Hidden in a deep gorge in southwest Jordan, the once-lost city of Petra is an archaeological site that rivals any in the world for scale, artistry and a compelling history that dates back to 400 BCE. 20,000 people once lived in Petra, known as the City of Roses because of the pastel rock walls. Although many civilizations have been part of Petra’s history, the ancient Nabataeans created the fascinating facades that can be seen today across the canyon. To explore Petra, Jordan’s most popular tourist attraction, you have to travel long distances in the desert heat. The route past the city’s main attractions is about six miles from start to finish and back. Go early in the morning to avoid the heat of the day and get in the water. Also visit Little Petra, a more compact place nearby, which is a good starting point for understanding Petra’s history and carvings.
A few kilometers north of Petra is Little Petra, in the land of the Ammaree people. Although not as spectacular as it’s more famous neighbor, Little Petra, which is probably Petra’s old caravan site, it has its charms.
NEAR THE MIDDLE OF THE RUINS OF LITTLE PETRA
The quieter and more intimate setting of Little Petra includes paths and fascinating carved steps that lead up and around the hills, offering close access to shallow carvings and interiors.
CONTEMPORARY CULTURE, AN OLD PLACE
The stalls at the entrance to Little Petra are full of Bedouin art and goods. There are also Bedouin tented camps nearby, which provide a good place to stay for those who want to join a guided hike to the back of Petra or just experience genuine local hospitality.
A PAINTED HOUSE IN LITTLE PETRA
Entering the second open space of Little Petra, steep stairs on the left lead to the suggestive Casa Dipinta. Inside is one of the few Nabataean painted interiors that have survived over the centuries, a work of delicate flowers and vines. An angelic frying pan showing Hellenistic influences is one of the fine images still visible.
VIEWS OF JORDAN
If you’re a hiker, consider walking through the dark and dramatic terrain – up and down stairs, along high dusty ridges, sometimes through trees – to Petra’s back entrance, a three- to four-hour trek. It is essential to have a knowledgeable guide who knows this country and the not always obvious trail that covers more than seven miles. In Petra, it is still ten kilometers through the city to the main gate and the nearby hotels.
DIZZINESS? THIS PATH IS NOT FOR YOU
The path to Petra is not extremely difficult, but not for the faint of heart either. There are places to test even a skilled hiker, places where the trail disappears into narrow rock ledges with painful drops, even though the trail has been improved in recent years. However, it is smart to go with a reliable guide. Good quality hiking shoes, layers of clothing and plenty of water are essential.
Earning the TERM “ICONIC”.
Most visitors enter Petra through the main gate and follow paths to the siq, a winding gorge with towering walls that eventually leads to Petra’s masterpiece, the Treasury, Al-Khazneh. Unlike the Hollywood version of Indian Jones and the Last Crusade, there are no large rooms behind the door, no priceless objects. The real treasure here is the artistry of the exterior complex. On busy evenings, the candlelight shows add a mystical quality (and a separate price). Those who enter Petra from the back reach the Treasury in the late afternoon, without the crowds and time to ponder the mysteries.
For those entering or leaving Petra through the main gate, look up as you walk the mile-long path between the gate and the Treasury. The Nabataeans who created Petra touched almost every available rock surface. These graves are worn, but still evocative, especially when bathed in the increasingly intense light of the midday sun.
CUT, NOT BUILT
From a distance, Petra seems to consist of structures, the memorable ruins of a city from a distant time. But these are not buildings. They are carefully hand-carved works of art from pink rock walls. Behind some are small rooms mostly used as burials, but most of the doors lead nowhere? Petra is an illusion created by talented artists.
If you want to ride a camel in a memorable setting, this is it. When you need a break from all the walking, camels deliver. Drivers and their desert beasts can be found along Treasury’s main road, past the theater and outside waiting to pick up tickets. Camels are part of Petra’s long history, here as natural as sand and stone.
IN THE FOOTSTEPS OF THE ROMANS
Petra was created by the Nabataeans, but the Romans, the Crusaders and finally the Bedouins also lived there. Nowhere is the Roman influence more palpable than in the Cardo Maximus, a broad avenue once bordered by graceful columns and fine gates.
GO OFF ROAD in PETRA
There is every reason to leave the main path inside Petra. There are ladders to climb, back paths to explore, and natural or man-made features that get more impressive the closer you look. These steps lead to the ruins of a Roman temple above the Cardo Maximus, where traces of its former glory are still visible.
TRANSMISSION OF CULTURES
Signs of the convergence of many cultures can be seen in Petra when walking along the great Cardo Maximus. Here the road overlooks the East Cliff, where there are four ancient Nabataean burial chambers known as the Royal Tombs. The waves of Silkikahauta’s colorful sandstone must be seen up close. Today, people from all over the world walk this street, which is also where Petra’s modern Bedouin culture flourishes.
Stay at the bottom of the valley and you’ll miss out on an amazing part of Petra – the monastery and the view 800 steps above the capital. Walking is the best way to preserve the old stairs, but if you can’t, you can hire a donkey (for a fee). Your reward for the climb is a splendid panoramic view. From here it is easy to see how Petra is practically invisible – and therefore safe from thieves – even if its location is known.
Ad-Deir Monastery is perhaps the most impressive and powerful facade in all of Petra, not because of the complexity of its sculptures, but because of its magnificent splendour. You have to stand in front of it to really appreciate its size. The door alone rises 26 feet. This is the facade, with a large room behind it, which the early Christians are said to have used to practice their religion out of sight of the Romans.
After all the ups and downs, the sun, the heat and the sweat, hikers round a corner to encounter a monastery that seems to rise out of nowhere from the mountain it was carved out of. This is also the end of the trail for those who enter Petra through the main entrance and take the last 800 steps to climb to the top of the cliffs. You’ll get there anyway, it’s not to be missed. Hikers venture to the bottom of the canyon to see the city for the first time, while those ascending from the bottom loop here to walk back through Petra and see it in a new way and in a new light to see. If walking is too much, have a camel or cart take you part of the way.