Universes in Universe

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As the Siq becomes narrower and darker in the last few metres, the Al-Khazneh (Treasury) suddenly lights up at the end of the cleft. To stand in front of one of the most famous facades in the world is a magnificent experience, provided you get there before masses of tourists block the view.

The Nabataeans had staged this overture when entering their capital from the east in a far more imposing manner than the present sight suggests. The forecourt lay about 6 m lower, was paved, and might have contained a pond. An open staircase about 13 m length and more than 5 m width led over older graves (see below) to a terrace in front of the portico. The magnificent rock-cut mausoleum (25 m wide, 39 m high) was probably built during the second half of the reign of King Aretas IV (ruled 9 BC - 40 AD), but it is not known for whom. Traces of burnt incense found on the plaza suggest that Al Khazneh was an important pilgrimage site.

Such a representative burial monument at this highly prominent location can actually only have been built for a Nabataean king or queen. It was erected in the initial phase of a massive development of Petra to become an international showcase of the Nabataean Kingdom (S. G. Schmid). Its upper classes were well acquainted with the architecture and art of the Mediterranean metropolises and knew how to impress high-ranking visitors. These models provided inspiration, but were adapted and interpreted by the Nabataeans according to their own needs and visions.

The facade of Al Khazneh, richly decorated with floral and figurative elements, shows clear references to the Ptolemaic palace architecture of Alexandria. It is even conceivable that it was created by Alexandrian stonemasons and sculptors. According to calculations, the work could have taken about three years. Like most of the rock facades in Petra, it was covered with a light layer of stucco and painted in color.

The Arabic name "Khazneh al-Fira'un" (Pharaoh's Treasury, short: al-Khazneh) comes from the local Bedouins' believe that an Egyptian pharaoh had hidden a treasure in the urn on the top. Therefore they shot at this stone urn again and again in the vain hope that gold pieces and precious stones would fall out of it.

Possibly as early as the second half of the 1st century AD, the figurative decoration was defaced by iconoclasts. In the course of the centuries, various flash floods filled the forecourt metres high with debris. However, compared to other facades in Petra, Al-Khazneh remained relatively well preserved. Cut deep into the vertical rock on the west face of the narrow gorge, the tomb was better protected from wind and rain.

There is no concrete evidence of when, by whom and for whom Al-Khazneh was built. For a long time, the many attempts to date the building were based solely on stylistic comparisons as well as on the context of historical events and other building activities in Nabataean Petra.

When the number of visitors dropped sharply in 2003 due to the war in Iraq, the opportunity was taken to carry out a major archaeological excavation in the otherwise overcrowded forecourt. Individual segments of the plaza were examined and the older graves below the Khazneh were uncovered as far as possible. At least one of these could be dated to 25/20 -10 BC on the basis of ceramic sherds. Some decades later the construction of the Khazneh was carried out over the older tombs, for which their upper gables had to be knocked down. However, some of them remained in use. (further information: drawings and photo page)

The results of this excavation indicate that the Khazneh was built in the second half of the reign of King Aretas IV (18-40 AD). Aretas IV Philopatris ("who loves his people"), also known as "the Great", ruled from 9 BC to 40 AD. His reign is considered the zenith of the Nabataean Kingdom. This dating period is confirmed by some buildings with very similar ornamentation in the city centre, which were built at the same time or relatively shortly after Al-Khazneh: Qasr al-Bint, parts of the so-called Great Temple as well as the Temple of the Winged Lions.

(Sources, among others: S. Farajat & S. Nawafleh; R. Wenning)
© Summary: Universes in Universe)

Influences of the Ptolemaic palace architecture of Alexandria can be seen in the basic structure of the building as well as in ornamental details. A particularly striking motif is the tholos (round temple, in the case of the Khazneh with closed walls as monopteros) placed in the middle of a broken (open) pediment, which also can be found elsewhere in the Mediterranean area. A similar key principle appears in the architectural depiction of a wall decoration of the Casa del Labirinto in Pompeii (70-60 BC, Italy), in which a round temple is perspectively set far back between high columns with a broken pediment.

Direct analogies with Alexandrian models were verified in the façade and elements of the architectural ornamentation of the Palazzo delle Colonne in Ptolemaïs (Cyrenaica, in the north-east of present-day Libya), for example in the design of the pediments. Further details on the image pages of the informative photo tour.

Al-Khazneh served as a model in a simplified form for other facades of the classical-complex type in Petra, such as the Corinthian Tomb on the wall of the Royal Tombs, as well as for Ad Deir (Monastery).

(Source, among others: Marianne Bergmann
© Summary: Universes in Universe)

The main figure of the façade in front of the monopteros (round temple with columns like a tholos, but without cella) is identified as Isis by the basileion (Isis emblem) on the top acroterion of the pediment. The Nabataeans adopted the Isis cult from Egypt, where the goddess, already revered in the 3rd millennium BC, was reinterpreted in the Greco-Roman era and became enormously popular. At the latest in the last third of the 1st century BC, the worship of Isis began in Petra, which is, among other things, proven by a figure in the Wadi Siyyagh from 26/25 BC, clearly named by an inscription. In double portraits of the ruling couple on coins from the time of King Aretas IV (9 BC - 40 AD), both his first wife Huldu and his second wife Shaqilath are depicted in Ptolemaic style with a stylized Isis crown.

"The interpretation of Isis [as depicted on the Khanzneh] must be seen in the context of the entire iconographic program, which, in addition to regenerative motifs of continuous fertility, repeatedly refers to the sepulchral realm. This contains no contradiction, but rather forms the two poles of one aspect. Isis is developed from the Osiris myth and is given the function of a protective deity of the dead. Compared to Demeter by the Greeks, Isis becomes the sovereign of the underworld, while on the other hand as queen of heaven she ascends to become an almighty deity, which made her conveyable to the Nabataeans." (Robert Wenning)

The colossal man and horse reliefs between the outer pair of columns on either side of the façade's lower order represent the Dioscuri, the half/twin brothers Castor and Polydeuces (or Pollux). In the ancient myth, they are considered a symbol of hope, redemption and immortality, and so they are probably to be understood in the iconographic context of the Khazneh. Furthermore, they are interpreted as psychopomps, who guide the souls of the deceased into the afterlife.

More detailed information about the individual figures in our photo tour.

(Source, among others: R. Wenning: Hellenistische Denkmäler aus Petra
© Summary, translation from German: Universes in Universe)

From the foot of the cliff where Al-Khazneh was built, five graves were hewn out a few decades earlier. Probably four were of the type Hegra, i.e. stepped graves with a high façade and large half-crenellations (more on this on the image page).

As with all rock-cut structures of the Nabataeans, Al-Khazneh began from above (see the drawings). First, the stonemasons created a narrow ledge across the entire width and then, level by level, chiseled the architecture, decorations and interiors out of the wall, following the masters' preliminary drawings. All parts had to be completely finished before one could move down one level. In the case of large facades, the surface to be removed was divided into rectangles, allowing the work of the craftsmen responsible for each segment to be better controlled. Workers could be lowered from the top edge of the rock on a seat on a rope for touching up the finished structure, stuccoing and painting.

Two vertical rows of slots on either side of the façade served as climbing notches and as supports for scaffolding structures to work the exterior of the building. They begin only about 12 m above the terrace in front of the entrance to the Khazneh, because unitl this height, the older graves served the craftsmen to stand on at first. As work on the basement progressed, the upper parts of the older tomb facades were knocked down. Some of these graves remained in use, but one had to be filled in.

The interiors have also been chiseled out from top to bottom. As soon as the outer wall was removed to the level of the planned entrance, horizontal working shafts were cut into the rock. Starting from this, the interior was gradually hollowed out and shaped from the ceiling downwards.

Crushed rock and sand was used to level the large forecourt of the Khazneh before it was paved. The entire construction project required precise planning of the surrounding area, as dams had to be built against flash floods from the side valleys, as well as drainage channels. On the rocky ridge above the Khazneh there is such a channel to drain off falling water.

According to calculations, Al-Khazneh could have been built in about three years.

(Sources, among others: Naif A. Haddad; S. Farajat & S.Nawafleh; Jean-Claude Bessac
© Text: Universes in Universe)

The informative photo tours introduce the highlights of ancient Petra, show hidden details and recommend lesser known routes.
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Compilation of information, editing, translations, photos: Universes in Universe, unless otherwise indicated

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