by Jane Taylor
In this photo essay, writer and photographer Jane Taylor reflects on her many visits to Petra from the 1970s onward, which in turn contributed to books including Petra (1993, 2005) and Petra and the Lost Kingdom of the Nabataeans (2001). Something of her personal journey of discovery is told through encounters with archaeologists and members of the local Bdoul Bedouin community who have played an important role in guiding and sharing their knowledge about this unparalleled place.
Unless otherwise indicated, the images presented in this photo essay are by Jane Taylor. Those scanned from original slides and transparencies form part of the Jane Taylor collection, housed within the ACOR Digital Archive.
The Siq was rough and stony underfoot, the few surviving patches of smoother ancient paving raised well above the path. It was October 1978, and I was entering Petra for the first time. We tourists shared the path with a handful of Bedouin riding donkeys or camels, moving purposefully between their homes in the caves of Petra and the shops in the village of Wadi Musa.
Confined between the towering rockfaces that border the Siq on either side, there comes the moment of revelation—that first glimpse of the Treasury (in Arabic, al-Khazneh). Nothing quite prepares you for it. In August 1812, when Johann Ludwig Burckhardt became the first westerner since the Crusades to see it, he wrote in measured tones of the moment when “an excavated mausoleum came in view, the situation and beauty of which are calculated to make an extraordinary impression upon the traveller…. It is one of the most elegant remains of antiquity.”1 Six years later, in May 1818, Charles Irby and James Mangles, commanders in the British Royal Navy, introduced a more fervent note: “We know not with what to compare this scene; perhaps there is nothing in the world that resembles it.”2
The Treasury is certainly unique, and justly the most famous monument in Petra, but it was never a treasury. Its elaborately carved façade gives clues to its function, with an eclectic cast of deities and mythological characters framed by friezes abounding in foliage and fruit interspersed with urns.
In the larger spaces between the columns, we see: Castor and Pollux (each beside his horse), who in Greek myth guided the souls of the dead to the Elysian Fields; dancing Amazons wielding axes; winged Victories; a Medusa head; and eagles and various mythical creatures. All are funerary symbols. And in pride of place on the rounded tholos in the upper level stands a goddess holding a cornucopia. She combines the identities of the Nabataean al-‘Uzza, Greek Aphrodite and Tyche, and Egyptian Isis, whose device is carved near the base of her plinth.
Hours can be spent gazing at every detail of this façade—and in my case photographing them. This began seriously in 1990, by which time I was living in Amman and had decided to write and photograph for a book on Petra to fill the yawning void of material for travelers. Ken Russell, then resident at ACOR, generously took me to Petra in the aged ACOR Toyota to show me places I might have missed on my previous visits, and to introduce me to his friends among the Bdoul Bedouin.3 As he said, Petra is not just about monuments. So it was that I met Dakhilallah Qublan and his whole family and, through him, several other Bedouin families who had been living since 1985 in the village of Umm Sayhoun, outside the archaeological site.
To photograph for the book, I went to Petra in early December 1990, when Jordan was empty of tourists because of Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in August. Dakhilallah’s eldest son, Khalid, had been designated by his father as my guide and helper, with the added task of providing a local human dimension to the photographs. He brought his donkey to carry my gear around a deserted Petra. The emptiness was wonderful for a photographer but devastating for the Bedouin who depended on tourism to put food on the family table.
One day, as I photographed the Treasury, Khalid joined three of his friends who were waiting patiently in the vain hope that someone who wanted a guide or a camel ride might appear. I photographed them as they chatted amiably in front of the Treasury, realizing that of the four only Khalid had any income that day. This is a pattern that has recurred in Jordan all too often over the past few decades, with periods of good tourism and good incomes followed by times of complete closure, mostly caused by wars in the region. In 2020 the COVID-19 pandemic has certainly challenged many people’s livelihoods in Jordan, and also worldwide.4
Spooling forward to a day in 2003—another year afflicted by war in Iraq—as I emerged from the Siq I saw Suleiman Farajat, a friend from Wadi Mousa who was then the director of antiquities for Petra. He at once took me to see the excavation he was supervising immediately beneath the Treasury.5 It was already known that today the ground in front of the Treasury stands 4 to 6 meters above the Nabataean level, having been filled up by centuries of flash floods bringing rocks and debris down the Siq and depositing them there. Now Suleiman had uncovered the remains of some earlier tombs whose bases were on the old level of the Treasury courtyard. Their upper carvings had been hacked off and they had evidently been decommissioned when the grand scheme of carving a magnificent new funerary monument was begun. Some of the artifacts found inside these newly discovered tombs provided an answer to the previously thorny problem of the Treasury’s age. It is now dated to the 1st century AD, most likely in the reign of the great builder-king Aretas IV (9 BC–AD 40). One day, perhaps, the courtyard in front of the Treasury will be excavated, revealing how this heart-stopping monument towered high above the people who gathered before it.
On several occasions Khalid, his donkey, and I made our way up the 900-plus steps of the processional way that leads to the Monastery (ad-Deir). This prodigious monument dominates a mountaintop in the northwest of Petra, the urn that crowns its tholos soaring clear of the surrounding rock. It is one of a small number of façades whose design is similar to that of the Treasury—and is perhaps modelled on it—but here there is no figurative or foliate decoration. Whoever commissioned this monument opted for a style of uncluttered elegance that reflected a different concept of the Nabataean ethos from that of the Treasury.
The Monastery’s name is no more indicative of its original function than that of the Treasury but relates to its Christian use from the 4th or 5th century, when crosses were incised on the back wall of the alcove in the interior and on some of the roundels of the Doric frieze. What that original purpose was only became clear early in 1991 when, to give employment to some Bedouin whose livelihoods had been devastated by the First Gulf War and the lack of tourists, the Jordanian Department of Antiquities undertook an excavation of the interior, which had a thick layer of drift-sand and goat droppings over the large floor area. Along each side they uncovered a low stone bench: it was a biclinium (literally “[room of] two benches”), a chamber that would have been used for ritual feasts in honor of a god or someone who had died. The person believed to have been honored in this exceptionally large biclinium may have fulfilled both roles, for an inscription nearby refers to “the symposium of Obodas the god.” An early Nabataean king called Obodas is known to have been deified soon after his death in 86 BC, and this monument, dated to the 1st century AD, was perhaps created as a meeting place for the sacred association dedicated to his cult.
It wasn’t until 1993, when I was doing some aerial photography for my next book (on the Nabataeans), that I noticed a very large feature near the Monastery and wondered how I hadn’t spotted it before. From the air a large circle was clearly visible on a flat area a short climb from the Monastery. What this circle had been used for was unclear at the time. The main theory that I heard was that it was perhaps a place for members of the sacred association to gather when “Obodas the god” was honored.
Fast forward to 2013, when a team of archaeologists from Brigham Young University in Utah, led by Cynthia Finlayson, started studying, excavating, and restoring the various archaeological elements in the vicinity of the Monastery that had been designed by the Nabataeans to protect this exceptional monument, in particular from winter rains that could create a lake in its colonnaded forecourt. One of these elements is this circle, now called the Great Circle.6 Far from being a gathering area for devotees, it has been revealed as a huge, shallow pool, just over 60 meters in diameter, surrounded by a wide outer ring of higher rock. In periods of heavy rain this pool captured the water that would otherwise have cascaded down the slope to the Monastery. Among other damage, this would have caused salts to leach to the surface of the monument, crumbling the outer layers of sandstone at the base of the façade, as has happened in the centuries since the pool filled with silt.
Given the Nabataeans’ gift for multi-purposing, their reverence for both divinity and water conservation, and the size and visibility of the pool, perhaps the Great Circle also played a role in the rituals enacted at the Monastery. Short of the discovery of an inscription or the annals of the Nabataean kings and people, we will probably never know.
Another way the Nabataeans protected the fragile sandstone of their monuments was to cover the exteriors with layers of plaster and paint. Today we marvel at the range of harmonious colors in the rocks that make patterns on the façades. But the Nabataeans, unwilling to make do with what nature had imposed on them, transformed their tombs and temples with vibrant yellows, reds, greens, and blues. A few painted rooms have also been found in houses, showing that the Nabataeans also put interior decorators to work in some of their homes.
Most striking of all was the discovery in 1996 by archaeologists from Basel University in Switzerland of a large villa with spectacular polychrome trompe-l’oeil wall paintings. Dated to the early 1st century AD, they give the illusion of a stylized form of architecture, with columned building wings appearing to stand out from the wall, each panel painted in a different geometrical design. They are similar in concept to some of the wall paintings found in Pompeii done in the so-called second style. Above them, elaborate stucco work that mimics masonry enhances the three-dimensional effect of the paintings.
This was something quite new in Petra, the most complex and best-preserved wall paintings found here so far.7 In 1999 the director of the project, Bernhard Kolb, generously gave me permission to photograph them for my book on the Nabataeans. Since then, to protect these vulnerable works of art from direct sunlight or rain, a shelter has been constructed around them. Until the site can be adequately guarded, it remains closed to the public. When it can be opened, it will be a rare treat for visitors to Petra.
On all the occasions when I toted my film cameras around Petra and other parts of Jordan —or Yemen or Egypt and more—I then had to wait a few weeks before the processed films arrived back in Amman from the labs in London. Anxious thoughts occasionally crossed my mind when I stopped to think about my eventual return to England at some unspecified date. What on earth should I do with several thousand transparencies? Was there a way in which my photographs, taken over a period of thirty years and more, could have a useful second life? Could they play some part in showing the changes that had occurred in and around archaeological sites, and perhaps even helping to deter inappropriate development?
Some years later, Barbara Porter, then director of ACOR, told me about the germ of an idea initiated by Rami Khouri’s donation of his photographic collection: they were setting up a photographic archive to be available to scholars and others. My ears pricked up. If they would also accept my collection, it might be the answer to my prayers. And they did! Since then, I have been constantly impressed by the way ACOR has secured vital grants, brought in excellent people to set up the archive, trained staff to run it, added collections covering a range of sites and subjects, and found new ways to promote the archive. ACOR has created a new kind of landmark in the archaeology of the Middle East. I am so proud to be a part of it.
Al Adarbeh, N., S. Carter, H. Khirfan, and S. Abu Aballi. 2020. “Jordan’s Tourism Sector in the Wake of Covid-19: Where Do We Go From Here?” Insights, 15 July 2020.
Burckhardt, J. L. 1822. Travels in Syria and the Holy Land. London: John Murray.
Farajat, S. and S. Nawafleh. 2005. “Report on the al-Khazna Courtyard Excavation at Petra, 2003.” Annual of the Department of Antiquities 49: 373–393.
Finlayson, C. 2018. “Petra: Ad Deir Monument Project.” Archaeology in Jordan 1: 79–80.
Irby, C. L. and J. Mangles. 1823. Travels in Egypt and Nubia, Syria and Asia Minor during the Years 1817 and 1818. London: T. White and Co., Printers.
Kolb, B. 2002. “Excavating a Nabataean Mansion.” Near Eastern Archaeology 65 (4): 260–264.
Lumb, A. 2020. “Kenneth Russell: An Archaeologist with a Passion for the Power of the Question.” ACOR Digital Archive, 4 June 2020.
Taylor, J. 1993. Petra. London: Aurum Press.
Taylor, J. 2001. Petra and the Lost Kingdom of the Nabataeans. London: I.B. Tauris.
Taylor, J. 2005. Petra. 3rd edition. Amman : Al-ʼUzza Books.
- Burckhardt 1822, 424.
- Irby and Mangles 1823, 418.
- Lumb 2020.
- See Al Adarbeh et al. 2020.
- Archaeologist Suleiman Farajat, then of the Department of Antiquities, Jordan. Not to be mistaken for Suleiman A.D. Farajat, Chief Commissioner of the Petra Development Tourism Region Authority (PDTRA). For further information on the excavations, see Farajat and Nawafleh 2005.
- Also see Finlayson 2018.
- For an overview of key findings, see Kolb 2002.