Petra, Jordan’s Lost City

Credit: David Berkowitz from New York, NY, USA via Wikimedia Commons

Petra really deserves its reputation as one of the world’s greatest wonders, up there with the Pyramids and the Taj Mahal. Described by UNESCO as one of the world’s “most precious” cultural heritage sites, and by the first modern Westerner to stumble across the city in 1812 as “one of the most elegant remains of antiquity existing”, it’s just not possible to leave Petra disappointed.

My visit to Petra: too short, but very sweet

I first came across these spectacular ruins of an ancient city etched into rose-pink rock in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, when I was little. But in real life, Petra is much bigger and better than I’d expected. The old capital city of the Arab Nabataeans, established as early as 312 BC, Petra is situated amidst rocky mountains, steep cliffs and gorges. Its structures are built both into the rocks and in between them, creating a city that looms over you and leaves you in awe of this ancient world.

Today, after paying your hefty dues at the gates, visitors enter Petra through a rocky gorge known as the Siiq. This narrow, shadowy passageway runs for 1.2 kms, with steep cliffs looming above you on both sides (there’s a small walk to get to the Siiq, with the option of a horse ride). Walking through the Siiq is curious and exciting, full of twists and turns, and taking you over parts of the old Roman-Nabataean road. Above you, the towering pink rock juts out unevenly to obscure much of the sunlight. As you go, watch out for the various carvings and shrines in the rock beside you.

At the end of the narrow trail, you’ll catch sight of Petra’s most iconic monument, partly concealed by rocks: step out into a sunlight clearing and full view of the Treasury.

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The Treasury (al-Khazneh in Arabic) is truly spectacular. Its 30m-high façade is carved right into the pink rock, towering over the dozens of tourists and camels crammed into the small space in front of it. I hope my picture below gives some idea of its size and dominance.

The architecture is beautiful, juxtaposed by the rough pink sandstone surrounding it. The pillars give the building a Hellenistic feel, though its creation as a carving in pink sandstone is seen as very much Nabataean. Its name is a bit of a misnomer, though, as the building was actually created as a tomb of a Nabatean king in the early 1st century, and possibly used as a temple thereafter. It is remarkably well preserved – except for small bullet holes, evidence of the attempted robberies that followed rumours of hidden treasure inside. You can’t actually go in, but it doesn’t look like there’s much there anyway, just a small dark chamber.

The Treasury, Petra

Turning right past the Treasury – on a camel if you’re so inclined – the route carries on down to the “Street of Facades” (below). You’ll reach a massive amphitheatre, built with strong Greek and Roman influences, which once seated over 8500 people.

Side-note: according to Rough Guides, “if you climb over the wall, then double back to scramble up the rocks, you’ll reach a small, jutting plateau, with a perfect view from above of the Treasury and the whole bustling plaza in front of it” – I missed this but it sounds great!

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Just beyond the theatre, you’ll see a cliff with some beautiful facades. Known as the Royal Tombs (below), you can climb up for a closer look and great views. Unfortunately I didn’t have time – I’d really advise spending longer than half a day at Petra! (Check out more of my tips at the bottom of this page.) The site is massive, and what’s visible only scratches the surface. Many archaeologists think that the majority – possibly up to 85% – of this ancient city still lies buried under the sand and rock. When I went, I saw some areas that were undergoing excavation. All adding to the mystery and excitement of the place, of course!

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From here, we wandered down a street lined with colonnades, known as the Colonnaded Street or Petra’s ‘city centre’.

Credit: yeowatzup via Flickr. Cropped from original.

Here we found another herd of camels and their owners offering rides for weary tourists. Camels must have been a common sight in Petra’s heyday, too. The city grew wealthy on the caravan trade (which possibly included as many as 2,500 camels!) and was a stopping point on various commercial routes, including Chinese silk and Indian spices heading west, and to Arabia and the sea routes to the south. The Nabataeans traded in incense such as frankincense and myrrh, and collected taxes from traders resting in their city.

Camel Petra

From the Colonnaded Street, we ventured towards Petra’s largest monument, the Ad-Deir Monastery, set on top of a mountain. A tricky and steep climb up 800 steps take you there. I’m a fairly fit person and found it OK, but I was there in December and might have struggled in the summer heat. However, there are donkeys you can ride up to the top if you don’t feel up to it. But don’t miss it – it’s the icing on the delicious Petra cake.

Petra donkeys

The views as you ascend are stunning. In the photo I took below, you can just see the Royal Tombs in the distance, far below. There are lots of locals selling trinkets along the way, including much-needed bottles of water.

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The climb is well rewarded. At the top, we sat down for a drink and a rest (there’s a small cafe up there) and just enjoyed this spectacular view. The Monastery feels almost heavenly, peering down over the city; it feels quieter, somewhat removed from the hustle and bustle below, as it must have felt in ancient times too. The building itself is stunning, and absolutely massive – we climbed up into the doorway, which required standing on each other’s shoulders! For me, it felt like the high point of a really amazing day.

You go down as you came up, and it’s a long trek back to the entrance. I was exhausted, but what a day it was.

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Tips for visiting Petra…

  • I did not spend long enough in Petra! I missed several places and the day felt quite rushed. I stayed in the capital, Amman, and went on a day trip – it’s about 3.5 hours on very good roads, leaving just half a day inside Petra. We took a public bus, which was surprisingly easy and comfortable.
  • There are hotels nearby to stay overnight in the town, Wadi Musa; if I went again I’d stay here and visit over one or two days. As with all such sites, the earlier you get there, the emptier it’ll be.
  • Entry is a whopping 90 JD for foreigners, expensive but unavoidable.
  • Wear comfortable shoes and loose clothing – Petra involves a lot of walking! I went in December but if you go in warmer months, plenty of suncream and a hat are vital. Ladies: I never covered my head in Jordan and it wasn’t a problem, but dress modestly (cover your arms and legs) to minimise unwanted attention.
  • There are some small eateries within the site, but I wouldn’t rely on them. It’s by far better to bring a packed lunch and eat it with a spectacular view over Petra.
  • Sources & further historical detail: Rough Guides has a really comprehensive guide to Petra’s individual monuments and is full of useful tips. Lonely Planet has a short article, as does the Jordan Tourism Board.

If you enjoyed Petra, check out Hampi, another ‘lost city’, this time in India!

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