At the end of the Siq, a few metres from the opening, I catch my first glimpse of the Treasury (or Al Khazna, as it was once known). And I actually have no words. I am struck dumb by so many aspects of this building - the imposing Corinthian pillars, the elaborate and intricate carvings on the outside walls and - of course - the height (it stands at just under 40 metres).
The Nabateans were - amongst other things - master engineers, or so I’ve been told, The Treasury consists of three chambers (unfortunately, tourists are not allowed inside). According to archaeologists, it is not that easy to date the Treasury precisely since there are few inscriptions or ceramic evidence left but their best working assumption is that because of its important location (the foot of the Siq) it was a tomb for the Nabatean King Aretas IV (who reigned from 9BCE to 40 CE). Others believe it might have been an archival facility or a temple - the truth is we will never know for certain.
What we do know about the Nabateans, however, is that they were both a nomadic but highly advanced society - not just master engineers (one look at the Treasury will confirm this) but a people who, by establishing peaceful co-existence with their neighbours, created a number of trade routes to and from their city (their eye for silks and spices led to a measure of prosperity).
Petra was their capital until 100 ACE, when the Romans took over and, over time, it was left in ruins by a number of earthquakes. Eventually abandoned, it was lost to the world until 1812 when Johann Buckhardt, a Swiss geographer and orientalist (who ingeniously disguised himself as a Bedouin to gain entry to the area).
As a feat of engineering, it would not be unfair to use the word ‘epic’ to describe the construction of this building. Archaeologists tell us that Treasury was carved only from the simplest iron tools - they began at the top and worked down.
Yes - the Nabateans had architects and engineers who had a clear idea vision of how they wanted the facades to look, and only then instructed their stonemasons.
The workers would then carve a ledge in the rock which would become a “blank canvas” on which they begin working in the soft sandstone, working down ledge by ledge.
Though visitors are not allowed to enter today, I personally didn’t feel too ‘cheated’ - I haven’t seen Harrison Ford in ‘Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade’ (in which I’ve heard Petra features at the end of the film) but I don’t need to.. I’ve seen this structure in person and - unlike many places I’ve visited in my time - I can tell you it didn’t just come up to my expectations, it exceeded them all.
I saw the Treasury at three different times - the first at midday, the second in the early morning and the third time just before sunset - the colours of the rocks were dramatically different each time but never failed to inspire me. Obviously, coming earlier or later mean you’ll escape the hoards of tourists who descend upon the site from their coaches between 10 am and 3 pm. I’m not an early riser but, in this case, I’m glad I made an exception because the beauty of early morning was quite overwhelming and the Treasury at sunset? Well, at that point the rocks literally glowed with colour.
I’m still in awe.