Perfectly positioned opposite the main route into Petra, the Treasury (al-Khazneh in Arabic) was designed to impress, and, two thousand years on, the effect is undiminished. What strikes you first is how well preserved it is; carved deep into the rockface and concealed in a high-walled ellipse of a valley (known as Wadi al-Jarra, “Urn Valley”), it has been protected from wind and rain from day one. The detailing of the capitals and pediments on the forty-by-thirty-metre facade is still crisp. It is normally dated to the first century BC, possibly to the reign of King Aretas III Philhellene (“the Greek-lover”), who brought architects to Petra from the centres of Hellenistic culture throughout the Mediterranean.
The best times to view the Treasury are when the sun strikes it directly, between about 9 and 11am, and late in the afternoon, around 5 or 6pm, when the whole facade is suffused with a reflected reddish-pink glow from the walls all around.
To the left of the facade, a set of stairs comes down into the valley from the Danqur al-Khazneh area. Off to the right, a wall blocks the narrow north end of the Wadi al-Jarra; if you climb over the wall, then double back to scramble up the rocks, you’ll reach a small, jutting plateau, with a perfect view from above of the Treasury and the whole bustling plaza in front of it.
The carvings on the Treasury facade, though much damaged by iconoclasts, are still discernible and show to what extent Nabatean culture was an amalgam of elements from the Hellenistic and Middle Eastern worlds.
Atop the broken pediments, framing the upper storey, are two large eagles, symbols of the Nabateans’ chief male deity, Dushara. In a central position on the rounded tholos below the urn is what’s been identified as a representation of Isis, an Egyptian goddess equated with the Nabatean goddess al-Uzza; in the recesses behind are two Winged Victories, although the remaining four figures, all of whom seem to be holding axes aloft, haven’t been identified. Two lions, also symbolizing al-Uzza, adorn the entablature between the two storeys. At ground level, the mounted riders are Castor and Pollux, sons of Zeus. The parallel marks up the side of the facade, which occur in a couple of other places in Petra, may well have been footholds for the sculptors and masons.
One column is obviously new, a brick-and-plaster replacement for the original, which fell in antiquity. This neatly demonstrates one of the most extraordinary features of Nabatean architecture. A normal building that lost a main support like this would have come crashing down soon after; these Nabatean columns, though, support nothing. Like most of Petra’s surviving monuments, the entire Treasury “building” was sculpted in situ, gouged out of the unshaped rock in a kind of reverse architecture.
At the base of the facade, excavations into the four metres of gravel that overlie the original Nabatean road surface revealed that the Treasury was carved above a line of older facades, also probably tombs, which are now viewable through a grille set into the ground.
Inside the Treasury doorway – unlike the scene in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, when Indy finds stone lions and Crusader seals set into the floor – there’s only a blank square chamber, with smaller rooms opening off it, the entrance portico flanked by rooms featuring unusual round windows above their doors. Access to the interior is barred, but you can poke your nose in. The function of the Treasury is unknown, but a significant clue is the recessed basin on its threshold with a channel leading outside, clearly for libations or ritual washing. None of Petra’s tomb-monuments has this feature, but the High Place of Sacrifice does, suggesting that the Treasury may have been a place of worship, possibly a tomb-temple.