The entrance to Petra is unassuming…small shops, a cafe or two, a visitor’s center. The path widens and clouds of dust drift over the road, kicked up by the tourist-laden horse and carts clattering down the road to the Treasury. It’s hard to contain the urge to race through the narrow, twisting Siq for my first glimpse of Petra, but I know doing so would be a crime. Rachel and I decide to walk the 1.2km path through the Siq with our local guide, taking the time to admire the color-swirled rock on the towering canyon walls and absorbing the atmosphere and history of The Rose Red City. Around a corner and through the last narrow passage of the Siq, we see a glimpse of a glowing pillar, a sun-lit facade and hear the calls of the local Bedouin. Petra.
I can’t describe the feeling that washed over me as we stood in the courtyard before the Treasury. Awe, certainly. There are no pictures or words that could capture that moment. And so we stood, slack-jawed, surrounded by tourists, guides, camels, donkeys, carts and merchants, imagining this city as it was thousands of years before.
The Nabataeans established Petra as their capital city in 600BC, a center for trade and commerce for passing silk and spice caravans. Petra remained under Nabataean control until 106 AD when it was absorbed into the Roman Empire, marking the beginning of the city’s decline. A powerful earthquake in 363AD destroyed many buildings and the complex water system that was essential to the city’s survival. Petra was abandoned and slowly slipped into obscurity. The city remained “lost” to the western world until its rediscovery by Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt in 1812, who disguised himself in traditional clothing and entered Petra under the guise of offering a sacrifice at a local temple. The “Lost City” was found once again.
Al-Khazneh (commonly known as the Treasury) dominates the entrance to Petra. It is carved directly into the rock face and stands over 43 meters high. Al-Khazneh’s purpose is uncertain, although archeologists suspect it was a temple or tomb. We could see bullet holes in the walls and damage to the magnificent urn left by gun-toting tomb raiders and treasure hunting visitors who hoped to find gold and treasures hidden within. They all left empty handed.
The local Bedouin merchants offered passerbys treasures of their own…beads, baubles, camel rides and hilarious commentary.
“You would like a camel ride?”
“No, thank you”
“Ah, but my camel is the Ferrari of the desert.”
“Haha. No, thank you.”
Our guide shooed the young entrepreneurs away with advice to accept if you were interested, decline politely if you were not, but to never say “maybe later” or “I’ll think about it” which is seen as a promise for you to return at some point. Good advice.
We continued along the Street of Facades, lined with tombs carved from the sandstone cliffs. We dipped in and out of the caves, contemplating the work involved in carving out a mountain of sandstone to create homes, temples and tombs.
We left our guide at the Theater (poor man put up with us for 3.5 hours) and continued following the road to…the restaurant, of course. My original plan was to return to our hotel for lunch, not realizing that the trek through the Siq was a serious commitment. I was in “travel light” mode and brought a few bills and no credit cards. Our lunch consisted of a bottle of water and a turkish coffee, truly a lunch of champions. Thankfully, it was enough to fuel our afternoon hike up the 800+ rock-cut steps to the Monastery. We set out along the road, accompanied by a few friendly locals offering a “taxi ride” to the top (read donkey). We declined. The path to the top was dotted with local women sitting outside their tents offering “Happy hour for you…half price!” specials on jewelry, pottery, beads and other trinkets. They also offered encouragement “Almost there! Only 300 more steps!” It did tug on our heart strings to pass by tent after tent without buying anything, but I was dinar-less after our “lunch.” The hike to the top wasn’t very strenuous and the rewards (and views) were spectacular.
We reveled in our success as we hit the top step and rounded the corner to see The Monastery in all its glory. It’s hard to comprehend the scale of the tomb, but if you look very closely, you can see one of the local kids (dressed in white, top right of the building) climbing up, out and around the top, entertaining and terrifying the tourists below.
We ended our day at Petra, standing at the top of the mountain, listening to the bleats and bells of goats grazing nearby, watching the canyon walls begin to glow in the fading afternoon light. The local Bedouins encouraged us to join them for a cup of tea in the growing shadows of the Monastery …”Tea, ice cream? Come…take a break with a Kit Kat bar! Have a Coke and a smile!” It sounded like a great idea, but for us, it was a long hike back through the canyon to civilization and a late, late lunch.
*All photos in this post are courtesy of Rachel Belt
It seems no work of Man’s creative hand,
by labour wrought as wavering fancy planned;
But from the rock as if by magic grown,
eternal, silent, beautiful, alone!
Not virgin-white like that old Doric shrine,
where erst Athena held her rites divine;
Not saintly-grey, like many a minster fane,
that crowns the hill and consecrates the plain;
But rose-red as if the blush of dawn,
that first beheld them were not yet withdrawn;
The hues of youth upon a brow of woe,
which Man deemed old two thousand years ago,
match me such marvel save in Eastern clime,
a rose-red city half as old as time.
by John William Burgon (1813-1888)
Things to Know:
I didn’t stay long enough. I regret it and spend my days conspiring to return. Petra is huge. One day is not enough to truly explore the 250km2 of caves, tombs and hiking trails. We had a full day (10 hours!) and didn’t see many of the things we wanted to see. Plan to spend a minimum of two days (three is better and more leisurely). It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site for good reason. Explore the hidden tombs and caves, hike to the High Place ,visit the archeology museum, have tea, watch the sun set against the canyon walls and make sure you attend Petra by night (post pending!).
Ticket prices vary according to length and type of stay. There are discounted rates for some categories and children under 12 are free.
Arrive early (it opens at 6am!) to enjoy a few uncrowded minutes standing in front of the Treasury before the tourists arrive. Explore the streets of Petra early in the day and save the hike to the Monastery for the afternoon when the path is shaded by the canyon walls.
Bring cash 🙂 and water bottles. Small bills are best for buying, tipping camel/donkey drivers and paying for the occasional cup of tea.
Hire a local guide. Our guide was local, articulate and knowledgable. We learned more about Petra in our half-day tour than I did reading my three guidebooks and scouring the internets for days. Our guide was arranged through UTA and Audley Travel, but local guides are available at the visitor center and offer tours in many different languages. Of course, if you prefer to wander on your own, you should!
Sit for a cup of tea. You will most certainly be asked to join one of the local Bedouins for a cup of tea. Accept (at least once)! Sit and enjoy, talk to each other and ask questions about life within Petra. You should consider a gift of 1 or 2 JD in exchange. It is greatly appreciated.
Dress accordingly. This is a muslim country, so try to dress modestly. Wear comfortable hiking shoes and sunscreen and/or a hat. The sun can be brutal no matter what time of year you tour Petra.
Know your fitness level and don’t underestimate the power of the sun and heat. Petra requires a lot of walking and some hiking (if you choose to do so).
Where to stay
We stayed at the Movenpick Petra jut outside the entrance gates. The hotel was beautiful, the food excellent and the staff efficient and friendly. I would return in a heartbeat (the breakfast buffet is legendary). There are other hotels conveniently located in the small town and a few Bedouin camps that offer overnight stays nearby. I only write about or support hotels where I’ve stayed, so I can’t really recommend other hotels. My review on tripadvisor is pending. Do your research.
What to read/What to watch
Go ahead. Watch Indiana Jones: The Last Crusade.
Read Married To a Bedouin , the tale of New Zealand born Marguerite, who married a Bedouin tribal member and raised her family within the walls and caves of ancient Petra.
Read Petra: The Rose Red City , a small and highly readable guide to Petra, written by two archeologists who worked in the region.
Peruse Jordan Jubilee, a website filled with information about Petra and other areas of interest in Jordan