Petra PDF Print E-mail
Written by Stephen Langfur
Article Index
The Siq
The "Treasury"
"Qasr al-Bint"
Civic Center
"Deir" ("Monastery")
High Place

The "Treasury" ("Khazneh")

The so-called Treasury takes its name from a legend attached to it long after it was cut in the rock: the Pharaoh of Exodus , pursuing the Israelites through the desert, carried his gold with him, and he created this magnificent structure as a place to store it.

We do not know what purpose the "Treasury" really served, apart from its use as a breathtaking introduction to the city. Was it a tomb? Funerary motifs in the design suggest this, and there are chambers inside that could have held sarcophagi . Yet no trace of a sarcophagus has been found in Petra (nor in any other Nabataean site until the 2nd century AD). Or was the Treasury some kind of memorial? A backdrop for rituals? We just don't know. It is the arch-enigma in a city of enigmas.

Petra: The Treasuryf

Since 1862, scholars have noted how closely Petra's architecture resembles that depicted in the wall paintings of villas at Pompeii ; such paintings of architecture belong to Pompeii's second style, which went out of fashion by 25 BC.  Judith McKenzie has discovered that both the Petra designs and the Pompeii murals had a common model in the architecture of Ptolemaic. Alexandria. Soon after its founding by Alexander in 331 BC, this city became the largest in the world; later it was second in importance only to Rome. One reason was position: it provided a gateway between the West, Arabia and India. The ancients described its beauty (now submerged beneath 12 feet of water) with awe. On the basis of segments on display in its museum, along with inscriptions from above-ground tombs nearby, McKenzie has been able to trace the styles that we see at Pompeii and Petra to Alexandria at the time of the Ptolemies (3d-1st centuries BC).

It is no wonder that the styles of Ptolemaic Alexandria influenced Petra's artisans. As nomadic caravaneers who originally lived in tents, the Nabataeans would not have had time or occasion to develop a unique artistic tradition in stone. On the other hand, they were in constant commercial contact with peoples who did have such traditions, especially the Ptolemies, who -- unlike others -- did not try to conquer or circumvent them. The Nabataeans brought to Alexandria incense and myrrh, asphalt from the Dead Sea (used to seal ships), plus the goods of the India trade. In exchange they took gold and manufactured goods - and they also got new architectural ideas. They may even have hired architects and stonemasons. In their temples, for example, the Alexandrians were the first to depart from the standard arrangement of pillars supporting a lintel and a pediment (as in the Parthenon of Athens or in the lower portion of the Treasury). They broke the pediment in two, placing a tholos between the segments. We see this in the Treasury's upper portion (see the photo above). 

In the center of the Treasury's tholos, on a pedestal, a woman is depicted. Her face has been cut away by iconoclasts. From her attitude, and especially the cornucopia held in one arm, we can infer that this was the Tyche of Petra. It was she who greeted the new arrival emerging from the Siq. 

Just below Tyche, at the top of the lower pediment, we find an Egyptian motif. It is the crown of Isis: two cow horns contain the sun. The symbol originally belonged to Hathor, the cow goddess. The Egyptians beheld the Milky Way embracing the night sky, and they thought it a river of milk flowing from cow teats. The god of the sky was Horus the falcon, his eyes composed of the sun and the moon, watching humankind as he flew across the heavens. So the Milky Way (Hathor) was seen as embracing Horus (the night sky), in the manner of mother and child.

The crown of Isis on the Petra Treasury

As for Isis, she may have originated - in very early Egypt - as the Pharaoh's Queen (originally Isis had a throne on her head), immolated with his corpse and protecting his organs in the tomb. In this way, perhaps, Isis got the role of protecting the dead. In time, she combined with Hathor. The name Isis prevailed, but so did Hathor's cow horns, which embraced her son Horus, the sun. She was the "Queen of Heaven" whose worshipers Jeremiah denounced (7:18):

"The children gather wood, and the fathers kindle the fire, and the women knead the dough, to make cakes for the Queen of Heaven, and to pour out drink offerings to other gods, that they may provoke me to anger."

Apuleius , author of The Golden Ass, had a different view:

"You see me here, Lucius, in answer to your prayer. I am nature, the universal Mother, mistress of all the elements, primordial child of time, sovereign of all things spiritual, queen of the dead, queen also of the immortals, the single manifestation of all gods and goddesses that are.... Though I am worshipped in many aspects, known by countless names. . . some know me as Juno, some as Bellona . . . the Egyptians who excel in ancient learning and worship call me by my true name..Queen Isis."

Before the Roman period Isis had no local cult, nor a temple of her own, but was worshipped in association with her son Horus or her husband Osiris. The Nabataeans identified her with the Arabian al-'Uzza, Petra's chief goddess. In line with their earlier, non-figurative tradition, she often appears as a large standing stone beside a smaller one representing her son, "Lord of the House," that is, Dushara, the chief male god who protected the Nabataean dynasty. Here we may see a parallel to Isis and Horus. On the basis of parallels elsewhere, it is thought that the stelae carved on a boulder in the Siq (enlarge the photo) represent al-'Uzza (left) and Dushara. (More on Nabataean religion.)

In the Treasury, the symbol of Isis beneath the image of Tyche is taken by some as an assertion of identification between them, at least for the purpose of this monument. "In the religious world-picture of the old Egyptians," writes Fawzi Zayadine (p. 44), "Isis, the wife of Osiris, was the patroness of the dead, guardian over the correct proceedings of the burial rites and the integrity of the dead person's rest, as well as guarantor of resurrection."

The other images on the façade likewise have death as their theme. The Amazons, swinging axes over their heads, appear often, Zayadine tells us, on Greek and Roman mausoleums. He thinks they symbolize the battle against death, but I would suggest another possibility: they are there to defend the tomb against robbers. This may also have been the function of the face in the middle, beneath the Isis symbol (a Gorgon?), but the iconoclasts eradicated it and we cannot know. The two Victories (Nikes) in the back niches were also associated, Zayadine writes, with victory over death—that is, with the deification of the dead in the world beyond. He finds a similar significance for the eagles. The sphinxes too, in Egypt, guarded the sleep of the dead. Finally, in the lower register, on either side, appear the twin riders, Castor and Pollux (the Dioscuri), who in Greek mythology guide the soul to the Fields of the Blessed.

It may seem strange to find such a glorious work of figurative art in the capital city of a people whose art - and religion - had begun as non-figurative. Yet we would expect a people that made its living from international commerce to develop a tolerance for cultural differences. The really remarkable thing, perhaps, is not that Nabataeans accepted figures in the royal monuments but rather that these passed over them like water off a duck's back: they never abandoned the powerful simplicity of mass and line that is distinctively theirs.

On the difficulty of determining dates at Petra

Our knowledge is hampered by a lack of inscriptions. Of the tombs at Petra, only two have them. It may be that, despite the beauty of the bare rock, most of the façades were stuccoed over and painted and the writing was done in paint. Traces of paint on several of the major monuments attest to this possibility. It is as if the Nabataeans were bored with the desert colors that so excite us today and preferred to overcome them with bright reds, yellows and blues. 

At a city called Hegra , which the Nabataeans built up in the first century AD, they did not paint the façades. Of the 80 tombs there,37 have inscriptions. Sixteen of these include precise dates and the names of the stonecutters. From this evidence, McKenzie, (p. 40) deduces that the tombs' "mouldings are equivalent to the stone-cutter's finger print: the details of the combination of elements present and their relative sizes were unique to an individual stone cutter." Applying this principle to Petra, she groups the monuments according to similarities in the mouldings. When it is possible to date one monument in a group, she then attributes the same date to its other members. On this basis, she groups the "Treasury" with three other creations: Qasr al-Bint, the latter's temenos , another sanctuary today called the Temple of the Winged Lions, and the so-called Baths. Except for the Treasury (carved to face the Siq), all members of this group are on the same axis, which differs from the axes of the other groups.

Petra: Satellite photo showing line-up of older buildings

On the basis of an inscription , we can say that the Qasr al-Bint must have been built by the beginning of the first century AD (McKenzie, , p. 34). On the principle learned at Hegra, the same would apply to the other members of the group, including the Treasury. 

This only gives us the terminus ante quem , not the terminus post quem . But a little east and north of the entrance to the Siq there is a triclinium, numbered 21, which contains an inscription that dates it to the first year of the Nabataean king Obodas I. That would have been between 96 and 92 BC. The fine pecked chiseling inside this triclinium is indistinguishable, says McKenzie, from the tooling inside the Treasury. The latter, therefore, as well as the other members of its group, could go back this far.