Petra, surrounded by stunning pink mountains and riddled with passages and gorges, was built by an ancient civilization called the Nabataeans – a nomadic tribe of Arabs. It was built as a trading hub because of it’s proximity to the established trade routes (their most lucrative trade was in frankincense and myrrh).
This phenomenal city was literally carved into and out of the face of mountains and lays in a valley running from the Dead Sea to the Gulf of Aqaba. Originally named Raqeem, the name was changed, upon the arrival of the Greeks, to ‘Petra’, meaning ‘the rock’.
Petra was a thriving trade center and the capital of the Nabataean empire (400 B.C. – A.D.106). Around the time of Christ, Petra’s heyday, the city was home to 20,000 people; and was the center of a kingdom four times the size of today’s Jordan.
Petra was unknown in the West from the time of the Crusades until it was discovered in 1812 by Swiss explorer John Lewis Burckhardt. One can imagine what ran through the minds of these Europeans who came across elaborate tombs and temple architecture, dams, a network of cisterns and reservoirs, religious high places, public buildings and archaeological remains including copper mining – all hidden in a mountain or red sandstone.
Touring Unesco Heritage Site Petra
Most visitors start at the eastern entrance to Petra through ‘the Siq’ a winding rocky cleft forming a canyon 250 feet deep leading to the Treasury (Al Khazneh) one of the most stunning of Petra’s features; it’s a towering façade precisely carved into the soft sandstone.
From the entrance, a one-kilometer walk leads you to the Siq
Note the Nabatean ancient water channel carved the length of the Siq – controlling the flow of water supply for the city.
First glimpse of the Treasury appearing like a seductress between the rocks!
Walking past The Treasury the next bend leads to the Outer Siq
The outer Siq, contains restaurants and Bedouins selling crafts. It’s here you will meet the son of Marguerite van Geldermalsen (New Zealand native who married a local Bedouin in 1980), selling beautiful custom designed jewelry, Marguerite wrote the book “Married to a Bedouin” about her life living in this Bedouin community.
Nestled above are The Royal Tombs known as “Urn Tomb”. Its one of the largest structures with a recessed facade and a series of two-tiered vaults for housing prisoners.
Mosaics are well preserved inside the main chambers.
Donkeys resting outside The Qasr Al-Bint, the largest freestanding structure in Petra, built in around 30 BC by the Nabataeans. Appearing just before you reach the descent to the Monastery.
The Monastery Route
No visit to Petra would be complete without a visit to the Monastery (Ad-Dayr) perched high up in the mountaintop. It’s also the most daunting place to reach with over 800 steps to climb, zigzagging through the mountain pass. Visitors either hike up or ride a donkey to the top. Donkeys can be hired from the local Bedouin guides. Prices are very negotiable as each of the Bedouin guides are competing for your business. The downside of riding the donkey to the top – its fear-inspiring, as you wobble along the route, sometimes feeling as if the poor animal may not get you over the next passage of steps. Also, the hooves are seriously degrading the carved sandstone steps on the route up.
Toward the top after a squeeze between two boulders and a short descent, and you emerge onto a wide, flat plateau and around the corner is the magnificent Monastery.
Just north of the Monastery you can climb further up and see views over the peaks down to the far areas of Wadi Araba.
For related articles on Jordan read:
- Visiting Jordan’s Breathtaking Wadi Rum Desert
- Jordan Guide: A Modern and Historical Delight
- A Guide to Jordanian Cuisine
If you go check out these links for additional information:
Note: My trip to Jordan was hosted by Visit Jordan, but all opinions expressed in this post is my own.