Royal Tombs of Petra

By the Editors of the Madain Project

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The Royal Tombs (المقابر الملكية) of Petra, which were carved from rose-red sandstone by the Nabateans more than 2,300 years ago, sit at the heart of the ancient city of Petra. Carved in to the base of el-Khubtha mountain, a short distance from where the outer Siq opens out on to Petra's central plain. The monumental size and richly decorated facades suggest that they were built for wealth or important people, possibly Petran kings or queens.


The architectural ensemble comprising the so-called "royal tombs" in Petra (including the Khasneh, the Urn Tomb, the Palace Tomb and the Corinthian Tomb), and the Deir ("monastery") demonstrate an outstanding fusion of Hellenistic architecture with Eastern tradition, marking a significant meeting of East and West at the turn of the first millennium of our era.

These are the masterpieces of a lost city that has fascinated visitors since the early 19th century, reflecting architectural influences from the Assyrians through to monumental Hellenistic architecture.

Overlooking the center of Petra rise majestically the so-called "Royal Tombs," a series of large mausoleums with impressive facades hewn from the western slope of the Jabal al-Khubtha rock massif. It is not possible to associate them to particular Nabataean rulers, due to the lack archaeological evidence. But recent research seems to confirm their royal context.

List of the Royal Tombs

circa 100 CE

Palace Tomb
The facade of the Palace Tomb, the lower part consists of 12 decorated columns and four gates. The second portal from the left is one of the most detriorated. The four portals lead in to four separate burial chambers, with three distinct stories in it's facade. This name was given to the cemetery as it resembles a palace. Supposedly, it is similar to the Roman palace design of the Golden House of Nero. In front of the tomb is a large stage and in front of this a large courtyard.

The structure described as boasting a "palace front," is one of the largest monuments of Petra. Its five-storey façade (49 m width and approx. 46 m height) shows an overwhelming proliferation of architectural elements for purely ornamental purposes, with an intricate rhythmization of pilasters, columns and entablature elements.

circa 100 CE

Urn Tomb
The facade of the so called Urn tomb, designated as the BD 772[N1], suggested to beling to the Nabataean King Malchus II who died in 70 CE. The vaults supporting the terrace as-sun (prison) – perhaps myth, or reflecting a later use. Some traditions relate about the tomb possibly being used as a church. An inscription in red paint records its consecration "in the time of the most holy bishop Jason", 447 CE. This derived its name from the jar that crowns the pediment. It is preceded by a deep courtyard with colonnades on two sides.

Its 26 m x 16.49 m façade is structured by two half columns at the center and two pilasters with engaged quarter columns at the corners, erected on a podium on either side of the doorway order. They bear Nabataean capitals and support a weathered entablature whose frieze contains four panels with bust-reliefs. These unusual frieze figures with their heads intruding the upper frame probably represent Nabataean deities. The dwarf pilasters of the upper order are in alignment with the bust-reliefs and the supports of the lower order. The triangular pediment is crowned by a lidded urn, which has given the tomb its name.

circa 100 CE

Silk Tomb
The Silk Tomb takes its name from majestic multi- colored layers of rock that appear like a silk drapery over a tomb. Located next to the distinctive Urn Tomb in the Royal Tomb group is the so-called Silk Tomb, noteworthy for the stunning swirls of pink-, white- and yellow-veined rock in its facade.

A closer look reveal the Hegra-type[N2] architectural details: A principal order with entablature supported by four half columns; a dwarf order with pilasters and mouldings (fascia, torus and large cavetto); and a frieze of two sets of five steps facing each other. The doorway appears to have been plain, with a loculus above it. In the spaces between the outer half columns there are framed niches with an extremely weathered relief figure.

circa 100 CE

Corinthian Tomb
The so-called Corinthian Tomb, one of the most sadly eroded façades in Petra. The whole design – including its columns and floral capitals – was clearly modelled on that of the Treasury, but its squat proportions and eclectic style make it less aesthetically pleasing. It is believed to date from the reign of Malichus II (40-70 CE), but no name has been associated with its construction.

The heavily weathered façade (27.55 m width x 28 m height) consists of three orders. The lowest is structured by eight half columns, whose centre pair carries a segmental (curved) weather-beaten pediment. The middle order is also very eroded especially on the left half. It has eight dwarf pilasters in alignment with the order below. The recessed and protruding spaces between the supports of the entablatures alternate in an opposite way on both orders.


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