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Petra: The Definitive Guide

Petra Monuments
Text from "Petra Book" by Jane Taylor

The Treasury View in Photo Gallery

'A beam of stronger light breaks in at the close of the dark perspective, and opens to view, half seen at first through the tall narrow opening, columns, statues, and cornices, of a light and finished taste, as if fresh from the chisel, without the tints or weather stains of age, and executed in a stone of a pale rose color, which was warmed at the moment we came in sight of them with the full light of the morning sun.'

The Treasury has changed little since Charles Irby and James Mangles, Commanders in the British Royal Navy, described their first sight of it in 1818. 'We do not know with what to compare this scene,' they added; 'perhaps there is nothing in the world that resembles it.'

It is justly the most famous monument in Petra, perhaps from the impact of the first glimpse of that luminous strip at the end of the towering penumbra of the Siq. Suddenly we emerge into a natural courtyard face to face with the glowing perfection of the Treasury. Its elaborately carved façade is alive with a cast of Nabataean deities and mythological characters – the Dioscuri (Castor and Pollux), each beside a horse, whose role in the Greek myths was to guide the souls of the dead to the Elysian Fields; dancing Amazons wielding axes; winged Victories; Medusa heads; eagles and various mythical creatures. All are funerary symbols.

At the center of the tholos – the round section between the broken pediment at the top of the façade – is the eroded relief figure of a goddess holding a cornucopia in her left arm. She has a fascinating composite identity – the cornucopia announces her as Tyche, Greek goddess of fortune, while the device (a solar disc enclosed in bull's horns and with an ear of wheat on either side) carved on the acroterion at her feet is that of Isis, supreme goddess of the Egyptian pantheon who, as the wife of Osiris, also presided over the underworld and the spirits of the dead. Isis was commonly identified with the Greek Aphrodite, goddess of love, who in turn was identified with al-'Uzza, the great Nabataean goddess of Petra. Though all the figures are eroded, the flowers, leaves and fruits on the friezes, pediment and capitals still look almost as crisp as the day they were carved.

In Arabic the Treasury is called al-Khazneh, or Khaznet Far'oun, Pharaoh's Treasury, from an ancient myth that treasure had been concealed here by a powerful black magician, popularly identified with a wicked and fabulously wealthy Pharaoh: who else but he who drove Moses and his followers out of Egypt and chased them here to Petra? At this point, it seems, the Pharaonic treasure had become an impediment.

Not this monument alone, but the whole of Petra, was believed to be a storehouse of Pharaoh's wealth, deposited here by deep magic; but this, the most sumptuous monument, must surely have housed his greatest riches. The urn at the top was deemed the most likely repository, and every bedouin who owned a gun would take a shot at it as he passed, in the vivid hope that if he hit the right spot all the treasures of Pharaoh would cascade down upon him. The result is a sadly battered urn and not a whiff of treasure.

So ferociously did the bedouin of the nineteenth century believe in the existence of treasure, and in magical powers, that they suspected all western travellers of being magicians who had come to spirit away the hidden wealth out of reach of themselves, the rightful heirs and owners.

'Nor are they satisfied with watching the stranger's steps,' Burckhardt wrote in 1812: 'They believe that it is sufficient for a true magician to have seen and observed the spot where the treasures are hidden... in order to be able afterwards, at his ease, to command the guardian of the treasure to set the whole before him.' Small wonder that those early visitors were given such an unwelcoming reception.

The Treasury's original purpose remains elusive – except that it was not a Treasury. Some scholars believe it was a royal tomb, with the burial place in the small chamber at the back; others, a temple, pointing to its temple-like façade and the lack of burial holes – for them the rear chamber was the sanctuary, and the hollow in the doorstep the ritual ablution basin. Yet others suggest it was a memorial mausoleum, perhaps for the deified Obodas I. The funerary symbolism of the carvings on the façade certainly points to some association with the dead.

The date of the Treasury is also unclear, and has to be assessed on stylistic grounds, providing yet more theories. It is tempting to suppose that its ornate carving points to a later period, but Petra has proved a graveyard for neat solutions. Some scholars suggest it was commissioned by Aretas IV (9 BC-AD 40), who initiated much construction and urban planning, and who may have brought craftsmen from Alexandria. Others favour the reign of Aretas III Philhellene (86-62 BC), a time of great expansion and exposure to Hellenistic ideas. Whenever it was carved, and for whichever Nabataean king, Hellenistic ideas were here brilliantly transformed into a design that kept a distinctively Nabataean flavour.

Excavations begun in 2003 have shown that some earlier tombs had their tops removed to make way for the Treasury. They stand at its foot, four metres below the present level of the natural courtyard over which it presides. It was at first thought they were converted into cisterns, but later work showed that they continued to function as tombs. If the Treasury towers imposingly above us today, imagine the impact it would have had on Nabataeans and their visitors when they looked at it from four metres lower than we do. For whatever the purpose of this monument, its siting at the end of the forbidding twilight of the Siq was clearly designed to strike wonder into all who entered the Nabataean capital.