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.
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.
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.
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?
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.