Have you ever had one of those travel experiences that was so magical it was almost spiritual? That is how I felt when I discovered Petra. I honestly did not know much about it before going and perhaps that made the entire experience all the better. I simply fell in love with the beauty, mystique and sheer size of Petra. It is absolutely extraordinary and like no place on earth. Built over 2,000 years ago by the Nabateans as a place for camel caravans to rest and trade, the stunning “Rose City” was once one of the grandest ancient trading centers in the Middle East connecting ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt. Its massive size and number of intricate hand-carved buildings, tombs, and temples literally blow you away.
The Nabateans were Arab Nomads who thrived from 312 BC to 106 AD. They became wealthy from the prosperous incense trade, using their aptitude for complex engineering and architecture to build one of the region’s most successful ancient civilizations, the Nabatean Kingdom and their capital city, Petra. At its prime, Petra housed over 30,000 people throughout its massive complex of caves, temples, and tombs. Scholars believe that their name, Nabateans, comes from the Arabic word “nabat” which means to extract water from the earth. The Nabateans channeled water to Petra from nearby springs using sophisticated pipes, hand-cut channels and large, underground water containers called cisterns to keep a constant flow of water inside Petra. As you enter the Siq, you can see the irrigation channel carved into the rock, leading into the depths of the city. It is incredibly impressive.
Petra thrived under the Nabateans until 106 AD when there was a change in trade routes bypassing Petra and weakening the Nabatean’s power and wealth. The Romans conquered Petra and added their own Roman features to the ancient city such as the Colonnaded Street, roman baths and an expansion of the theater to seat more spectators. A massive earthquake struck in 336 AD and another devastating earthquake in 551 which lead to Petra’s eventual demise. It became a forgotten, lost city to most of the world except for the local Bedouin who kept it a secret and called it home.
Petra’s existence was unknown to the outside world until 1812 when it was rediscovered by a Swiss explorer named Johann Ludwig Burckhardt who snuck into Petra disguised as a Muslim Holy Man. The exciting news of Petra’s existence brought researchers and intrepid travelers to the site. Meanwhile, a large Bedouin community lived in Petra’s caves from the 16th Century up until 1985 when Petra became a World Heritage Site and the locals were relocated to the Bedouin Village Camp. Today, Petra is one of the world’s most treasured sites and her mysteries are still being uncovered. Spending a few days in Petra was the absolute highlight of my trip to Jordan and a truly unforgettable experience.
Sometimes a place is beyond words. Come take a walk with me through Petra……
P.S. If you don’t want to read this entire post, you can tour Petra with me in a little over three minutes in this video! I will take you on a walk with me through this incredible place!
Petra is easily reachable from many of the top tourist destinations in Jordan. Most people begin their trip in Amman, and then head south to Wadi Rum and then Aqaba on the Red Sea before heading two hours back south to Wadi Musa, the town outside of Petra where you base your stay. Then tourists generally continue on the King’s Highway to visit impressive Madaba, Jerash and take a float in the Dead Sea. The roads in Jordan are well-paved and easy to travel on with frequent tourist stops along the way. The best time of year to visit Petra is in March-May which is high season and also springtime in the desert. The second peak season is mid-October through the end of November when I went. During this time, the weather is generally good and not too hot with clear skies. Winter is very cold but is not very busy so you can enjoy a lot of the historic sites all to yourself.
Planning your visit
To fully explore Petra and do the site justice, you need at least two days. One day is way too rushed and is almost impossible unless you want to run through it. I am an avid hiker and fit walker, and I was able to walk/hike almost the entire site in 7 hours on our second day at Petra. However, I only took two short 15-minute breaks, and also had spent over 4 full hours exploring Petra up to the Treasury on the first day we were there. If you want to slow down and really enjoy all the magic Petra has to offer and also spend some time in the museum (which I missed), I would think at least two to two and a half days would be best.
For us, we arrived in Wadi Musa mid-morning and were able to stop first at Little Petra (highly-recommended), then have a leisurely lunch before spending four hours in Petra later in the afternoon. We took our time with a guide, walking to the Treasury and back, learning all about the history of Petra and stopping often along the way to take photos inside the Siq. This was perfect as the morning tour groups were already on their way out of Petra meaning it wasn’t as packed.
The second morning, we arrived by 8 am (the earlier the better to beat the tour buses) and were able to get through the Siq and to the Treasury before the crowds arrived. It is wonderful to get to Petra early as the morning light is incredible and you can watch the rocks turn color as the sun rises. Since we had already toured this part the day before, we only stopped for occasional photos and were in the heart and soul of Petra well before the masses.
Our group split up along the way, and I continued on all the way up to the Monastery and then took the back trail up to the High Place of Sacrifice. I would highly recommend getting up to the Monastery before lunchtime as it gets very hot and extremely crowded with donkey and people traffic. Once at the Monastery, make sure to continue on to the end of the trail where you can enjoy a hot cup of tea with a local Bedouin and one of the most spectacular views in Petra. If you have the energy and stamina, continue back down and follow the trail up to the High Place of Sacrifice. You will delight in amazing back views of Petra’s rock, caves, and tombs, and best of all, get a nice break from the crowds. Not many people hike back there and I found it to be incredibly peaceful and serene. It is about an hour’s hike around and up to the top but you will be rewarded with spellbinding views of the Bedouin Village, Wadi Musa, and Petra. Then when your legs are ready to be done, it is yet another long walk down handmade stone stairs back to the heart of Petra and another 45-minute walk or so to the entrance where I chose to collapse at the one and only Cave Bar for a mug of beer. If you like to enjoy alcohol, then you will surely visit the Cave Bar at least once during your stay as it is one of the only venues in town where you can get a beer or glass of wine.
One last note: Be prepared to walk and have appropriate clothing, sturdy shoes and sun protection. Petra is best and easiest explored on foot. You can pay to ride in a horse through the Siq to the Treasury and also can pay to ride a donkey up to the Monastery, but most people walk and to see it all requires an entire day (6-8 hours) of walking unless you split up the visit into two or more days.
Highlights of Petra
Arrive at the Petra Visitor Center where you can purchase tickets, grab a map and prepare for your visit. There is a museum right next to the entrance gate to Petra and unfortunately, I did not have the time or energy to visit it. I heard it is worth a visit. Determining when the best time to check out the museum can be tricky as once at the gates of Petra, your heart is begging you to enter and once you leave Petra, you are most likely too exhausted to walk through the museum. Having multiple days at Petra will definitely give you more options.
As you pass through the gates and enter Petra, you are instantly transported to another world far from any you have ever seen. The first thing you notice is all the caves built into the rock. The caves were homes for Petra’s citizens for thousands of years and most recently where the local Bedouin lived until they were relocated in 1985. None of the caves had doors and inside most caves, the walls are covered in black from burning wood to cook food.
Bab Al Siq
The first structure you will see as you walk into Petra on the lefthand side is “Bab Al Siq”, the gateway to the Siq. The Obelisk Tomb was carved by the Nabateans in the 1st century AD. Above the tomb are four pyramids built as funerary symbols. It was believed that these shapes released the souls to the heavens above. There are most likely 4-5 bodies buried inside this tomb.
The Siq is perhaps one of the most magical, natural passageways on earth. The Siq snakes 1.2 kilometers through a narrow canyon of red-hued rock leading into the heart and soul of ancient Petra. As you wind around the Siq, you are blown away by its sheer size and color. In some parts, the canyon jets up to 200 meters high and the rock’s color dramatically changes depending on the light and time of day. The rock can be a whiteish cream color in the morning and then change from yellow to orange and finally a deep red, especially after rain. For me, that is when I found the rocks to be the most magnificent and stunning.
Along the way, you will notice two hand-carved water channels that run along both sides of the rock made by the Nabateans over 2,000 years ago to bring water into the ancient city. There are also plenty of relics and sacred carvings etched into the side of the Siq. I was fascinated by the beauty of the Siq and have never seen anything quite like it before.
As you near the Treasury, the gorge narrows and the anticipation of the much-awaited view inspires you to quicken your pace. Then, suddenly it appears through a narrow opening in the gorge at first like an apparition it seems so surreal.
The Treasury (Al Khazna)
The Treasury is an extraordinary sight to see and truly takes your breath away. Reaching almost 40 meters high and adorned with intricate figures, friezes and columns along its spectacular façade, the Treasury is what most people think of and want to see when they picture Petra. It is quite unbelievable to see such an enormous, intricately carved masterpiece chiseled right outside of a massive piece of rock, and even more impressive to realize that it was made in the 1st century BC. The name derives from a local legend that an Egyptian pharaoh buried his treasure inside the funerary urn which crowns the facade. However, that was proven false.
For an incredible view of the Treasury, climb up the mountain on the right side when you exit the Siq. It gives you quite a perspective of its massive size.
The Street of Facades
Continue deeper into the magical ancient world of Petra, and you will encounter The Street of Facades, a row of enormous Nabatean tombs carved into the southern cliff face of the mountain. You can hike up and get a closer look at the tombs, however, I just had time to snap a picture as I wanted to keep moving. (Notice the deep red color of the rock against the deep blue sky!).
During the height of the Nabatean Kingdom, Petra blossomed into a huge trading post due to the import of the spice Frankincense. The Nabateans burned the incense for aroma and as a religious blessing from God. It was the most important product during that time. During the heydey, 1 gram of Frankincense was worth 2 grams of gold. Caravans carrying this spice and other goods would stop for a few days to rest and relax at Petra before continuing along the trade route. The Nabateans grew incredibly wealthy and very powerful thanks to the strategic location of Petra along the Trade Route. Furthermore, being able to master complex water engineering to ensure there was water inside of Petra to hydrate its 30,000 inhabitants led to their brilliant success.
If you are interested, you can visit a local Incense shop to learn more about the various important spices and incense during ancient times. There is also a famous bookshop run by Marguerite van Geldermalsen, a New Zealand-born nurse who married a Bedouin and shares her story of life in a Petra cave with her husband in her book “Married to a Bedouin” (which is for sale at her shop and worth a read).
Carved into the side of a mountain at the foot of the path to the High Place of Sacrifice is the Theater. It is the only theater in the world chiseled out of rock and it consists
of three rows of seats separated by passageways and 7 stairways. While it was originally made by the Nabateans, the Theater was enlarged once the Romans arrived and could hold up to 4,000 spectators.
The Colonnaded Street
The Colonnaded Street was first created by the Nabateans but parts were later enhanced by the Romans. It was once the main shopping street in ancient Petra and leads the way to the many stairs climbing up to the Monastery.
The hike up to the Monastery is yet another rite of passage when exploring Petra. Hundreds of hand-carved stairs lead you up the steep side of the mountain, passing by vendor stalls and incredible views overlooking Petra and the valley. It is best to do this hike early as it gets very hot and busy with foot and donkey traffic.
The Monastery (Ad Deir)
The Monastery is one of the biggest monuments in Petra, measuring 47 meters wide and over 48 meters high. It dates back to the early 2nd Century AD and was used as a Nabatean Tomb. Similar to the Treasury, it is breathtaking when you first lay eyes on it. Its sheer size and intricately carved facade right into the side of a mountain way above Petra are incredible. It is a good place to take a rest before continuing on.
There is a lovely restaurant facing the Monastery where you can enjoy a break or something to eat. As tempting as it was to rest and eat more than my packed plain pita bread for lunch, I continued on following the slew of hand-painted signs for “the best views ever” and hiked the furthest tea house I could reach. It was definitely worth the effort! I had the place all to myself save the tea shop owner.
I enjoyed a delightful cup of mint tea while I talked with the shop owner, a Bedouin man named Achmad who was born and raised in caves next to the Monastery. I sat there sipping my mint tea, in absolute awe at the breathtaking view. It was hard to comprehend the sheer size of Petra. How on earth did they build such an enormous place and all by hand over 2,000 years ago? Little is truly known or understood about the Nabateans. Perhaps that is what adds to the mystique of this place.
After I finished my tea, it was time to hike back down the stone stairs toward the Colonnaded Street. Although I was getting tired at this point, I had a decision to make. To either continue back the way I came or take a more adventurous, challenging route back on the High Place of Sacrifice Trail. Of course, I chose the latter and I was so glad I did. Despite the sheer fatigue at the end of the day, the trail to the High Place of Sacrifice felt like a pilgrimage to me. There were many stairs going up but the views were utterly surreal.
High Place of Sacrifice
The High Place of Sacrifice soars high above Petra on top of a plateau. It was once an ancient place of worship where the Nabateans held religious ceremonies and made animal sacrifices to the Gods above. While it does require a bit of effort to hike up and back done the many stone-carved steps, it is worth it for the extraordinary 360-degree view of Petra. You can access the stairs going up to the High Place of Sacrifice directly after the Street of Facades if you don’t feel like taking the back trail as I did. I took these stairs back down to Petra and was glad I did. The view of the Royal Tombs was amazing.
The Royal Tombs are actually located in the middle of Petra however as I mentioned above, you get an impressive view of these four intricately carved tombs as you hike down from the High Place of Sacrifice. Unfortunately by this point, I had no more energy left to go explore the magnificent Royal Tombs. I just wanted to make sure I could make the walk back to the entrance before my legs ran out of juice.
I had roughly 40 more minutes of walking back through the Siq to the entrance of Petra. As I met up with our fellow travelers from my tour at the Cave Bar for a much-deserved Happy Hour beer, I reflected on what an extraordinary day I had discovering Petra. Some places in this world truly are magical and have a spiritual pull and power over you like none other. That is how I felt about Petra. A special place I will never forget.
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