Gazing up at the monuments of the ancient lost city of 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.
Today, Petra is a a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It has more than 800 registered archeological sites, including 500 tombs.
And it’s a marvel to visit – a place you must put on your travel bucket list.
Lost city of Petra, Jordan
History of ancient Petra
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.
A center for trade and culture, Petra at its height was a glory of the ancient world.
Over time, however, its glory began to fade and it was eventually abandoned 800 years after being founded.
Many of the tombs were looted and, for centuries, Petra was “lost” to the modern world.
Lost, that is, until a Swiss explorer named Johannes Burckhardt re-discovered it in 1812.
The story goes that, dressed as an Arab, he persuaded his Bedouin guide to lead him to the lost city.
The western world took notice of this once-great city, and archaeologists began excavating Petra.
In recent times, more than a million people have visited Petra each year.
To reach the Petra ruins, a horse carries you along a stony track to the entrance of the fabled Siq, a 3/4-mile path snaking through a narrow mountain canyon.
At the entrance, you can ride in a horse-drawn carriage – or walk – through the Siq.
Sandstone cliffs soar more than 260 feet high on either side as you make your way along the Siq’s twisting turns.
It’s quite dramatic to follow this path – sometimes it squeezes tight to only seven feet in width.
Stone idols line the rock walls, and guides point out the clay pipes that fed water into the city.
The limestone slabs beneath your feet or carriage wheels date back to Roman times.
Suddenly a magnificent rock carving – the Treasury (or Al-Khazneh) comes into view.
You can’t help but gasp when you see this colossal 140-foot high monument.
Sunlight illuminates the façade’s double row of 12 Corinthian columns, crowned by a giant stone urn.
Despite its name, the Treasury never actually contained treasure.
It was a tomb that was later used as a temple. (Inside, there’s nothing much to see except for a couple of bare rooms with high ceilings.)
Now turn left down a colonnaded street. (The horse carriages only go as far as the Treasury, so you have to walk.)
Hundreds of royal tombs, sacred halls, mammoth temples, cave houses and even an ampitheater sprawl before you in a desert valley.
Climbing up to the Petra Monastery
Petra’s grandest edifice is the Monastery.
It’s some distance away from the Treasury – and 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.
Interestingly, researchers have 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.
Recommended reading: If you love Petra, you’ll love Egypt’s ancient tombs and temples too
Ancient city of Petra – not forgotten today
Petra thrived for centuries, only fading away away in the 4th century A.D. when the Nabateans left – perhaps earthquakes or shifting trade routes led to its decline.
After Burckhardt re-discovered Petra, the English theological scholar John William Burgon penned a poem in 1845 about Petra.
Even though he never actually visited the city, he famously called it “a rose-red city half as old as time.”
The name stuck, and the city is known today as the rose-red city of Petra.
So far, perhaps only 15% of the city has been unearthed.
Who knows what other secrets this ancient kingdom may yet reveal?
Petra by night
If you stay overnight (which we highly recommend), you may want to return to the Petra archaeological site when it’s dark.
Visiting Petra at night is a totally different experience.
That’s when the Siq is hand-lit by 1,500 candles.
You slowly walk along the Siq to the Treasury. No large tourist groups. No horse-drawn carriages passing you by.
Expect to be completely awed by the silence and the experience of treading the centuries-worn path by candlelight.
When you reach the Treasury, you sit on rugs and listen to a musician play an ancient flute-like instrument and a Bedouin guide share a story about Petra.
A fan of UNESCO World Heritage Sites? Sri Lanka has 8 fabulous UNESCO sites (read next)
Tips: How to visit Petra
Petra is the best of Jordan’s tourist attractions.
Many travelers visit Jordan and Petra Archaeologic Park on package tours. Cruises to the Middle East often offer shore excursions to Petra too.
Here are some useful tips for visiting Petra:
Best time to visit Petra:
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.
Is it safe to visit Petra?
Jordan is generally considered safe to visit (but check government travel advisories before you go).
Health and comfort:
You shouldn’t get sick if you drink only bottled water and eat at recommended places.
As Petra is sandy, wear comfortable closed-toe walking shoes (not travel sandals) and carry bottled water, a hat and sunscreen.
Where to stay in Petra
More Petra travel information
For more Petra facts and information, see the Visit Petra website.
Photo credits: 2, 5 to 11, 13 to 18 © Janice and George Mucalov, SandInMySuitcase | Photos 4, 12, 19 courtesy Visit Petra