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The Ancient World of Petra, Jordan

A partially-hidden ancient city built in the 3rd century BC, with outstanding wind-eroded sandstone landscapes. Extremely deserving of its place in the new seven wonders of the world.

A brief history

The city is linked to the Nabateans, an ancient western Arabian nomadic tribe, who built most of the monuments present (partly in honour of the dead). They found it easier to carve structures out of the sandstone rock rather than building freestanding structures which would be more vulnerable to earthquakes. Though they were a nomadic tribe without a distinct architectural heritage to speak off, they were traders and borrowed elements of art and design from their neighbours (Egyptians, Romans, Mesopotamians, Assyrians).

There are more tombs (over 500!) in Petra than any other type of structure, all carved in the sandstone cliffs. The size and design of the tomb depended on the social status and financial resources of the deceased.

Around 106 CE, as trade routes shifted away from Petra, the Romans took control and added their own touch (baths, colonnaded streets) to the city. Apparently even Emperor Hadrian paid a visit! Two big earthquakes in 363 and 551 brought ruin and the city soon became forgotten (except to the Bedouin who called the place their home) until Louis Burkhardt, the Swiss explorer, brought new attention to it in the 19th century.

Archeological excavations still continue to the present day (in 2003, a tomb complex was found under the Treasury).

Louis Burkhardt the Explorer

Swiss-born, Cambridge-educated Louis moved to Syria in 1809, where he converted to Islam, changed his name and became a master of disguise. While going from Damascus to Cairo, he heard about magnificent ruins in Wadi Musa and was determined to visit it. In an attempt to cast aside his guide’s suspicions, he went in disguise as a pilgrim going to pay respects to the tomb of Haroun. To avoid already raised suspicions, Louis (or Ibrahim as he was known) had to be content with only the quickest of glances at the historical monuments, concluding that this was indeed Petra – a place not set foot into as yet by a European traveller. His journal (Travels in Syria and the Holy Land) has inspired several generations of travellers. 

The best advice I read for Petra

Move at your own pace. Instead of trying to tick off all the top sites and get ‘monument fatigue’, choose a few places. Leave time for a hike to absorb the surroundings. Or a (treacherous) climb to at least one vantage point, since the magic of Petra is best felt above ground. And of course, to sip some tea and have a chat at a small Bedouin stall. Of course, hiking shoes are essential for a long day’s walking (we did close to 25,000 steps that day).

I went wearing just a t-shirt in mid-March. As luck would have it, it was cloudy, windy and 10C! It only turned warmer as we were leaving. While we warmed up during the hikes, it’s well worth bringing a sweater

A half-day (5 hour) itinerary in Petra

1. Start at the Petra Visitor Centre, to buy tickets, pick up a map, a snack or drink, and use the toilets.

Enroute from the Visitor Centre to the Siq

2. The Siq or 1.2km canyon (15 min walk without stops from entrance) is the first main sight with its humbling 200m high walls.This magical passage builds suspense and anticipation of what is to appear ahead. The Nabateans made this into a sacred way, dotted with sites of spiritual significance. This stone corridor is worth enjoying slowly, it was one of my favourite parts of Petra. Technically the Siq is not a canyon but a single block that has been ripped apart by tectonic forces. Many of the niches in the walls were originally designed to hold figures of Dushara, the main Nabataean god, for pilgrims and priests on their way to the ancient city. The colour of the sandstone, particularly at sunset, makes it easy to understand how it got the nickname of ‘Pink City’.

3. Treasury (catch the morning rays bouncing off the pillars, 20 min from the Siq without stops): this tomb of the Nabatean King Aretas III is the main reason why most people fall in love with Petra. The Hellenistic facade (carved out of sandstone) is an inspiring piece of craftsmanship. Its name comes from a story where an Egyptian pharaoh hid his treasure here in an urn while pursuing the Israelites (you’ll see rifle shots pockmarking the urn). Best photographed around 9-11am, with the sun lighting up the ladders on either side (the stone indents were probably used as scaffolding). To get a photograph from the classic viewpoint that is featured in most photographs of Petra, it’s a 5 min climb. The Bedouin people manning the spot charge 5JD per person for a guide (not sure what the guide does), tea and a photo shoot. But we went up there with no guide or frills and took photos by ourselves for free.

The magic of the Treasury coming into sight while walking through a narrow rift (the Siq) is a sight to remember
The highlight of most itineraries in Petra: The Treasury

4. High Place of Sacrifice (Viewpoint: 45-60 min walk from Treasury): This well-preserved site has drains which were for the blood of sacrificed animals. Look for a set of stone steps just after the “Why Not? Cafe”. Back in the day no ordinary person would have been allowed entry into this holy place, which includes an altar area, a space where the celebrants would have shared a meal, and stone water basins for cleansing and purifying. The 45 minute climb up the steps is well worth it to sit for a while at the top and enjoy the panorama (including views of the Royal Tombs) from above.

Enroute to the High Place of Sacrifice

5. Stop for tea at a local Bedouin stall and enjoy a chat with a Bedouin lady in a few words of Arabic and sign language 🙂

6. Hike: High Place of Sacrifice to Petra City Centre via Wadi Farasa (Moderate difficulty, approx 60 – 90min): Start from the High Place of Sacrifice and pass through a less visited part of Petra. Near the obelisks, the trail with steps down heads towards Wadi Farasa. The trail start is not obvious – there’s a nearby drinks stand where you can ask for directions. The path ends in the Colonnaded Street near the centre of Petra City (where you can get a simple packed lunch at the Nabatean Tent Restaurant or grab a tea at the Bdoul Mofleh Tea Shop)

What not to do in Petra

Given we were taking the JETT bus with a fixed departure time (and only one departure for the day), in theory we should have been more cautious. However, we lost track of time while chatting with the Bedouin lady over a cup of tea, admiring all of the sandstone sculptures we passed and soaking in the views from above. Additionally, the hike through Wadi Farasa is not well-marked and we ended up taking a wrong fork in the road. Luckily, there was a Bedouin guide who was kind enough to course-correct us at just the right moment. 

At Petra town centre when we realised a mule ride might be the only option to get us to the bus stop in time

Even so, when we reached the Petra town centre, we were told it would take 1.5-2 hours to walk back to the bus stop, while we only had 1h20 min left. Cue: Panic Stations. The same Bedouin guide introduced us to his brother who had some mules for hire. They suggested a mule might help expedite part of the journey, to help us reach the bus on time. So we forked out 20JD ($28) for the two of us. 

What we didn’t realise:
  • All the adult Bedouins turned around and left – we were entrusted with one of their children who couldn’t have been older than a young teenager.
  • We would ride our mules solo, our guide was on his own mule some distance away.
  • Mules have a mind of their own. Or at least mine did. And they are capable of jogging (?) fairly fast.
  • The mules didn’t seem to be too bothered by humans who were too slow and didn’t get out of the way. 
The end result? Chaos.

The Bedouin did take his commitment to a fast journey seriously, for which I was very grateful. However the mule just bumped and crashed into several people along the way to my horror. It didn’t listen to my cry to stop. It was like watching a car-crash in slow motion where you knew the end outcome. I felt awful for the first few people we crashed into head first who got the rudest shock of their lives. The guide didn’t seem to be too bothered (he was shouting from some distance behind in fairness, but not sure how many people could understand what he was saying). So I frantically started yelling, “Sorry please get out of the way! I can’t stop this mule!”. 

I couldn’t have been happier when I dismounted this free-willed mule and the journey ended. It turned out that the disastrous mule ride did save the day in the end: we made the bus back to Aqaba!

The calm before the storm, just as we mounted our (free-willed) mules. And the massive sigh of relief when we dismounted back at the Treasury, knowing we could make it back to our bus on time!

#Admin Info

  • There are toilets at the Petra Visitor Centre, restaurant and at tea houses around the site 
  • You can remain in Petra until sunset, entry fees are pretty steep at 50JD ($70) per adult (card payments carry a 2% surcharge)
  • Pack a sweater just in case!
  • To reach Petra from Aqaba there is a daily JETT bus, leaving Aqaba at 0800 and arriving in Petra between 1100-1145am with a pitstop for a toilet break enroute. The return bus leaves Petra at 1700 and arrives in Aqaba around 2030. A day-return ticket was 18JD ($25) per person.
Petra’s emergency services look a bit different to the normal 911/999 😉

Given limited time, we skipped the Royal Tombs and the Monastery.

Learnings on men’s headdress (keffiyah)

Enroute to Petra, we stopped for a toilet break, and in the souvenir shop, we learnt a bit more about the men’s headdress (keffiyah) in Jordan and what the different colours mean:

  • Red = Jordanian
  • Blue / Green = Jordanian Military
  • Black = Bedouin
  • Black with more white = Palestinian

I visited Jordan in March 2023

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