May 18, 2009

A Visual Tour of Petra: The Treasury
Umm Sayhun, Jordan

The Nabateans carved from the top, down. Notches speculated to be footholds on either side of the structure may have been made to aid vandals.

Emerging from the Siq is generally considered to be one of the more memorable moments for visitors to the ancient city of Petra. It's at this location the beholder stands in awe of the Al Khazneh (the Treasury), hewn out of the raw cliff in front of them.

Towering at nearly 140 feet, it's only one of more than 800 carved monuments attributed to the Nabateans during their occupation of the site, from sometime before the third century BC to the late fourth century. The Treasury itself was carved into the sandstone cliff in the first century BC.

The façade of Al Khazneh, one of the finest examples of Nabatean carving, is a mixture of Greek, Egyptian, Roman, and Nabatean elements. Many of the building's architectural details have eroded away during the two thousand years since it sculpted, while others have been defaced, likely by Muslim vandals after the Islamic Renaissance (particularly the sculptures of various mythological figures associated with the afterlife).

Video: Teaser for National Geographic's Ancient MegaStructures: Petra [torrent]

Pay to pose with a camel: These camels (and several others) are always loitering around the area, waiting for tourists to pay to straddle them for photo-ops.

A lone donkey

The Myth Behind the Name

Al Khazneh al-Faroun means "the Treasury of the Pharaoh"—and a myth certainly goes along with the name:

The Pharaoh of Exodus, having mobilized his forces to recapture the fleeing Hebrews, had reached Petra (after his slight embarrassment at the Red Sea). But by then the weight of his treasury, thoughtfully carried along, had begun to slow the progress of his army. As a result, the story goes, the Khazneh al-Faroun was created, by magic, and the Pharaoh's wealth deposited in the urn-like decoration on its top.

The Bedouin believed (for a very long time) that the 11-foot high urn at the apex of the structure housed this great treasure (be it from pirates or the pharaoh himself), and one can still see the myriad pockmarks of Bedouin bullets fired at the monument in the vain hope that Pharaoh's gold would come spilling down.

Pockmarks from Bedouin bullets in a Treasury statue

Sorry, No Gold

In reality, the Treasury is a Nabatean tomb, probably royal, possibly even that of the famous King Aretas IV, Petra's most enthusiastic architectural developer.

…Of course this is still occasionally debated: This article theorizes that it was a library.

This is an intriguing reconstruction of the appearance of the Khazneh during Nabatean times, thought to have been representative of the general layout for the great tombs and temples of the city.

Sorry, No Grail

Floor plan of the Treasury

The step onto the massive main threshold of the structure is often an exercise gilded in disappointment for tourists. Visitors are no longer are allowed to walk freely throughout the tomb. The constant traffic and propensity of tourists year after year to touch and to feel for texture, has caused the red, black, and white-veined sandstone to peel off the walls and ceiling.

Inside the massive doorway, the tomb chamber lacks the decor found by Indiana Jones—there are no Crusader statues, huge stone lions or inset seals in the floor—and represents instead the typical unadorned and barren interior design of Petra's funerary monuments.

An empty room—40 feet squared.

Inside the Treasury


Archeologists have found more levels under the steps of the Treasury that indicate that it was placed high on the side of a cliff. Below it are a number of small monuments and rooms, and before it a courtyard. This high dominating position added to the impressive nature of the monument. Today the plaza in front of the treasury is filled with flood debris, and tourists can walk directly to the front of the Treasury building.

Morning versus Evening Photos

Al Khazneh at Dusk

Great emphasis is placed on getting into Petra to see/photograph the Treasury at daybreak or in the morning (between about 9 and 11am) when the sun is shining on its façade.

Personally, I disagree with this agenda, as I find the harsh, contrasting shadows of the morning light distracting on the structure.

I found that the optimal time to view the monument was at the end of the afternoon (around 5pm in the summer light), when the exhausted tourists and sun's shadows have all but disappeared. The ornate tomb and the surrounding area take on a gorgeously soft-pink hue, perfect for images focusing on the detail and solitude of the structure.

Standing with Aidric in front of the Treasury

A not-often shared perspective of the Siq is the reverse shot from the steps of the Treasury.

Inside the Siq, gazing at the Treasury

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