When I entered Petra Archeological Park, passing through the modern-day scanners and then the ticket office, I didn’t quite know what to expect. As David and I started walking along the wide, sandy path we had no idea what secrets lay ahead.
The fascinating journey through this once lost city began as the harsh afternoon sun beat down on us, with nowhere to provide any respite from the dry heat. Our cameras were almost immediately clicking as we passed along the Bab Al Siq (gateway to the Siq in Arabic). Capturing the bizarre looking, heavily eroded sandstone structures that lined the open thoroughfare, while at the same time trying to avoid the crazy donkey and cart drivers along the way. We were already mesmorised with the misshapen architecture, how easily impressed we are.
As we continued along our path, with the stench of donkey poop in the air, we soon entered a canyon, or siq, that loomed high above us. As the sun started to lower, the sandstone took on red and brown hues. The tall walls of the siq soared above us and provided some relief from the heat. The deeper we ventured, the narrower the canyon became. You could feel the anticipation in the air. What magical wonders lay ahead? After all, it’s not one of the seven wonders of the world for no reason.
This ancient site goes back to before Christ, exactly when remains a little unclear, when the Nabataeans roamed the land and a thriving spice trade centre existed. Amongst other things, they were particularly skillful in hydrological engineering. As you wonder along the siq the evidence is right there, carved into the sides of the sandstone canyon walls.
Rome then took over in 106A.D., of which many remains can be seen today. Earthquakes and the opening of sea trading routes led to the decline of this once powerful region around 700 A.D. This fascinating city lay dormant for many many centuries, unknown to the rest of the world, apart from the Bedouins, until the early 1800s. Most people who have heard of Petra probably know it because of the Indiana Jones movie, The Last Crusader. In the movie The Treasury is the star of the show but let me tell you, there is so much more to enchanting Petra.
For more history of Petra you might want to check out this National Geographic article.
The gorge became narrower and narrower the further we walked. It felt like we were never going to get to the end. And then, through the slither of the opening we saw it. It was glowing pink in the afternoon sun. It was humongous. The Treasury in all its glory. Our pace started to quicken. Once we reached the opening we stood there in awe, trying to soak in the enormity and beauty of this structure that is literally carved into the sandstone wall.
To get the most value out of your visit to Petra we would recommend you buy the Jordan Pass.
The Treasury is almost 40m high and is intricately decorated with all manner of friezes and figures. As the touts tried to sell us camel rides, our minds boggled as to how on earth this ancient civilisation managed to create such an amazing piece of art work with absolutely no technology.
If you want a shot of the Treasury from above you can go “secretly” with guides to the top of the mountains surrounding it. I say “secretly” because I don’t think they are meant to take tourists there. However, amongst the hawkers trying to sell you a camel ride you will easily find some locals willing to take you on a hike to the top.
Read more about our trip to Jordan here.
The High Place Of Sacrifice
After much photo taking we meandered through the narrow passage way that led to the wide open space of the lost city of Petra. We decided to hike up the steep rocky ascent to The High Place of Sacrifice to watch the sun set. As the name implies, its purpose was for religious ceremonies. As we climbed the rugged steps that were haphazardly carved into the sandstone we quickly learnt to stay out of the way of random goats and donkeys that made their way down the narrow path.
Once we finally reached the top I thought the worst was over. However the plateau was not as flat as it initially appeared. We scrambled over rocks and gingerly negotiated foot holds at death defying heights to finally reach the platform that provided sweeping views of the surrounding area. It granted a great place to watch the sun sink behind the craggy mountains and ponder what was, centuries before. There were also some very friendly Bedouins who offered tea to all visitors at no cost.
As the last rays of the sun sunk behind the mountains we made our way back down, feeling excited to come back the next day to explore more of this wondrous lost city. We needed to get out before the park closed for a few hours before the much anticipated Petra by night session.
Petra By Night
We had bought a two day pass for Petra but this did not include Petra by Night. We had been told to go early in order to grab a good spot. We had seen all of the beautiful, serene, people-less, candle lit pictures on instagram and were looking forward to a magical experience.
Unfortunately we were disappointed.
As we walked the now familiar candle lit path through the siq there was an enchanting, otherworldly atmosphere in the air. And then we arrived at The Treasury.
Hundreds of people were strewn across the floor in front of The Treasury, squished in like sardines, chatting away, almost ignoring the performances that were happening before them. Don’t get me wrong, it was definitely romantic and mystical being under the ink black sky and the only light coming from the stars above and the multitude of candles scattered on the ground. Bedouins walked around serving tea and played traditional music and performed a fire eating show.
If you can block out the hum of hundreds of people chattering then definitely pay the extra money to go to Petra by Night. Perhaps try and go there super early to take some pictures sans people and then leave if you really want that insta. shot.
If you are hoping to soak up some ancient vibes and be transported back in time, then save your money. Maybe we over-romanticised the whole situation and were sucked in by those perfect instagram posts. We ended up leaving early and that was actually the best part. There was only us and a few others wandering back through the candle lit siq in peace and quiet, imagining how many others had trod this route before us.
Check out our guide to Wadi Rum.
The Lost City In The Morning
The main reason we would recommend more than one visit to Petra is to see it at different times of the day, in different light. Go early to avoid the crowds and the heat. The colours of the sandstone change to subtle yellows and soft pinks. The siq cools overnight and provides pleasant relief from the rapidly warming temperatures. Suddenly Petra seems less imposing and more inviting.
It is believed that such a large part of Petra still remains uncovered. Archaeologists suspect that about 85% of it is still underground. This is hard to believe given the fascinating sites of the lost city that are currently available for us to explore. Petra is filled with remarkable structures and monuments that are intricately decorated and 2000 years old.
As already mentioned, the Romans decided to call Petra home for quite a few hundred years. The Roman and Byzantine influence can be seen as soon as you walk into the broad expanse after The High Place of Sacrifice. The first evidence of these civilisations is the theatre. It could accommodate up to 4000 spectators and is the only theatre in the world carved into the side of a mountain.
Ambling down the dusty path that was once a bustling shopping centre, The Colonnaded Street, you can begin to visualise what life was like back then.
The crumbling remains of temples and churches remind you of the skillful architectural feats of the Romans. There is also The Nymphaeum (circular public fountain) and The Great Temple Complex to explore.
Tombs, Tombs And More Tombs
Once you walk past the Treasury you are faced with tombs that were either carved or constructed into the side of the mountain. They present almost spooky facades of the looming peaks either side of the main path. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that the Nabataeans buried their dead in the intricate maze of tombs that look down on the path.
The Street of Facades is filled with tombs that were used for burial and as storage. If you continue walking along the main path you won’t be able to miss the four magnificent structures that make up the Royal Tombs. They are majestic and imposing built into the magnificent sandstone cliff face. The Silk Tomb which is decorated with psychedelic colourful swirls of sandstone is the most beautiful of them all.
As you meander along the path to the Royal Tombs you will find Bedouins selling souvenirs along the way. We stopped in at a very friendly shop selling all sorts of paraphernalia for some tea. Our very hospitable host was happy to tell us about life as a Bedouin. Even though he did not push us into buying anything, David did buy a traditional red and white head scarf, known as a keffiyeh in Arabic.
Unsure about driving in Jordan? Read about our experience of driving in Jordan.
Most people associate Petra with The Treasury. However, there is so much more. In case you have not already been convinced of this we have one last marvel with which to impress you. The Monastery. We were in awe of The Treasury but The Monastery was a whole other level.
It is a tough walk in the heat of the morning sun. There is little shade along the way and it is pretty much all the way up. There are some pitstops along the way where you can enjoy some local refreshments. The Bedouins offer donkey rides. We felt so sorry for the poor animals having to deftly manoeuvre the narrow carved steps carrying lazy tourists. We ensured we glued our bodies to the wall as we heard the donkey guide yell, “yallah! yallah!” to warn us to get out of the way.
The trek to The Monastery feels never ending. Then you finally reach a ridge and down below lies the most magnificent structure. Bigger and grander than the Treasury. There is nothing else around, it is completely isolated. Like the Treasury, it is carved into the side of the mountain. Between the physical exhaustion and the intense heat we still managed to be flawed by the enormous and grandiose structure that stood before us. It is believed that it was originally used by the Nabataeans for the meetings of religious associations but when the Romans came along the hall was used as a Christian chapel.
Despite being drained from the hike we decided to climb one more mountain to obtain sweeping views of the dry craggy surroundings, which also included being able to see the border of Israel in the distance. Those last struggling steps were well worth the magnificent perspective. Being so high truly gave us a sense of the magnitude of the Monastery and what an extraordinary triumph its construction was all those years ago.
We only spent a week driving around Jordan, which wasn’t nearly enough time. We would highly recommend spending at least two nights in the lost city of Petra. It would definitely be easy to spend more time here so you could explore more of the surrounding area, like Little Petra.
We loved our time in Jordan, and particularly Petra, and would recommend it to anyone.
Have you been to Petra? What did you think about it? Did you enjoy Petra by Night?
Perhaps you have questions about visiting Petra or Jordan. Feel free to comment below.
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