The Zodiac

Part of the Petra exhibition.

Bust of Pisces

Worship of the heavenly bodies was central to Nabataean religion. The notion of a divine connection between heaven and Earth dates back to more than 1,000 years before the Nabataeans, who predicted events on Earth by plotting the movement of the Sun, Moon and planets against the stars. Known as the zodiac, this system permeated the Hellenistic Near East, and zodiacal figures became popular in Nabataean architecture.

The zodiac consisted of 12 constellations through which the heavenly bodies moved; zodiacal signs delineated the constellations' boundaries. When charted on a disk, each sign was 30 degrees of the 360-degree circle. Following Roman precedent, the Nabataeans sculpted zodiacal figures encircling an astral deity, suggesting divine control over the cosmos.

A Nabataean twist

Zodiac Disk with Tyche

The zodiacal disk uncovered at the temple of Khirbet et-Tannur is unique in a number of important respects. To begin with, the figures that represent the zodiac appear in an unusual order. Instead of a conventional continuous sequence, the figures proceed in opposite directions from the top down. This arrangement in two halves suggests that the Nabataean calendar consisted of two yearly cycles: a natural new year beginning with spring and a civic new year that began in autumn.

In addition, the Khirbet et-Tannur disk shows some variations in its representation of zodiacal signs. Two of the traditional animals--the ram of Aries and the goat of Capricorn--now appear as abbreviated busts, like many other zodiac-related figures found at this site.