Were the Women of Petra More Important Than the Men?
The Nabataeans were a society who inhabited Arabia and the Southern Levant from the 3rd century BC to approximately 106 AD when the Nabataean kingdom was annexed by the Roman Empire. Known for their extensive trade routes the Nabataean kingdom grew very wealthy and prospered in the 1st Century AD. Its capital city, Petra, was a thriving commercial hub.
Today, the area that was once the mighty Nabataean kingdom is known as a rich source of archaeology. Petra was a city carved from stone, and sites such as the spectacular Al-Khazneh temple survive in near perfect condition.
In recent years it has been possible to decipher the ancient inscriptions in the city. This along with significant discoveries have meant it is now possible to learn a lot about the society and culture of ancient Nabataea and particularly life in Petra. There are even clues that have led some to question the role of women in the city - could it be possible that at one time they were not just equal but more important than men?
Al-Uzza, the goddess who represented the planet Venus and so corresponded to Ishtar /Ashtart /Inanna, appeared both as betyl and sculpture. Temple relief at Khirbet et-Tannur, Jordan. ( CC0)
Religion in Petra
Long before Islam was established in the Middle East, the Nabataeans were a pantheistic society. They worshiped both local deities and deities from other societies, including Isis and Dionysus - they would have encountered these new religious figures through their extensive trade networks.
Their vast pantheon of local deities included a number of powerful goddesses. Although other important goddesses were revered, including Allat and Manat, one of these goddesses was Al-‘Uzza, whose name translates to “the mightiest one”. It is she that offers some of the greatest evidence that women were well respected in Petra.
Al-‘Uzza is a goddess frequently associated with water, an important resource to a society based in the arid Arabian desert. Her association with such an important resource tells us she was clearly a key figure in the Nabataean religion. What is thought to be her image has been found throughout Petra in carvings on slabs of stone called ‘betyls’ which are known colloquially as ‘eye idols’ due to their simple carved faces with prominent eyes.
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Al-‘Uzza goddess - Her image has been found throughout Petra in carvings on slabs of stone called ‘betyls’. (Zcmetallica / CC BY-SA 3.0 )
The Temple of the Winged Lions
As well as the bounty of surviving eye idols, which are evidence that worship of Al-‘Uzza was widespread, the remains of a large temple dedicated to her can still be found in the center of Petra today. While standing it would have been a grand building with a large raised altar and massive columns with ornate carvings. Some of these carvings are what give the temple its name – the Temple of the Winged Lions.
The Temple of Winged Lions, Petra, Jordan. (Bgag / CC BY-SA 3.0 )
Within the ruins of the temple archaeologists found a spectacular eye idol, confirming the temples association with Al-‘Uzza and indicating it was a place where rituals were held to pay homage and call upon her. They believe that female priests were part of a cult dedicated to Al-‘Uzza and that they may have performed complex arcane rituals at the temple involving chanting, incense, and even idol worship. A carefully designed podium would have allowed an image of the goddess to remain hidden and facilitated a dramatic unveiling during ceremonies.
Evidence of Other Female Deities
Evidence of other female deities is also found around the sprawling expanse of Petra. Here, a relief that is thought to portray Atargatis, a fertility goddess.
This statue comes from the Nabatean temple at Khirbet Tannur. Atargatis, the "Syrian Goddess" (Lucian, De Syria Dea) was a vegetation goddess. ( CC BY-SA 2.0 )
The Status of Women in Nabataean Society
The widespread worship, prominence, and importance of female deities throughout the Nabataean kingdom and within Petra itself, shows that women must have been respected. Furthermore, the belief that priestesses played a key role in the worship of Al-‘Uzza may be evidence that women were more than just respected and were able to reach very high status in Nabataean society. There is certainly enough evidence to confirm they had far greater rights and privileges than women in Europe or the Roman Empire did at the time.
In 1961 archaeologists found an astounding set of scrolls which had lain forgotten in a cave for around 2000 years. They document the power and eminence of a woman in Nabataean society. She was fully literate, owned important land, and her property was linked to that of the Nabataean king. It is clear from the documents that she was independent, influential, and extremely wealthy. The scrolls are evidence that women had status in their own right and could own property.
The Arabian goddess Allat standing on a lion flanked by two female figures, possibly Manat and al-Uzza. (JDHaidar / Public Domain )
The idea that women were such a valued part of a society was surprising when evidence was first unearthed, but proof is now abundant, and it can no longer be denied. Temples, eye idols, scrolls, and even sites carved into the side of cliffs all show us that for a while women in Petra had status and held an elevated and important role in Nabataean society. It is arguable that for centuries, with unrivalled power and influence, women in Nabataea and in particular Petra had higher status than the men.
Top image: Woman at Petra. Source: Danniela / Adobe Stock
Corbett, J. 2009. Solving the Enigma of Petra and the Nabataeans. Biblical Archaeology Review. [Online] Available at: https://web.archive.org/web/20090816192721/http://www.bib-arch.org/e-features/petra.asp
Smithsonian Channel. 2017. SACRED SITES: what these scrolls tell us about women in Petra [Online] Available at: https://www.smithsonianchannel.com/videos/what-these-mysterious-scrolls-tell-us-about-women-in-petra/50745
Smithsonian Channel. 2017. Were the women of Petra more important than men? [Online] Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qTfhevu6Gj8
Taylor, J. 2001. The Lost Kingdom of the Nabataeans. I.B Tauris Publishing
Wadeson, L. 2015. Nabataean Tomb Complexes at Petra: New Insights in Light of Recent Fieldwork . University of Oxford. [Online] Available at: http://www.ascs.org.au/news/ascs32/Wadeson.pdf