Ancient Petra: The rose-red city of wonder

In CULTURE by Janice and George35 Comments

Gazing up at the monuments of ancient Petra – feet sinking into soft red sand and dust swirling about – you can’t help but be amazed by the genius of its ancient Nabatean builders. Wealthy traders and masterful rock sculptors, they chiseled a vast city of beautifully carved tombs, temples and houses out of rose-and-peach rock in the Jordanian desert.

A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Petra today ranks alongside the Great Wall of China, the Taj Mahal and the Mayan city of Chichen Itza as one of the “New Seven Wonders of the World.”

The Siq, and then… the Treasury!

To reach Petra, a horse carries you along a stony track to the “Siq” – a 3/4-mile path snaking through a narrow mountain canyon.

Sandstone cliffs soar more than 260 feet high on either side as you walk along the Siq’s twisting turns. Stone idols line the rock walls, and guides point out the clay pipes that fed water into the city. The limestone slabs you’re walking on date back to Roman times.

ancient Petra - Siq

Don’t you think these giant rock formations lining the Siq look like elephants?

ancient Petra - Siq

A horse-drawn carriage clip-clops through the Siq

Petra's only access is the Siq, created by an age-old earthquake

Ancient Petra’s only access is the Siq, created by an age-old earthquake

Suddenly a magnificent rock carving (the “Treasury”) comes into view. Sunlight glows on this monumental façade’s double row of 12 Corinthian columns, crowned by a giant stone urn.

Now turn left down a colonnaded street – hundreds of royal tombs, sacred halls, mammoth temples, cave houses and even an ampitheatre sprawl before you in a desert valley.

The Nabateans started building Petra around the 5th century B.C.

They likely chose the site for easy defence – its wondrous entrance way, the Siq, is its only access. For ancient Petra stood at the crossroads of ancient trade routes linking East and West. Caravans of camels loaded with spices, incense, silks and gold were taxed by the Nabateans for safe entry through the Siq.

At the end of the Siq, the Treasury suddenly bursts into view - photo Petra Archaeological Park

At the end of the Siq, the Treasury suddenly bursts into view – photo Petra Archaeological Park

Ancient Petra - camel at the Treasury

At the Treasury, you can bargain for a camel ride

Climbing up to the Monastery is a thigh-burner

Researchers have recently discovered the Nabateans sculpted their monuments to capture key celestial events and sunlight images, such as the lion’s head (a sacred animal) reflected by the setting sun at the “Monastery.”

Petra’s grandest edifice, the Monastery is a breath-sucking climb up 850 granite steps (or you can ride a donkey up). At least you can get a refreshing cup of tea from a simple Bedouin tea shack up top.

ancient Petra - Monastery

Looking up at the Monastery – photo Petra Archaeological Park

ancient Petra - Monastery

You have to climb 850 steps to reach the Monastery

ancient Petra - Monastery

The Monastery, Petra’s largest monument, is as awe-inspiring as the Treasury

ancient Petra - donkeys climb down steps from Monastery

You can make your way up to (and down from) the Monastery on foot or by donkey

A lost city, but not forgotten today

A center for trade and culture, Petra at its height was a glory of the ancient world. It only faded away in the 4th century A.D. when the Nabateans left – perhaps earthquakes or shifting trade routes led to its decline. Petra was then “lost” to the modern world until a Swiss explorer re-discovered it in 1812.

So far, only 60% of the city has been unearthed.

Who knows what other secrets this ancient kingdom may yet reveal?

ancient Petra - Urn Tombs

The Urn Tombs

ancient Petra - bedouin

A Bedouin points out the different colors of the rock

ancient Petra - buying souvenirs

Souvenirs anyone? Little stalls throughout ancient Petra sell jewelry and souvenirs

ancient Petra - view of tombs

Window to the ancient world? Looking at tombs

Travel tips for visiting ancient Petra

How to visit Petra:

  • Many travelers visit Jordan and Petra Archaeological Park on package tours. Cruises to the Middle East often offer shore excursions to Petra too.
  • If traveling independently, hire a licensed tour guide to make the most of your visit (book at the Petra Visitor Centre).
  • Ideally, allow two days to take in the whole 65-acre site. Two-day entrance fees are 55 J.D. (about $78 USD) and include a horseback ride to the beginning of the Siq (extra cost for a horse-drawn carriage ride to the Treasury monument). A one-day entrance fee is 50 J.D. (about $70 USD).
  • To see the Monastery, consider saving energy by paying for a donkey ride up the 850 steps.

Where to stay:

  • We stayed at the five-star Movenpick Resort Petra (the closest hotel to Petra), with 183 newly renovated rooms and an outdoor pool.

Best time to go:

  • Spring (March to May) and autumn (September to November) are the best times to visit, when days are pleasantly warm.
  • Avoid the scorching heat of summer.

Health and safety:

  • Jordan is safe to visit (but check government travel advisories before you go).
  • You shouldn’t get sick if you drink only bottled water and eat at recommended places.
  • As Petra is sandy, wear comfortable walking shoes (not sandals) and carry bottled water, a hat and sunscreen.

Our magazine story on ancient Petra

A version of this story of ours was first published in the July-August, 2014 issue of Taste of Life magazine. Click on the image below to see a PDF of the print article.

Petra-Lost City of Wonder (Taste of Life, July-August 2014)-page-001

Have you visited ancient Petra? What was the most awe-inspiring sight for you?


  1. The giant rock formations really do look like elephants! I really enjoyed reading your post; it really felt like I was right there next to you as you traveled through the ancient city of Petra. Great tips at the end about when to go and where to stay– this will definitely come in handy for anybody considering a trip to Petra.

  2. Wow! Jordan has been on my mind a lot lately and your post makes me want to visit even more. Beautiful pictures and excellent writing! :)

  3. Visiting Petra has been on my list for a long time but for some reason I still did not make it there. It looks so beautiful, you’re stunning photos even want me to more. Who know maybe next year

  4. Wonderful post with amazing photos! I’ve always wanted to visit Petra since I was a boy and saw ‘Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.’ I always thought it would be cool to kinda live my life in a similar form…without the gun battles ;) Someday I’ll get to Petra but in the meantime your photos took me there in spirit!

  5. I had low expectations for Petra (not one for much hype), but like my visit to the Grand Canyon, Petra surprised by an overabundant excess. Your chronicles make me crave more; beautifully written.

  6. Great photos! I’d recommend to walk down the Siq; you can ride or take a carriage back (because you’ll be shattered after a long day’s exploring! :D). And, if you buy those lovely little bottles of different coloured sand, be sure to pack it securely, or you really will have ‘sand in your suitcase’!

  7. There is no way I could manage 850 stairs with my knees! And the donkey ride doesn’t thrill me either. We did that in Greece and there was no rail or anything to break one’s fall down the cliff if the donkey lost his footing. And in that blazing heat … Anything is possible! But that aside, Petra does indeed look like a fascinating place. Thx for sharing your experience with us.

  8. We were invited to visit one of my husband’s colleagues in Jerusalem in March, but something tells me that might not be happening. I had already decided that a visit to Petra should be part of the same trip, and your post has certainly solidified that decision.

  9. Your article on Petra is one of the best, and most useful for anyone planning a visit, that I have ever read! And your photos really capture everything so well. Excellent, excellent post!

  10. Jordan is still high up on my bucket list. Unfortunately recent troubles everywhere rendered our initial plan infeasible! We were going to drive (right now) from Central Europe through Syria and Jordan into Egypt, then continue south in Africa, Sudan being the next country… What happened: first the uprising in Egypt, then civil war in Syria, now on top of it civil war in Sudan :(
    I hope one day we will be able to do it…

    Greetings from South America instead.

  11. These photos all take my breath away. I would only dare travel to Petra with a group (my husband wouldn’t go). Thank you for the travel tips because I would love to see this beautiful area.

  12. I love your pictures, they are beautiful. The camel looks pretty friendly too. Hard to grasp they really started building Petra so many centuries ago, fantastic.

  13. I really enjoyed your post and photographs and thanks for the helpful tips at the end. My sister has bad asthma so she was very happy to hear about the donkey option for getting to the monastery! We’ve been wanting to go to Petra for years; maybe your post will nudge us along!

  14. An amazing place. To think that so much detail on the architecture remains after all these centuries and that only 60% of Petra has been unearthed. I would love the opportunity to see this.

  15. Gorgeous photos. We’ve never travelled in the Middle East and might never – but if there is one site I’d like to see it’s Petra.
    Very informative post,
    Frank (bbqboy)

  16. Especially love the shot looking up up up at the entrance! Thanks for the tips–this is definitely on my list of places I’d like to visit! Glad to hear you had a positive experience.

  17. Fantastic pictures!! I really want to head to Petra now! Hopefully one day, bookmarking this for then :)

  18. Hi Janice and George,

    Amazing shots! This brings me back to the classic Indiana Jones movie. Seeing the images is a throwback, and I can only imagine how it felt to see this in person….although your images did a fine job relaying the feeling.

    Thanks Guys.

    Tweeting in a bit.


  19. Excellent photos, Janice! Totally agree with you that visiting in the summer months would be a horrible idea. My wife and I visited in March 2009 and even found that the weather then was borderline too hot, especially as soon as you get into the wide open area past the treasury—there’s literally no shade on the trails! Definitely gotta wear a hat and hydrate, hydrate, hydrate; sun stroke is all-too real of a possibility over there. Thanks for sharing, Janice!

  20. Your photos are amazing!!! I confess the Middle East has not been high on my list of places to visit, but I have become more intrigued as of late. I think my family would throw a fit given the safety issues for much of that region though. But, as you say, Jordan is pretty safe. This would be an incredible site to experience in person.

    1. Author

      If you visit Petra, you should also take a spin in a jeep with a Bedouin guide around Wadi Rum, Lawrence of Arabia’s stomping grounds. And you can do some beaching too down in Aqaba. Cross fingers – Jordan is safe for now…

  21. I’ve long wanted to travel to Jordan to see Petra and your photos and description of Nabatean history has inspired me to make it sooner rather than later.

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