The Urn Tomb

By the Editors of the Madain Project

The Urn tomb (ضريح الجرة) derived its name from the jar that crowns the pediment. Also called by the bedouin al-Mahkamah (court of justice) it was probably constructed around 70 CE. High up in the facade there are 3 niches which give on to small burial chambers, but which was adapted in 446 CE to serve as a Byzantine church.


Suggested to have been built by the Nabataean King Malchus II or King Aretas IV who died in 70 CE. The vaults supporting the terrace as-sun (prison) – perhaps myth, or reflecting a later use. The tomb is located on the East Ridge (also called the East Cliff), in the side of the mountain known as al-Khubta, above Wadi Musa. To the north of the Urn Tomb is the Silk Tomb, and north of that is the (mis)called Corinthian.


circa 10 BCE

An early account tells of Christians in Petra being martyred during the persecution of emperor Diocletian at the beginning of the 4th century CE, for refusing to offer sacrifice to Roman gods. Nevertheless, a Christian presence persisted. Bishops from Petra attended Church synods and councils from 343 CE, indicating that the city had become a significant Christian centre.

circa 10 BCE

The central niche covered by remains of a slab showing a man in a toga. Near the tops of the engaged columns, between them, we see two square niches (a third is masked by the cliff on the right from inside). Some scholars interpret these as the burial chambers. Judging from their size, they could have been chambers for secondary burial, that is, repositories for the bones after the flesh was gone. The niches were closed by slabs. The central one still has part of its slab. On it, in relief, is a man in a toga—the king is watching.

circa 10 BCE

The interior of the tomb, the three apses in the rear wall were constructed when the tomb was converted in to a church in year 446 CE. The large interior hall is 18.5 x 17 meters. A Greek inscription in the left part of the back wall indicates that in 447 CE, a Bishop Jason consecrated the space converted into a church. For this reason, in the Eastern wall a bigger central apse and two smaller ones were added.

circa 10 BCE

The interior of the tomb, looking towards the main entrance. A rare inscription to “Christ the Saviour” inside one of the rooms of the Urn Tomb indicates that it was converted into a church in 447 CE by Bishop Jason. The Byzantine people flattened the floor of the tomb and put in an altar. What distinguishes the Urn Tomb is its scale. Surely this was the resting place of a king. Yet there are no burial chambers in this hall. There are indeed arched alcoves, as in the other royal tombs (also in the Treasury and the Deir Monastery).

circa 10 BCE

The tomb is preceded by a deep courtyard with colonnades on two sides. The columned porticos line both sides of the courtyard. Along the side of the front courtyard are a line of columns. The door to the main chamber is rather eroded on the bottom, but the lines are still quite visible. There are five more niches (inspect) in the side wall above the colonnade of the Urn Tomb. These may have been cut later to receive the bones of the king's relatives or officials.

circa 10 BCE

The Urn tomb is built high on the mountain side, and requires climbing up a number of flights of stairs to reach the main tomb courtyard. Although exact purpose of the arched chambers (inspect) in front of the Urn Tomb is unknown but these might had been used as burial chambers in the sacred precinct. The Urn Tomb was one of the Royal Tombs of Petra. It had two layers of vaults and is thought to be the tomb of the Nabatean king, Malchus II. The vaults are locally known as as-Sijin, “the Jail”, but their actual use is not known, these were added during the Byzantine expansions of the Urn Tomb.

circa 10 BCE

During the sunsets on the summer and winter solstices and autumnal and vernal equinoxes, sunlight reaches the far end of the Urn Tomb chamber, precisely illuminating carved niches at the rear of the chamber.

circa 10 BCE

The Doric colonnade on the courtyard's north side belonged, however, to the original tomb, and there was a corresponding colonnade on the south as well. Here then we have the courtyard that the Turkmaniyah inscription would lead us to expect, but there is no trace of a triclinium.

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