Ancient Monastery at Petra Likely Built to Track Sun

Podium of the Monastery at Petra
When the winter solstice occurs, the setting sun shines upon a podium of the Monastery at Petra. This produces the silhouette of a lion's head that shines on the rocks opposite to the structure. (Image credit: J. A. Belmonte - A. C. González-García)

Add the Monastery at Petra to the monuments that humans probably built for astronomical purposes. New research suggests that ancient architects tracked the motion of the sun and constructed the religious center with the winter solstice in mind.

When the Earth reaches its farthest point from the sun, light from the sun shines into the monastery — which is located in Petra, Jordan — and falls upon the podium of a deity. At the same time, the light casts the shadow of the head of a lion (a sacred animal in Nabatean culture) upon a mountain opposite to the religious center.

The structure in ancient Arabia is just one of several Nabatean temples, palaces and tombs on which scientists conducted a statistical analysis. The Nabateans flourished in what is now Jordan, and surrounding countries, between the 1st century B.C. and 1st century A.D.

"The Nabataean monuments are marvelous laboratories where landscape features and the events of the sun, moon and other stars interact," Juan Antonio Belmonte, a researcher at the Canaries Astrophysical Institute and coordinator of the study, said in a statement.

"The astronomical orientations were often part of an elaborate plan and, possibly, a mark of the astral nature of their religion, which showed incredible 'hierophanies,' or demonstrations of the sacred on monuments related to cultic times and worship," he said.

Another significant structure, the Urn Tomb, has a main gate centered with the equinox sunset, while solar rays from the summer and winter solstices shine on the building's interior corners. In 446 A.D., when the structure was converted into a church, scientists said the locals used the solstice markers to honor Christmas Eve (Dec. 24) and the birth of St. John the Baptist (June 24), which fell around the winter and summer solstices, respectively.

"This amazing set of three alignments within the plan of the tomb, in combination with significant features in the distant horizon, can hardly be ascribed to chance," added Belmonte. "We consider that it is a deliberate attempt to convert the hall of the Urn Tomb into a type of time-keeping device."

The results were published in Nexus Network Journal and include participation from the Canaries Astrophysical Institute, the Spanish National Research Council and the University of Perugia in Italy.

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Elizabeth Howell
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell (she/her), Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022 covering diversity, education and gaming as well. She was contributing writer for for 10 years before joining full-time. Elizabeth's reporting includes multiple exclusives with the White House and Office of the Vice-President of the United States, an exclusive conversation with aspiring space tourist (and NSYNC bassist) Lance Bass, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, flying parabolic, working inside a spacesuit, and participating in a simulated Mars mission. Her latest book, "Why Am I Taller?", is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University and a Bachelor of History from Canada's Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science at several institutions since 2015; her experience includes developing and teaching an astronomy course at Canada's Algonquin College (with Indigenous content as well) to more than 1,000 students since 2020. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon: