Al Khazneh (The Treasury)

Petra, Jordan

The great facade of the Khazneh (Treasury), the most ornate and beautiful of Petra's tombs, is the first structure seen by visitors as they exit the narrow confines of the Siq. In spite of its name (assigned by local legend), the monument is a royal tomb, not a treasury. Constructed in the first century BC, this is the grandest tomb in the best location in Petra, and one can hardly escape the assumption that here is the resting place of a great king, possibly Aretas III (85 BC -62 BC) "Philhellene," or Aretas IV "Who Loves His People"1. The ground level then was 4m (13') lower, so the monument would have towered even higher over the awed visitors than it does today.

The facade of the lower order consists of a six-columned portico with triangular pediment. Between the outer columns, two figures on horseback represent Castor and Pollux, the Heavenly Twins who guided the souls of dead heroes to the Elysian Fields. Within the porch, a room opens on either side before the main entrance, which was originally fitted with massive wooden doors. The pediment is crowned with a disk between horns surrounded by ears of wheat, all symbols of Isis, the goddess of love and immortality, whom the Nabataeans identified with al-'Uzza, consort of Dushara and the Tyche (Fortune) of Petra.

The upper order is a broken pediment interrupted by a tholos (rotunda). Isis/Tyche, the Fortune of the city, stands in the front bay of the tholos. Amazons bearing axes ornament the side bays of the tholos and the front and side bays of the broken pediments, while winged Victories (Nikes) decorate the rear bays between the tholos and the pediments. Eagles of Zeus, the king of the gods identified with Nabataean Dushara, crown the pediments. The tholos is topped by a symbolic funerary urn, completing a decorative scheme whose every element reinforces the symbolism of the death of a hero and the glory of his city.

The Khazneh's architectural style, including the capitals of its columns and the feature of its broken pediment interrupted by a tholos, is traceable to Hellenistic Alexandria, whose craftsmen may have been brought to Petra to help design and build the monument. The appearance of gods in human form, so unlike the native aniconism of the original Nabataeans, further demonstrates the Nabataeans' cultural adaptation of Eastern Hellenism alongside their own native traditions. The Khazneh was both the first and the last tomb facade to be so richly decorated, as if the Nabataeans took as much as they could, in the exuberance of initial contact, but later scaled down their borrowings, in order to achieve a more comfortable fit between Hellenism and their own, more austere, traditions.

1It has also been suggested that the Khazneh might be a mausoleum (a funerary monument without a burial) for the deified Obodas I, father of Aretas III.