The International Aslah Project

Preliminary Report on the 2010 Season

by Robert Wenning and Laurent Gorgerat

III. Southern Terrace – a. The Triclinium of Aslah (D. 17)

Brünnow – Domaszewski were the first to list the monuments of the Aslah-triclinium-complex in 1904 Brünnow – Domaszewski 1904: 199, 203 nos. 19–28 with map pl. III; cf. Markoe 2003: fig. 142 for a more precise map from 1999. , followed by Dalman in 1908 Dalman 1908: 107 nos. 15–21 and 1912: 40. . In 1990/91 Zayadine and Farajat cleaned the triclinium and studied the complex Zayadine – Farajat 1991: 275. . Furthermore, Merklein attempted some interpretation of the area in 1995 Merklein 1995: 109–115, but cf. Kühn 2005: 70–73. . In 1997, Merklein and Wenning studied the complex again as part of their „Petra Niches Project“ (PNP) cf. the sketch in Kühn 2005: fig. 8. . The first thorough study of the Aslah-triclinium-complex, however, is currently done by the IAP. Wenning forthcoming. gave a paper on the historiography of the complex at the 11th International Conference on the History and Archaeology of Jordan in Paris 2010.

Fig. 3: Southern Terrace. Triclinium of Aslah (drawing: Th. Kabs and L. Gorgerat)
Fig. 3: Southern Terrace. Triclinium of Aslah (drawing: Th. Kabs and L. Gorgerat)

After the cleaning of the triclinium by Fawzi Zayadine and Suleiman Farajat in 1990/91, it took not much effort to clean the room once again. We measured and documented the room in full detail including ancient and more recent alterations, due to intense secondary use by the B’dool in the past and present (fig. 3). None of the older plans of the triclinium proved to be correct Dalman 1912: fig. 34; McKenzie 1990: pl. 167d; Zayadine – Farajat 1991: 277 fig. 2. .

The Aslah-inscription

The triclinium constitutes the most important structure of the Southern Terrace as can be deduced from the Nabataean inscription cut high into the back wall (fig. 4). We are dealing with at least two inscriptions as line 1 is to be separated from lines 2–4. The latter is a dedicatory inscription: „Aslah, the son of Aslah, made this rock-cut chamber for Dušara, the god of MNBTW (or MNKTW), for the life of Obodas, king of the Nabaṭū, the son of Aretas, king of the Nabaṭū, year 1.“ Following palaeographic analysis the Obodas mentioned in the text is in fact king Obodas I. He became king after about 96/100 BC and before 93/95. Therefore the inscription is often dated into the year 96/95 BC It is stated that this is the oldest Nabataean inscription found in Petra so far. This was the main reason for us to chose the Aslah-triclinium-complex in the framework of the „Early Petra Project“.

We studied the inscription carefully and noticed a few more damages since its last inspection ten years ago. The reading of MNBTW (Dalman) or MNKTW/Malikatu (Milik) is much debated. While the suggested interpretation of MNKTW by Savignac in 1913 Savigny 1913: 442. seemed coherent according to his facsimile, a closer study revealed that the shapes of some letters in the published facsimiles Dalman 1912: 172; Savignac 1913 441; Cantineau 1932: 2. do not fit with our photographs of the letters. Among them is the third letter of MNBTW. As the scholarly discussion is based mainly on the facsimiles, we decided to study the whole inscription once again. At the moment we cannot exclude the one or the other reading, since we have arguments for both. If the reading MNKTW is accepted, however, it might be rather associated with a PN than with the king Malichus.

In the first line we are told that Aslah made rock-cut chambers and a cistern. They are not specifically dedicated to Dušara. The chambers can be identified with the two lateral rooms (D. 16 and D. 17' and possible D. 17 too) and the cistern D. 19. Line 1 used an older form of the demonstrative pronoun than in line 2. From this it was speculated that line 1 was older or younger than lines 2–4 and that the construction of the Aslah-triclinium-complex could go back to the middle of the 2nd century BC. However, such a large span between the two inscriptions seems doubtful. The lateral rooms as well as the cistern must have been added to the complex after the triclinium was cut. We therefore deny any dating of the complex before the early 1st century BC.

Fig. 4: Southern Terrace. Triclinium of Aslah (D. 17). Nabataean inscription on the eastern wall (photo: L. Gorgerat)
Fig. 4: Southern Terrace. Triclinium of Aslah (D. 17). Nabataean inscription on the eastern wall (photo: L. Gorgerat)

At the southern lateral wall we discovered another Nabataean inscription, which is not so well preserved and is difficult to read (fig. 5). In 1904 Brünnow – Domaszewski mentioned multiple Nabataean inscriptions Brünnow – Domaszewski 1904: 199 no. 21. , but up to now the second inscription was completely ignored. L. Nehmé kindly informed us that Milik discovered the inscription as well and has included it into the supplement to the CIS II currently in the editing process. . As the inscription is indeed difficult to read, but its content possibly being of great importance, we invited L. Nehmé to share her expertise with us. She agreed to study the inscription and to publish it in the Second Preliminary Report of the IAP. We are very thankful for her cooperation.

Fig. 5: Southern Terrace. Triclinium of Aslah (D.17). Nabataean inscription on the southern wall (photo: L. Gorgerat)
Fig. 5: Southern Terrace. Triclinium of Aslah (D.17). Nabataean inscription on the southern wall (photo: L. Gorgerat)

The entrance

It has been often emphasized that the façade of the triclinium is without any decoration. However, the broad and high entrance had lateral simple flat frames. The frame can be measured at the northern door post, while the frame at the southern door post is broken off. There seems to be no upper frame. The original width of the entrance can be measured only in the upper part since the lower parts are either disturbed or completely destroyed. The thickness of the northern entrance wall measures 43 cm.

The entrance measures 2.98 m in width. A large rock-cut threshold protrudes slightly outwards (fig. 6). The width measures 59–60 cm. The threshold is framed by an outer edge which continues for 27 cm to the north and 30 cm to the south beyond the entrance. In front of it a groove of 13.5 cm width is cut. At the southern end of the groove a hollow of 12 x 13 cm dimensions with a depth of 4.5–12.5 cm can be seen, possibly the rest of a door-hinge. It seems that originally the triclinium could be closed by a wooden door from the outside. It cannot be excluded that the lateral frames correspond with this door mechanism.

Fig. 6: Southern Terrace. Triclinium of Aslah (D. 17). Threshold (photo: L. Gorgerat)
Fig. 6: Southern Terrace. Triclinium of Aslah (D. 17). Threshold (photo: L. Gorgerat)

A round hole of 12 x 14 x 9.5 cm is cut into the threshold close to the front edge situated 1.15 m from the southern door post, which is about a third of the width of the entrance. It is not yet clear, if this hole belongs to the original or the secondary entrance situation. A shallow 20–27 cm broad channel joins the inner side of the threshold at a level slightly deeper than the floor of the triclinium. The channel is roughly pecked. A narrow channel crosses the threshold about 33 cm from the southern door post. This channel is 6 cm broad and 5.5 cm deep. It starts from the southern corner of the flat broad channel and could have carried water out from the interior, although today the poor state of preservation leads to the opposite. The channel continues a bit beyond the outer edge of the threshold. Whether a crack (FK 14) in the rock directly in front of the southern part of the entrance or the stepped edge towards trench 2 was used to direct water to the south remains uncertain. FK 14 was excavated at a length of 2.05 m.

Three holes of different seizes with no particular alignment are cut into the broad channel running along the inner side of the threshold. They are clearly secondary in date. At least the middle one (15 x 13 x 9 cm) could have been part of the door mechanism, which itself seems to be secondary, enabling the door to close from the inside. A fourth deep hole (16 x 16 x 15 cm) was discovered in the floor of the triclinium to the east of the southern hole. It is as well secondary, but the function of it is also uncertain.

The floor

Remains of the probably original floor can be seen in full width only in the back but other small fragmentary bits survive near the benches. The floor is damaged and irregularly splintered with large pieces broken out, especially towards the entrance as a result of the long secondary use as a shelter for animals as it is still used today.

The benches

Both lateral sides show benches (clinia). An irregular arrangement was chosen for the bench at the back (fig. 7). Two steps once lead up to the lateral benches directly beyond the entrance wall. Only traces of the steps survive. The steps to the northern bench are 59 and 36 cm broad, and the steps to the southern bench are 40 and 41 cm broad. The upper step in the south is 32 cm deep and about 21 cm high.

The original width of the northern bench is preserved in the back and measures 1.17 m. A recessed ledge, 34 cm broad and 14 cm deeper than the surface of the bench runs along the front and was used to deposit food and drinks. The height of the bench is 50 cm. The original surface is preserved only at the eastern third of the bench. Other parts of the bench, specifically the front, are damaged.

Fig 7: Southern Terrace. Triclinium of Aslah (photo: L. Gorgerat)
Fig. 7: Southern Terrace. Triclinium of Aslah (photo: L. Gorgerat)

The southern bench measures 1.12 m in width in the back. Only here the original surface remains. A small part of the ledge can be seen where the bench abuts the lower part of the eastern one. The southern bench is even more damaged than the northern one of the front. Both benches show two large notches, but the southern bench has two circular holes as well as a funnel of 21 cm diameter and 19 cm in depth. They belong to the secondary installations of the B’dool.

The eastern bench in the back is of normal shape where it abuts the northern bench measuring 1.17 m in width. The ledge narrows from 29 to 36 cm. 8 cm above this ledge another one is cut widening diagonally from 11 to 24 cm. It seems to be secondary, but is older than another notch which cuts into it. If it was carved in order to broaden the ledge, it remained unfinished.

In a distance of 2.20 m from the northern lateral wall the eastern bench is deepened 27 cm and build on a lower platform of 2.25 width in the back, 2.32 in the front and 1.29 m in depth. The platform rises 24–26 cm above the floor of the triclinium. The front of the platform is 21 cm behind the front of the eastern bench in the northeast. In the southeast there is no continuation of the eastern bench and the platform is cutting 17–19 cm into the lateral side of the southern bench and a small strip even protrudes 29 cm inwards before the higher ledge itself begins. The original surface of the platform is flaked off in the centre, but can partly be seen in the corners of the lateral sides. It seems to be that the platform is not a secondary cutting. Neither the irregular arrangement nor the cutting of the platform (perhaps to set up a particular cline or tables?) can be explained but cf. Br. 235, 704. .

The walls

The walls and the ceiling were constructed with fine pecking techniques cf. Rababeh 2005: 93. . Pointed chisel and mallet markings can be seen everywhere. Concerning the early date of the triclinium the quality of the masonry needs to be emphasized. There is no separate strip where the walls and the ceiling meet each other, and there is no indication for former stucco decoration or the use of plaster. The original surface survives only on the upper parts of the walls and the ceiling and is scorched black. Especially the lower parts of the walls are heavily damaged with its surface flaking off.

The Aslah-inscription is cut very high on a smoothed part of the back wall. The other Nabataean inscription of the southern wall is incised without any smoothing. Especially the end of that inscription is badly preserved.

Fig. 8: Southern Terrace. Triclinium of Aslah (D.17). Southern bench with step and the niche basin (photo: L. Gorgerat)
Fig. 8: Southern Terrace. Triclinium of Aslah (D.17). Southern bench with step and the niche basin (photo: L. Gorgerat)

An aedicula (D. 17b) measuring 36 x 37.5 cm is incised in the back wall, 1.07 m above the platform. The aedicula shows pilasters with bases and capitals, an architrave and a triangular pediment. A secondary hollow with a so-called sand-glass hole to tie a rope, other objects or even animals is roughly cut into it. Contrary to Dalman and Merklein’s assumptions Dalman 1912: 40 fig. 35; Merklein 1995: 110; cf. also Wenning 2003: fig. 1a–c. this cutting is not a betyl and does not represent Dušara Wenning 2003: 152–153. . It rather was cut in the context of the secondary use of the chamber by the B’dool. There are a few identical cuttings in the triclinium, in room D. 17' as well as in some other chambers in the area. On the other hand, the aedicula symbolizes sanctity and corresponds with the inscription and the dedication to Dušara. The presence of the deity might be symbolized with the second incision, 41 cm to the right of the aedicula. It shows a rectangular betyl (D. 17c) of 14.5 x 21 cm.

An arched niche basin is cut into the southern lateral wall 50 cm from the entrance wall (fig. 8). Such niche basins are common in the Petra triclinia and are found in 29 of 44 known examples Brockes 1994: 12. . Dalman connected these basins with ritual purification Dalman 1908: 94. . The frontal wall of the basin is lost. The width measures 1.01 m in the front and 95 cm in the back. The height of the front measures approximately 1.20 m. Also, the front part of the arch is broken off and does not allow exact measurements. But the original height of 66 cm survives in the back. Contrary to McKenzie the back wall is not semicircular but straight McKenzie 1990: pl. 167d. . The flat bottom of the basin measures 43–52 cm from the front to the back. In its centre an eroded hollow of 12–24 cm diameter and a remaining depth of 8–11 cm is cut. Parts of the original surface can be found at the bottom, the back wall and the western side of the arch. It is more roughly pecked with a pick axe.

All other installations and cuttings in the walls are secondary. Two hollows at both parts of the entrance wall could have been cut in the context of the secondary entrance situation. Both hollows, 55 cm from the lateral walls, show sand-glass holes, which could be later in date. The one at the northern part is 1.54 m above the bench and measures 21 x 18–21 cm, the one at the southern part is 1.63 cm above the bench and measures 19 x 13 x 14 cm.

A total of 19 sand-glass holes were counted. There is no indication that any of these belong to the Nabataean period, although such holes are known from Nabataean contexts elsewhere. In terms of position, however, an intact sand-glass hole 2.47 m above the eastern bench of the back wall (and the upper aeroplane graffiti) might constitute an exemption, since all others are cut no higher than about 1.5 m above the benches. Apart from these sand-glass holes other smaller and larger holes as well as small damages were noticed.

More striking than these holes and cuttings, however, are the incised graffiti of camels, horses, donkeys and even two aeroplanes. These graffiti and some Arabic names have scratched and damaged almost the complete original surface of the lower half of the wall and entirely changed the character of the whole chamber. This must be one reason why no pictures of the Aslah-triclinium can be found. There are different styles and techniques. Some of the drawings and names are recent, but also the ‚older‘ fit with Bedouin drawings. The most prominent depictions are those of dromedaries, followed by horses and donkeys, each of them with riders as well. Many are oriented to the right, but some also to the left. Apart from caravan-like rows of dromedaries there are no further contextualised scenes.

The niches

On the rock face outside the triclinium and room D. 16 a row of eighteen votive niches (D. 15a–t) continues to the southern tip of the rock (fig. 9). Contrary to Dalman not twenty, but eighteen niches can be counted. D. 15n is another niche basin, while D. 15r is not a niche at all. These niches are studied in the „Petra Niches Project“ by Wenning. Niche D. 15c is conspicuous in size and strikes the viewer with its aedicula, and a pedestal (mtwb). Not only D. 15l, but also D. 15i and D. 15m show a betyl in the recessed form in the niche cf. Wenning 2001: 85. .

Fig. 9: Southern Terrace. Votive niches D. 15c–m (photo: L. Gorgerat)
Fig. 9: Southern Terrace. Votive niches D. 15c–m (photo: L. Gorgerat)