Artifacts found among the ruins of a Nabataean temple, known
as Khirbet Tannur have contributed to our knowledge of the art
and religion of the ancient Nabataeans. At the same time, they
have posed questions.
One of the most intriguing finds at this site was a Nabataean
zodiac, which has been dated to the first quarter of the second
century AD. Zodiacs were familiar throughout the Roman Empire
and adjacent kingdoms. Even as late as the sixth century AD,
elaborate mosaic zodiacs were commonly seen in the floors of
churches and synagogues. Zodiacs were like calendars, expressing
the belief of a cyclical passage of time. In addition, most of
the practitioners of polytheistic religion believed in the power
of the stars and planets to affect earthly events. The Nabataeans
were apparently among these.
The zodiacal circle in the Nabataean zodiac found at Khirbet
Tannur is supported by a winged niké, and surrounded by
a mural-crowned tyche. Though the Nabataean sculpture is damaged,
it still communicates a great deal to us.
One of the symbols of the Nabataean zodiac portrays Allat,
the female goddess of fertility. She is armed with a lance or
sword which can been seen faintly above her left shoulder. She
may also have worn a diadem. An ancient festival was celebrated
by the Nabataeans and their nomadic neighbors when the birthing
of lambs marked the spring season. It was a time when grazing
was good and the earth was green from the spring rains.
The Nabataean Sagittarius is rendered as the bust of a jovial
youth. This youth probably bears a resemblance to Nabataean depictions
of Al Kutbay, the god of learning and commerce. A spear or greatly
enlarged arrow juts above the top of his left arm.
Capricorn is shown in the Nabataean panel as the damaged bust
of a human figure, rather than the traditional Roman fish/goat
that was common throughout the Roman Empire.
The remaining symbols of the Nabataean zodiac conform to their
Roman counterparts but they are enlivened with original touches
of artistic creativity. However, by far the most significant
difference in the Nabataean zodiac is the arrangement of the
order of the houses within the zodiacal circle.
The Roman version follows the traditional order known today.
Beginning at the top and going counter-clockwise, the Roman zodiac
runs as follows: (1) Aries, (2) Taurus, (3) Gemini, (4) Cancer,
(5) Leo, and (6) Virgo. Then there is a break at the bottom after
which the succession resumes with (7) Libra, (8) Scorpio, (9)
Sagittarius, (10) Capricorn, (11) Aquarius, and finally (12)
The Nabataean zodiac is different. The zodiac found
at Khirbet Tannur begins counter-clockwise with (1) Aries, (2)
Taurus, (3) Gemini, (4) Cancer, (5) Leo, and (6) Virgo. Then
there is a break by the nikés head. So far, this is like
the Roman version. Following the traditional order, one would
expect (7) Libra to be next in the counter-clockwise progression.
But this is not so! This space is occupied by (12) Pisces! Instead,
the Nabataean Libra appears at the top, beside Aries. This begins
a clockwise progression around the zodiacal circle's opposite
(left) side; beginning clockwise from (7) Libra at the top, the
progression follows in order from (7) to (12) to end at the left
side of the niké caryatid's head.
Thus, the Nabataean zodiac found at Khirbet Tannur is extraordinary
in its two opposite and completely separate halves. Some archeologists
think that this denotes the existence of two New Year celebrations,
one in the spring and the other in the fall, and this might help
explain why there were two great festivals at Petra each year.
The bottom portion of this zodiac has now been located and
reunited with the upper part. More information can be found at
the American Museum of Natural History site: http://www.amnh.org/exhibitions/petra/icons/
Follow the link to Zodiac and Looking Skyward to
see a Zodiac on an oil lamp.