After a disappointing stay in Aqaba, it was time to head to Wadi Musa, the town outside of the magical ancient city of Petra, where we would spend the next two nights. This was the part of the trip that I could hardly wait for as I knew that visiting Petra would be an unforgettable experience and I was right. Fortunately, we would have time to first visit Little Petra which would set the stage for our day and a half exploration of the fabled “Rose City” as Petra is called.
We left Aqaba shortly after breakfast, heading north towards Wadi Musa on the Desert Highway and then later on the famed King’s Highway. Once again, I was struck by how vast and barren the landscape was along the way. Over four-fifths of Jordan’s landscape is desert and for the next 125 kilometers, we only passed a couple of isolated roadside tourist stops. Besides that, there was just sand and dust. It is hard to imagine the ancient caravans of traders and pilgrims on foot walking for days across this harsh land.
The King’s Highway is one of the Middle East’s most ancient routes, dating back to Biblical times. Covering 280 kilometers, the King’s Highway runs from Egypt across Sinai to the Gulf of Aqaba in Jordan and then north into Syria. This sacred route was mentioned in the Old Testament and is one of the world’s oldest continuously used communication and trade routes. The King’s Highway was used as a key trade route for the Nabateans who transported their spices to build their wealth and then after their collapse, the Romans used the route to build fortifications, followed by the Christian pilgrims and then the Muslims on the road to Mecca. For tourists, the King’s Highway leads through some of Jordan’s most magical sites passing through Crusader castles, Byzantine churches, sacred Biblical sites, stunning nature and more.
We arrived in Wadi Musa (“Valley of Moses”) around noon and delighted in a delicious lunch at the Alqantarah Restaurant, a lovely venue located only a short walk from the gates of Petra which serves authentic local Jordanian cuisine. All the ingredients are fresh and even the falafel is made directly on the spot while the meat is grilled right outside the front door on a barbeque. It was an oasis in the desert!
After lunch, we headed the short ten-minute drive to “Siq Al Barid”, the Arabic name for Little Petra which means Cold Canyon. Little Petra was built by the Nabateans and believed to serve as an agricultural hub, trading center and resupply post for the camel caravans that made their way to Petra. Scholars believe that Little Petra was most likely a suburb used primarily to house traders en route to Petra and was built around the same time as Petra during the height of Nabatean influence and power in the 1st century AD. Not much else is known about Little Petra however it definitely is an impressive place and worth a visit especially before seeing Petra. (If you went after Petra, you would probably be hugely disappointed!).
As you leave the parking lot and enter the 400-meter long Siq Al Barid, you are instantly transported into an entirely different world. The first thing you see is a large temple and four tricliniums (formal Roman dining rooms) that were all carved into the face of the rose-red sandstone by the Nabateans over 2,000 years ago. If you continue on another 50 meters, you will reach a building known as the “Painted House” which you can climb the rock steps up and take a peek at the frescos painted inside depicting vines, flowers and other natural things.
It doesn’t take much time to visit Little Petra as it is minuscule in comparison with Petra, however, I am really glad we went as it got me even more inspired to see the real deal later that day. There were also relatively few people there which was surprisingly nice.
As we left Little Petra, my curiosity about Petra grew. How on earth could these people have built such an impressive, sophisticated city carved out of sandstone over 2,000 years ago? Little did I know, I was in for a surprise. Petra would blow me away by its sheer massive size, scale, sophistication, and beauty. The next two days were going to amaze me.