It was the larger-than-life Treasury that I knew of Petra, but what I wasn’t prepared for was the sheer enormity of the most famous historical site in Jordan.
Two days? What was I thinking? I would’ve needed four days to fully explore this 264,000 square metre archaeological park without collapsing from heat and exhaustion. That may seem like too much time to devote to one tourist attraction, but for history and archaeology buffs, it would be worth it. Not only is Petra a feast for the eyes, it has all the makings of a compelling drama: the rise and fall of an empire, conquest, a natural disaster and an explorer in disguise who embarks on a mission to find it.
Known as the Rose-Red City for the magnificent structures carved from the pink- and red-coloured mountains, and the Lost City for the centuries of its abandonment, Petra is lonely no more. It’s now a UNESCO World Heritage site, one of the New 7 Wonders of the World and Jordan’s most prized tourist attraction.
From the 1st century BC, it was the capital of the Nabatean Empire settled by up to 20,000 nomadic Arabs, and a flourishing hub for the trade of silk, spices and incense until it was conquered by the Romans, then destroyed by a massive earthquake. By the 12th century, Petra was occupied by the Crusaders, then abandoned by all except the local Bedouins. It was a Swiss explorer, Johann Ludwig Burckhardt, who disguised himself as a Bedouin to sneak into the enigmatic location in the 1800s and bring it to international prominence.
Even today, it feels mysterious. The ancient city of Petra is hidden behind soaring cliffs. To reach it, one must pass through a narrow 1-km gorge, the Siq, by foot or horse carriage — a journey worth experiencing in itself.
By the end of the long path, visitors catch their first glimpse of the Treasury (Al-Khazneh), Petra’s most famous monument and the legacy of the Nabateans who excelled at not only trade and building waterways in the middle of the desert, but architectural stone-carving of epic proportions.
The sheer scale of the facade carved into the rock face and intricate details are a sight to behold, but the Treasury is just one of many monuments in this vast site. In fact, the whole city is carved from the sandstone cliffs. Past the Treasury is a sandy valley that leads from one temple, tomb and altar to another.
Along the way, Bedouins sell handicrafts and offer local modes of transportation that I imagine haven’t changed much since Nabatean civilization: camels and donkeys. (Thankfully, motorized vehicles are not permitted to enter Petra; the historical atmosphere would be different otherwise.)
While fortunate for me, the fewer number of visitors Jordan has seen in recent years has brought economic hardship to those who heavily rely on tourism. Jordan is safe and peaceful despite the turmoil in its neighbouring countries. I spoke with one Bedouin whose donkey I rode back to the Visitor Centre just to support the local economy. The significant decline in business, he told me, has been painful.
But it’s good news for travellers. So if Petra is on your travel wish list, now is the ideal time to visit.
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What You Should Know:
- Petra is massive. If you’re a lover of ancient history or archaeology, I’d recommend four days to explore it; two if you’re not. I would advise against spending only one day at the site, especially when a two-day pass is far more cost-effective (click here for updated fees).
- Expect many hills and steps. From the Visitor Centre, the walk to the Treasury is about 20-30 min. To return to the Visitor Centre, be prepared for a slightly uphill trek, which is exhausting after a day of exploring under the blazing sun (although the rock crevices of the Siq are shaded). Pay for a ride on a donkey or horse-drawn carriage if mobility is an issue.
- Overlooking the valley is the Monastery (Ad-Deir), the second most famous monument in Petra similar in appearance to the Treasury, but it sits atop a flight of 800 stairs cut into the rock. (Unfortunately, I didn’t make it there.)
- Accommodations: Visitors to Petra stay in the town of Wadi Musa (about a 10-15 min. walk). Most hotels can pack you a lunch.
- Don’t forget your hat, comfortable shoes, sunglasses, sunscreen and lots of water. (Beverages and snacks can also be purchased inside Petra but expect to pay a premium.)
- Experience the Petra by Night show when the Treasury is lit with 1500 candles. It takes place only on certain evenings (click here for the schedule).