This ancient wonder of stunning grandeur and beauty is set in an arid rockscape which is itself embedded in a featureless flat desert, the dullest desert we’ve ever driven across – apart from the magnificent molten rocks of the Wadi Rum section.
Petra was built mostly by the Nabataeans (also spelled Nabateans) around 500 BC -100 AD. It was then captured by the Romans and slowly declined under their rule over four hundred years as Syria’s city of Palmyra became the place to do business and Petra was so not fashionable. Then a catastrophic earthquake shattered the complex water management infrastructure and made living conditions there untenable.
The Petra ruins were ‘discovered’ by the west in 1812 as ‘a rose-red city, half as old as time‘. Full poem.
This is one of the world’s best ancient sites, set in Jordan, a little middle-eastern Arab monarchy containing some of the friendliest people on the planet – despite some quite barking neighbours.
A day in Petra
A Djin block – purpose unknown – on the approach to Petra’s entrance gorge, Bab Al Siq, from the Visitor Centre. This is the only entrance to Petra, broad at this point but narrowing down quickly into the Siq gorge. On the left is the shadowed Obelisk tomb and Triclinium, best seen on your way back when they are lit up by the western sun.
Make a very early start to take advantage of the cool air and reduce the numbers of tourists trundling beside you down the Siq; wear serious walking footwear and carry water, sun cream, hat, camera and possibly a packed lunch in a good backpack.
Even better, do two or three nights in the hotel and two days hiking the rocks, one day hitting the regular sights (Treasury, Facades Street, Amphitheatre, Royal Tombs, Roman Highway, Al Deir)and the second exploring the less touristy, out-of-the-way places, such as the back route from the High Place of Sacrifice.
Perhaps the world’s best entrance to a developed ancient site, Petra’s Al Siq, 1km long and only 3m (10ft) wide in places.
Don’t even consider a horse- buggy unless walking is a problem as the ancient, spooky ambience of this sombre and serpentine gorge should be absorbed at a comfortable and meditative pace. And if you have to, let the tourist herds gallop by!
Inevitably this is a busy tourist site so to optimise your experience stay in Wadi Musa and head into the site at close to 6. 0am or 6. 30am opening time, depending on the season. That way you’ll get a jump on the herds arriving by bus and have a much more impressive initial experience.
Once the Siq and the Treasury have been seen Petra opens out and tourists spread out so the impact of the huddled masses is felt less.
A first glimpse of the Treasury from the Siq, though many have already seen it courtesy of Steven Spielberg’s Indian Jones and the Last Crusade movie in 1989.
One way of escaping the madding crowds of Petra is to start climbing the hill to the southwest shortly after the Treasury, heading for the panoramic views from the High Place of Sacrifice. Not so many tourists will stagger up there in the heat, though some will let donkeys take the strain.
It is possible to continue along the track west from the High Place as far as the natural end of the Petra site at Al Deir (The Monastery), then swing back via the really key sights of Petra such as the Royal Tombs, the Amphitheatre and Hadrian’s Gate, but don’t overtire yourself if you have just one day and are less than fit. Target the principal sights, so perhaps visit the high place and then go back down the hill to hit the high spots before your legs refuse to go any further.
Part of the Street of Facades.
Inside one of the Street of Facades structures. Nice place to hang out. Take home some design ideas!
Rose Macaulay wrote in Pleasure of Ruins: ‘If ever a dead city held romance it is Petra. . . . hewn out of ruddy rock in the midst of a mountain wilderness, sumptuous in ornament and savage in environs, poised in wildness like a great carved opal glowing in a desert, this lost caravan city staggers the most experienced traveller. ‘
The Urn Tomb is the most impressive of the Royal Tombs; the Roman arches at bottom were added later. The Urn is next to Street of Facades. In fact facades is mostly what Petra is about, there’s rarely much going on inside.