Wonders of the World - Hidden City of Petra
What can you attribute to barbaric nomads? How about the 140-foot monolithic facade carved out of a solid rock cliff shown here? This structure is called “Al Khazneh,” or the “Treasury,” and is found at the gateway of the hidden city of Petra, in Jordan, near the town of Wadi Musa. This structure is only one of many amazing architectural engineering feats found at Petra.
The Nabataeans were a nomadic tribe from Arabia that settled in the western area of Jordan in the seventh century BC. They, being used to sun and sand, found a place nestled among steep canyon walls where water flowed and shadows played. By the third century BC, the Nabataeans had monopolized two important commodities and before long, these wanderers became a wealthy kingdom. Petra became the Nabataean capitol - a city of rock-hewn monuments, palaces, temples, fountains, amphitheaters, water cisterns and clay water pipes.
Petra and the surrounding area occupied by the Nabataeans happened to be at the hub of the trade routes that converged from China, India, Arabia, Egypt, Assyria, Greece and Italy. Being in a dry area, the Nabataeans made large cisterns where they stored water. The cisterns were supplied via clay waterways. These attracted caravans carrying spices and incense, as their camels needed large amounts of water. It was the practice of those controlling the water resources to charge a tax, and the Nabataeans were no different.
Their other commodity was - what a surprise - oil! In the southern tip of the Dead Sea, large iceberg-type masses of a jellied crude oil emerged from its depths and floated on the surface. This was called bitumen. There were two basic markets for this substance: the ship-building industry and the Egyptian mummy market. Bitumen was used as a caulking compound for ships, and as a mummifying agent.
In addition to this, in the second century BC, after the Minaean kingdom fell, the Batanaeans took control of their incense trails, thus getting their fingers well into the incense trade world, a very popular commodity then.
These products and opportunities helped the Nabataeans to grow in riches and power, even to the point of being able to defend their oil resources on the Dead Sea. The Nabataeans repulsed such powers as an army sent by Antigonus headed by Hieronymus, and by Athenaeus, Demetrius, and the Greek Seleucid king Antiochus XII. The power and influence of the Nabataean kingdom reached most parts of Jordan, and even for a time to Damascus. By the end of the second century, Petra was full of foreign dignitaries, including a Roman ambassador. Harvard professor G. W. Bowersock, author of the book Roman Arabia, dubbed their realm "one of the greatest kingdoms of the ancient Middle East." Whether due to the sovereign influences around them, or to appeal to a wide variety of travelers, the figures found on the facade of the Treasury bore personalities, gods and godesses from the Greek, Roman and local cultures.
Typically, the Nabataeans were a peace-loving people. Because of their riches, they often offered silver or valuable gifts to stave off would-be conquerors. Later on, the Pharaoh Cleopatra exploited this trait to the point of weakening the Nabataean economy.
Tour of the City
The hidden city of Petra is accessed through a mile-long crack in the rock that is wider at the base. Before emerging from this passage, which is called a “Siq,” a view of the impressive Treasury comes into view. It is reported to be breathtaking, filling the whole area beyond the towering opening of the Siq. As one approaches this edifice, he/she is dwarfed by the facade, as shown in the first two photographs of this article.
At least one source reports that - because of the inscriptions found - the tombs were made by Nabataean sculptors and not imported slaves or laborers (“Petra - Capital City of Nabataea,” Nabataea.net).
Further investigation of the City of Petra is limited, still, to the fizzure, which widens out but doesn’t end until you pass other structures such as “the street of facades,” various tombs, and the theatre. Then the valley opens up to show other impressive structures such as the Great Temple of Petra, and burial caves. The second-most impressive structure in Petra, after the Treasury, is the monastery, called “El-Deir,” situated higher up on a hill within the valley. It is larger than the treasury, but it has much less decoration, and was never finished.
The Treasury is the most impressive of the structures in Petra. Not just due to its size, but because of the detail, and the impressive untold message that massive amounts of pure rock had to be meticulously broken up, moved out and then carved away in exquisite detail from a vertical surface.
It was initially thought that scaffolding was used to carve this facade, the vertical columns of holes on each side contributing to that theory. But there was little timber-bearing trees in the vicinity. Also, other similarly-carved structures in Petra did not have the holes that this structure had, so the idea of scaffolding was ruled out. Instead, it was determined that a ledge was created in the face of the cliff that lead up to the top of the planned structure. The workers then widened that ledge, cutting into the cliff, thus creating a platform on which to work. They then carved from the top-down, creating the forms and sculptures as they removed the rock. Much of the rock they removed was in large blocks, and probably used them to create some of the other buildings found further into the canyon.
The two pillars closest to the entryway were free-standing. When Petra was discovered in 1812, one pillar had collapsed, but the gable above was unmoved. The facade was renovated for tourism, making the pillar on our left somewhat inauthentic.
When you ascend the steps and stop in the porch area of the Treasury, you will notice an opening on each side of the porch. Each of these leads to an anteroom. Going further forward, you will enter a large room, with a smaller room in the back, and slot-type rooms on either side of the main chamber.
It is unclear what this edifice was used for, as all loose or perishable items have been stripped or robbed by looters. There are writings engraved on some of the walls in the city, but they are mainly made by travelers or passers-by, and mean nothing as pertaining to this city. The popular theory is that it was a treasury, thus the name. Others consider it a temple or a mausoleum for the dead that were supposedly buried in or under it. The dirt in front of the porch covers more structure found further beneath the ground level. If you were to remove the dirt in front of this facade, you would find a few tombs across the front. Whether there was a walkway between the tombs leading up to the porch, or if the tombs were meant to be permanently buried, no one is sure. No bodies were found in the tombs.
Some believe this structure was a library, to show the outside world that these people were now literate, and important. As resourceful as the Nabataeans were, it would not be surprising to learn that they joined in with the trend of other great cities such as Alexandria, and cashed in on the book market. The ante-rooms on each side of the entrance, probably made to hold scrolls and keep them out of the weather, is consistent with that idea. Other significant libraries were built in a similar way.
Whatever its usage, most believe the Treasury was constructed and strategically placed beyond the narrow opening of the Siq mainly to dazzle travelers.
The Treasury facade was used in the final scenes of the movie, “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.”
Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Aramco World, March-April 1981.
Saudi Aramco World, July/August 1994
Petra and the lost kingdom of the Nabataeans, by Jane Taylor
The Biblical Archaeologist, Vol XXII, pg. 40
The religion of the Nabataeans: a conspectus, by John F. Healey
G. W. Bowersock, Roman Arabia
More by this Author
You don't have to buy a table saw in order to do slitting, ripping and notching in your long pieces of wood. Just use the saw in your garage. This article shows you how to do it.
Some don't like to be told how to solve a puzzle. This article gives hints on how you can solve the Rubik's Cube under your own brain power, so that you can feel the exhilaration of accomplishment.
Ever find yourself with a group of people and nothing to do? This article will show you how to break the ice, fill in gaps, and warm up the ambiance with simple, no-prep magic tricks.