Meaningful Motifs

Part of the Petra exhibition.


Today Petra's spectacular 2,000-year-old architecture serves as an ancient archive of Nabataean culture. Much of the decoration had a purpose or meaning. Delicately crafted motifs decorate Petra's tombs and temples, adding beauty while serving a symbolic and often protective function for the monuments they adorned. Although the Nabataeans developed their own unique carvings, these were often based on imagery current in neighboring cultures, both east and west.

Lion head

Motifs derived from Hellenistic Greek art and mythology include fanciful winged sphinxes and griffins, eagles and lions, and the famed gorgon Medusa, whose glance turned onlookers to stone. Many designs also contain elements of nature such as vines and flowers that reflect the fertile land of Petra's cultivated slopes. Other images, such as elephant heads, evoke distant lands, where Nabataean traders ventured.

Petra exhibition
© AMNH Photo Studio