TWLCRM removing dump

Figure 6: TWLCRM team members removing an original excavation dump and transporting the soils to the sifting station (Q. Tweissi).

Petra as an economic resource is the value that most resonates within the local communities. Jobs on cultural heritage projects are eagerly sought whenever they are available. An important part of the TWLCRM’s social engagement strategy is to ensure egalitarianism with respect to the jobs created. All individuals seeking employment, both men and women, are added in sequence to a roster, which is organized by villages, tribes, and families. With the assistance of members of each community, field teams are then composed for each season by selecting people from all of these categories to ensure an equitable distribution of the opportunities. Priority is given during each selection to people who are identified by their peers as having pressing financial need. Field seasons are generally limited to two week periods, with the selection of a new team for the next period,  in order to create as many opportunities as possible. Employees are monitored by the TWLCRM staff who identify those individuals who demonstrate an interest in learning and developing new skills; these team members are then added to another list to be considered for additional training in skills that will be required for later stages of the work. All field team members, regardless of gender, are remunerated on the same pay scale, which is tiered and based on ability and commitment levels as a means of inaugurating an incentive-based work system.

TWLCRM women sifting

Figure 7: Some of the TWLCRM’s all women sifting team at work on site, helping to remove an original excavation dump (Q. Tweissi).

The final project component to be presented here is a new innovation for cultural resource management work in Petra. This is the landscape rejuvenation aspect of the TWLCRM initiative. The fact that archaeological work itself is a form of destruction is a recognized truism. Archaeologists are accustomed to addressing this problem with respect to excavation methodology and recording systems to mitigate damage to physical remains and minimize the loss of information. Specialists have not been as attentive, however, to the impact zone that can be inadvertently created in the process of conducting scientific excavations. The placement of soil and rock dumps, lapadaria, as well as work paths can introduce major changes to the landscape in and around the focal point of an excavation. These alterations not only frequently inhibit additional scientific work in abutting sectors of a site, but also have enduring impacts on the environment, such as causing changes in vegetation cover and inducing habitat degradation. Such modifications can be of major significance at World Heritage sites for which environmental context is one of the contributing outstanding universal values.

The TWLCRM team includes a landscape architect who is conducting a thorough study of the original AEP excavation impact zone around the temple precinct. A year-long vegetation survey is being conducted across the site and at two unexcavated comparison locations that share similar slopes and aspect. The baseline data generated by this work will then be used during the final presentation phase of the initiative in order to rehabilitate the landscape upon completion of the current project.

The TWLCRM initiative is a complex and long-term project. What has been presented here are just a few of the subcomponents that are active during the first years of the fieldwork. The project plans to provide regular updates about its progress as the work continues. These updates will soon be available through the ACOR website (

Christopher A. Tuttle is an Associate Director of the American Center of Oriental Research (ACOR) in Amman, Jordan.


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  1. Pingback: Protecting and preserving the World Heritage Petra | jezra travel

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