Everyone has heard of the city of Petra. Lost in the desert for centuries and rediscovered only in the 19th century, this pink-city carved out of rock has been attracting visitors from all over the worlds for decades.
But the ancient capital of the Nabataeans is much more than the typical image of its magnificent Treasury: from Roman ruins to royal tombs and a monastery on the top of a hill, a visit to this city in the desert will leave you speechless.
During my second day in Jordan, I spent the full day exploring one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. Check out what this unique place has to offer!
How to visit
Petra is located 240 km south of Amman, the capital of Jordan. The entrance of the city is located next to Wadi Musa, where many travellers set their base camp.
If you're coming from Amman, there are daily buses that will bring you there in approximately 4 hours, but sleeping in Wadi Musa is a much better idea. There are regular shuttles that will bring you to the entrance of Petra in only a few minutes.
My visit was part of my 3-day trip from Israel to Jordan with Abraham Tour. After having visited Jerash and Amman, we stayed overnight in a bedouin camp located only a few minutes drive from the ruins. If you're given the choice to sleep in a bedouin camp or a hotel, I can't recommend the bedouin camp enough.
It might not be as luxurious, but sleeping in a tent in the middle of the desert with a real bedouin family is a once in a lifetime experience that you can't miss. Our camp was actually way fancier than I expected. The facilities, including the toilets, were kept in fantastic conditions and the tents also were very comfortable.
In our trip, we had an entire day to explore the ruins of Petra. I was a bit worried about the timing, as the ruins are much bigger than they look and I thought that I wouldn't have enough time to see everything that I wanted. However, we entered the complex early in the morning and left just before sunset, so I actually managed to visit everything I had on my list.
Tickets for Petra are quite dear: JD50 for one day, JD55 for two days, or JD60 for three days (approx. €60/€65/€70). If you have more time, I'd say that two days in Petra would be ideal.
A single day might be enough if you're fit and willing to be walking all day - at least it was enough for me. You can definitely visit all the highlights in one day, but it will be quite tiring. If you have an extra day to visit, you can do one trail each day and visit the ruins at a more leisurely pace.
The exact date when Petra was first built is uncertain, but it is known that the city became prosperous when it became the capital of the Nabataean Empire in the 1st century BC. The city kept growing after the invasion of the Roman Empire and until its destruction by an earthquake in the 4th century.
Already deserted by the 7th century, the city of Petra remained lost for centuries and was only known by the local bedouins of the region. This changed when it was rediscovered in the 19th century by a Swiss explorer who dressed up as an Arab and convinced the local bedouins to bring him to the city, later sharing his discovery with the rest of the world.
The mystery that has always surrounded this lost city and its incredible structures carved in the rock have attracted millions of visitors since then, even more so after it became a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1985 and was chosen as one of the New Seven Wonders of the World in 2007.
The city is accessed through the Siq, a natural sandstone gorge that gently winds towards the ancient city of Petra for over 2km. A triumphal arch once spanned the entrance to the Siq, but it collapsed in 1985.
On either side of the arch, there were niches where busts of the king or emperor were placed. As you walk through, one can also see two water channels that run along each side, which held clay pipes that carried fresh water to the city from springs.
Just at the entrance of the Siq and carved into the sandstone cliffs are two separate rock-cut monuments, set one above the other. The upper, known as the Obelisk Tomb, is crowned with four elongated pyramids that represent nefesh, Nabataeans signs commemorating the deceased.
The gabled façade below the tombs marks the placement of a Triclinium, a funerary dining hall with benches carved along three of its sides. Here, banquets where wine was served were held in honour of a god or ancestor.
In its day, Petra was a bustling city that witnessed a constant procession of travellers, visitors and pilgrims, who passed along the same path as we now use. The economy of the city was based on these caravans of trade that constantly saw goods entering and leaving Petra.
As I reached the end of the Siq, I was presented with one of the most astonishing views that I've ever experienced in my travels: opening from between the walls of the gorge and as if it came out of nowhere, there was the Treasury of Petra.
The Treasury, or Al Khan in Arabic, is the most spectacular monument carved by the Nabataeans. It stands an imposing 39.5m high and is impressively carved out of a single block. The monument’s name comes from a local Bedouin legend that says the Pharaoh hid a treasure in the urn at the top. You can still see bullet holes from shooting at the urn to try to retrieve this treasure.
In reality, it is a mausoleum and would have been used for funerary purposes; many archaeologists believe it is the mausoleum of King Aretas IV. The Nabataeans decorated the façades of their tombs with funerary designs and symbols related to the afterlife and death.
The façade of the Treasury reveals a Hellenistic influence, with six Corinthian capitals topped by a frieze of winged griffins and vases among scrolls. In the centre of the façade is the goddess Isis, and she is surrounded by dancing Amazons (female warriors) with axes over their heads. At the top of the steps, just before you enter the chamber, there are circular holes in the floor, which were most probably used for sacrifices.
Priests would enter the chamber and conduct their rituals. In 2014, three Nabataean tombs were uncovered below the Treasury, which date to the end of the first century BC and have been identified as royal tombs.
But the city of Petra is much more than the Treasury. When we hear about Petra, we usually get the impressive image of its Treasury carved on the rock, however, the city hides dozens of equally impressive buildings that are also worth exploring.
Leaving the Treasury behind you'll reach the Roman ruins of Petra, accessed through the Colonnaded Street that ran through Petra’s city centre. Built by the Romans in the second century AD, it replaced an earlier Nabataean street which may have been lined with houses.
The street probably hosted markets that traded goods such as frankincense and myrrh from southern Arabia and East Africa, as well as semi-precious stones, textiles and spices from India.
The Romans straightened, narrowed and paved the road, ornamenting it with a double row of columns and constructing a stretch of commercial shops on its south side. As in all Roman cities, Petra’s main avenue served as a commercial centre and place of social gathering.
At the western end of the Colonnaded Street stands the Temenos Gate, the monumental arched entranceway to the Qasr al-Bint temple precinct.
The gateway complex featured three entrances; a large central bay and two smaller lateral ones. Today, only a part of the outer wall of the northern structure remains. The gate led to the holy area around the temple, or temenos, as it is called. Worshippers would be in the temenos area around the altar, which is in front of the temple.
The Great Temple complex is by far the largest building in Petra. Accessed by a monumental entryway, or propylaeum, it features two successive open-air areas at different elevations. The lower precinct consisted of a spacious paved courtyard flanked on each side by triple colonnades. Each held 60 columns, assembled from carved drums, bearing capitals of imported limestone with carved elephant heads, exotic symbols of power.
Excavations have revealed that the upper precinct, accessed by a pair of monumental stairways, featured a small open-air theatre with semi-circular tiered seating. Its small size and layout suggest that it may have been designed as a council chamber or a judicial assembly hall.
Another impressive construction in the Roman part of Petra is the theatre.
Although it is Graeco-Roman in design, the complex originated with the Nabataeans. The theatre may date to the early first century AD, during the reign of King Aretas IV, when Petra’s urban character took shape. It consists of an auditorium with a semicircular orchestra and an ascending horseshoe-shaped seating area with vertical stairways divided into three levels. It also featured a stage wall, added by the Romans, which shielded the orchestra and served as a theatrical backdrop.
The theatre is striking in that it is hewn directly from the rock in one piece. It seems the Nabataeans were in such great need of an assembly area they had to destroy some façades that were there before, as the cliff face preserves the remains of earlier tomb complexes that had been carved away to create the auditorium’s rear wall.
With a capacity of 6000 people, during the Roman times the theatre may have hosted theatrical and musical performances, poetry readings, athletic matches and public meetings.
There are multiple hiking routes that you can follow in Petra to access the higher areas of the city. They do involve a bit of walking, but they have some hidden gems that are worth visiting as well.
After exploring the Roman ruins in the lower part of the city, I followed the path to access the Monastery. You may be offered to climb riding a donkey for a small monetary contribution to the bedouins, however, I highly advise against doing so. First of all, riding a donkey all the way up the hill is incredibly cruel. The animals looked in good condition, but carrying heavy tourists every day in the heat is an unnecessary abuse of the poor animals that no visitor should take part of.
Additionally, the path is very narrow at some points. Sometimes the donkeys barely have enough space to fit, which can be quite terrifying and you'll feel like you're going to fall down the cliff. Everyone that I talked to that had used the donkeys to access the Monastery agreed that it wasn't a pleasant experience at all.
According to the administration of the city of Petra (you can see signs warning you about this in the visitor centre) the hoofs of the donkeys can also damage the stone. In spite of the prohibition of riding donkeys, bedouins still use them to carry tourists around the city in order to earn some money. Please be a considerate traveller and walk by yourself, it won't take you more than 30 minutes and anyone with a medium level of fitness can do it.
As you reach the top and deeply carved into a cliff face waits the façade traditionally known as the Monastery, one of the largest monuments in Petra measuring 47m wide by 51m high. It was built on the model of the Treasury, but here the bas-reliefs are replaced by niches to house sculptures.
Originally, the court in front of the façade was enclosed by a columned portico. The interior is occupied by two side benches and an altar against the rear wall.
It was probably used for the meetings of religious associations and certain rituals may have been conducted there. Its construction dates to the early 2nd century AD, during the reign of King Rabel II. The inscription found nearby suggests that it may have been built in memory of King Obodas II.
The hall was re-used as a Christian chapel and crosses were carved into the wall, thus the name ‘Monastery’ ('dayr' in Arabic).
Going back down to the lower part of the city and on the opposite direction of the Roman ruins are the Royal Tombs of Petra, four imposing façades carved in the rock next to each other.
The Nabataeans believed that their human life was short and life after death was eternal, so they put a lot of resources and effort into creating beautiful monuments where they would be buried.
The first tomb from the left is the Urn Tomb, cut deeply into the cliff face at the base of the ridge. Its lofty vertical façade terminates in a pediment topped by an urn-shaped ornament that gives it its name.
It is followed by the Silk Tomb, remarkable for the swirls of different coloured rock that make up its façade.
The third one is the Corinthian Tomb, with an upper part similar to that of the Treasury, but severely eroded. The tomb combines various elements of both Nabataean and classical architectural styles.
The last tomb carved into the rock is the Palace Tomb, dating to the early 2nd century and with a grandiose fine storey façade. A dam and water reservoir located behind the monument drained rainwater to a pool cut to the north of its podium. The monument was probably used for banqueting or funerary purposes.
Another of the recommended routes to follow in Petra is the one that goes up to the Higher Place of Sacrifice. Heading back towards the Monastery, a path opens on the right-hand side between the rocks that will bring up to the top.
The hike takes about 30 minutes, but the incredible views of Petra that unfold under you will make it definitely worth it. On the top of the slope waits for you what is known as the Higher Place of Sacrifice, one of the largest cultic areas in Petra.
There are also many smaller ones located amongst the mountains that surround the ancient city, and these sites were likely used for a variety of religious activities, which probably included sacrifices. It is possible that this particular cultic area was in use since the time of the Edomites in the Iron Age. The Nabataeans, as with many other Semitic peoples, sometimes worshipped their gods in open-air high places and appear to have offered sacrifices to them.
The Highest Place of Sacrifice offers incredible views from the top, which made it the perfect stop to put an end to an enthralling day exploring the city of Petra.
Having visited multiple ancient cities around the world, Petra stood out like no other. The incredible structures carved out of the rock and its magnificent location in the middle of the desert give it all the credit to be one of the New Seven Wonders of the world and a must place to visit for every traveller.
After an exhausting but gratifying day, we headed back to the bedouin camp to get some rest. Next day we'd have to wake up early to explore the desert of Wadi Rum and head back to Israel.
All opinions are my own.
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