Sometime around 200 BC a nomadic Arab tribe called the Nabateans began to settle in what was to become the City of Petra.
In short, Petra is an ancient city that was carved and built out of the sandstone cliffs of the region. But even as I type those words they seem to seriously lack the elegance of the workmanship let alone the awe that the magnitude of these structures inspire.
Located about 146 miles (235 km) south of Amman, Jordan, Petra had become “forgotten” to the outside world from the late 300’s AD until 1812 when the Swiss explorer Johann Burckhardt disguised himself as a pilgrim on his way to the tomb of Aaron (Moses’ brother). This trip offered him a glimpse into the lost city of Petra that he had heard the locals speak of. The tomb of Aaron sits high atop Jabal Haroun (Mount Aaron) overlooking the city of Petra with a clear view of the monumental Al Deir Monastery.
Having experienced the sight of the Monastery I cannot imagine the awe he must have felt upon laying eyes upon the wonder, with no prior expectation to prepare him for what he had seen.
Of course after his reports, a resurgence of interest in the Rose-Red city surged around the known world and has inspired travelers and adventures to seek out the mysteries the city still holds to this day.
According to a new study by the The American Schools of Oriental Research satellite imagery has discovered a “new monumental structure” hidden in plain sight just this year! Some studies suggest that only about 20% of the City has been unearthed and/or discovered.
The Nabateans prospered and it is believed that the city of Petra may have reached a population of 20,000 in it’s prime.
The secret of their success lie in it’s location. Being at a crossroads along the trade route between Arabia, Egypt and Syria. Consequently as the trade routes changed over time, so did the success of the once nomadic Nabateans.
Traveling To Ancient Lands
If you’re still on the fence trying to decide if you should visit Petra; In 2007 Petra was named one of the New Wonders of the World and the Smithsonian magazine named Petra one of the “28 Places to See Before you Die”.
And if that’s not enough maybe just stepping foot on the set of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Arabian Nights, Mortal Kombat, The Mummy Returns and Transformers (to name a few) will provide the last arguments you need to persuade you to visit this Gem in the Desert.
Cost to get into the Park is quite steep but worth every dollar. At the time I visited in the Summer of 2016 it cost $50 US for entrance. There is a higher fee I think around $120 US if you are only a “day traveller” visiting from Israel. This is obviously to encourage staying overnight in the city and get more money circulating in to the local economy. We stayed at the Marriott on the hill which was a very nice even though “dated” hotel. The views overlooking the valley were worth the money spent to stay there. The staff was pleasant and the Amstel’s were cold after hiking in the desert air all day.
There are also other choices that are located within walking distance of the park entrance though I cannot personally speak of their value and comfort. If you really want to immerse yourself into the spirit of the desert you can opt to stay at a Bedouin style camp where you’ll be served a traditional meal and retire to a Bedouin tent to dream of the ancient mysteries that surround you.
If you fly into Jordan it will be most likely into Queen Alia International Airport. This will put you about 3 hours North of Petra just outside of Amman. It is a fairly easy drive from the Airport straight south until the Exit for Petra takes you West towards Wadi Musa. The highway is rough and be cautious of speed bumps while passing through the many small towns some are hard to see and they can tend to sneak up on you. Not so bad for you in the front but passengers in the back will definitely protest! Unless you are extremely adventurous I would not suggest driving into Amman. The Traffic is horrendous and lanes are more like suggestions than actual designated driving areas. Keep in mind that the persons bumper that is even slightest bit ahead, has the right away. One good thing that seemed odd to me, is that even with all the drivers being cut off and two lane roads being used as 4, there was virtually no visible road rage. No flying birds, or blazing horns of protest. It’s just how things are done and are expected.
The Jordanian people are for the most part friendly and helpful. You can usually find someone that can speak English when needed to help with interpretation. At one time when venturing into Amman we got lost and found a cabbie that gladly led us to our destination without stopping and letting us pay him for his time, he simply drove off with a smile and wave.
Having said that I would suggest trying to learn the basics of the local customs and laws. Jordan is a Muslim country and therefore dress should not be too revealing although Jordan is much more “westernized” than many Middle Eastern countries; however you should be respectful of the local customs. Many local stores are closed on Friday as that is the Jordanians customary day off in the week. However many of the stores that cater to tourists are open all week long. Alcohol is not illegal in Jordan but you’re also not going to find a liquor store on every corner. As a matter of fact the only place that we saw in the Petra area where you could get an alcoholic drink was in the hotel and we did not see any liquor stores anywhere near or around Petra but to be fair we did not ask and we weren’t looking.
Exploring the Rose-Red City
When you first get to the site of the ancient city you will enter into a courtyard where you can purchase water, gifts and the all-important ticket to gain entrance into Petra.
After purchasing your ticket simply follow the signs through the gate and as soon as you enter through the turnstile be prepared for the almost constant onslaught of the local Bedouins trying to sell you their services and/or gifts in the form of cheap jewelry, scarfs and fake artifacts. If you spent any time in the visitor’s center you will have noticed the many warnings not to purchase “artifacts” from the Bedouin vendors unless you understand that they are fake. For the most part the vendors were nice enough though pushy and at times the attention they demanded took away from the experience you were trying take in.
Be warned that a lot of the vendors are young children. Do not let their age fool you as to their experience in convincing you to part with your money in trade for the trinkets they are selling. You will hear pleas of “don’t you want to make my day?” and “this is a very good price only for you Mister!”. My advice is to simply and politely (and repeatedly) decline the “trading of gifts for money”.
I have heard warnings of pickpockets within Petra, but we had no issues. As with any time you are traveling you should simply be aware of what is going on around you and take necessary precautions to protect yourself and remember to keep an eye out on the other members of your party.
The first vendor, no doubt that will approach you is one selling you a ride on a horse “all the way”. With the assurance, “it is included with your price.” Do not fall for it! A friend in our group took them up on the horseback ride to the top and after a ¼ mile or so was informed that the horses were not allowed into the Siq. The included fee did not take into account the expected tip for the friendly service they provided you with.
As you approach the Siq you will soon recognize the large slot canyon that shows up repeatedly on Facebook and
Pintrest, usually with some inspirational quote attached to it. If you did get a horse, this is where you will have to leave it. But don’t worry a donkey drawn buggy driver will promptly offer you a ride through the canyon to the Treasury!
The Siq is a large slot canyon and you can imagine the rain filling, cutting and sculpting the 600 foot high sandstone walls. The natural beauty of it is awe inspiring alone and the anticipation keeps building as you know the sights that are soon to come. We entered the park early and were able to avoid a lot of the crowds which afforded us several quiet moments in the cool, shaded canyon to ponder the ancient people that once traveled and walked this same path thousands of years prior.
Allow me to digress and discuss a couple more thoughts before you get to this point in the hike. Remember that you are in the middle of the desert and you are going to be hiking quite a bit. Your preparation for the trip should reflect this. I chose my trusty Keen sandals to hike in however a wiser choice would be a good sturdy set of hiking boots. Water is a must. But you will have opportunity at several vendors along the way to purchase ice cold water. So if you don’t want to carry water with you at least be prepared to spend a dollar or two per bottle as you go.
We hiked the route from the visitor center to the Monastery which is approximately a 4 mile hike one way. With the little detours we made we hiked in total about 12 miles on the day we were in Petra. This took us a majority of the day so keep this in mind with taking snacks and/or a small packed lunch with you. Of course the vendors have this covered too and you can purchase food at a few places from inside Petra. We’re not talking Mile High Stadium prices here but they are fairly steep.
As we neared the Treasury (that a lot of you may recognize it from Indiana Jones), I could feel my heart beating faster with excitement. The hike through the Siq is nearly a mile and at it’s end you can see a sliver of light forming and you catch your first glimpse of the al-Khazneh, which is Arabic for The Treasury. The final steps leading out of the Siq were hurried and at the first sight of al-Khazneh cannot be reproduced by any words or pictures.
Remember that this “structure” is actually carved into the side of the cliff. The incredible size, details and precision is absolutely breath taking and completely awe-inspiring. I believe that even with the technology we have available to us today we would be hard-pressed to reproduce these facades. The actual room inside the treasury is closed to exploration but peeking in you can see that it is not very big at all in relation to the outward appearance.
Here at the treasury you can get a camel ride through the central Petra market area past the Amphitheater to the bottom of the long final climb to the Monastery.
If you decide to take the Camel handler up on his offer, remember to haggle with him. My friend got him down to ½ the original asking price of 30 Jordanian Dinar. We ended up continuing on foot. The experience of riding a camel is still something I believe I would enjoy but for the length of the ride offered here in Petra I believe I made the right choice by continuing on foot. After turning right you continue through a short canyon and you begin to see the carved niches and the remains of tombs. Moving past the tombs carved into the cliff sides you will soon reach the 8,000 seat amphitheater. There is some debate as to who built the theater, some believe it was the Romans while others believe the Nabateans built it. Either way the Roman influence is indisputable and within the past couple of years they unearthed a statue of Hercules from one of the rooms under the theater.
Soon after the Amphitheater you will pass the Royal tombs on the upper cliffs to your right. Continuing on you will see remnants of columns that lined the road during Roman rule of the Nabatean city. Then a short distance more and you are at the base of the climb towards the Monastery.
By this time the full heat of the day was beating down on our backs and although the climb was steep the shade of the cliffs was welcomed along with the strategically placed vendor selling bottled water on ice!
The final push to the Monastery climbing some 800+ worn and uneven stairs left me wondering if the Monastery was truly worth the extra effort. As you top off the final stair you round a corner and are hit with a view unlike anything I have ever experienced even within the past few hours.
I can’t even begin to fathom how this structure was sculpted into the side of the mountain. Notice how straight and symmetrical the lines are in the niches. The people and dogs standing in front of the Monastery give scale to the immensity of it all. Pay attention to the sides of the mountain that was carved away to bring shape and depth to the structure. Once again, like the Treasury this is for the most part a facade having just one large room in the center that at one time was used as a place of worship by Christians after the Nabatean rule.
Directly behind me from the perspective shown in the above picture lies one of the most ingenious marketers in the known world!
An at the top stop for cold beverages and souvenirs! I don’t know what the charge was for that Gatorade but it was probably one of the best ones I’ve ever enjoyed!
In the distance from the top here, you can see the Tomb of Aaron that we spoke about earlier. You can rest on a couch next to the souvenir shop and enjoy your cold beverage. Relax and refresh before you begin your trek back down the mountain.
There are many more mysteries left for you to discover in The Rose-Red city and this is where I will leave you without revealing any more of them.
A long day spent in Petra is well worth your consideration and all of the highlights that I have covered in this article can be enjoyed in that time, but plan on a long day and you also may want to consider a second day to give yourself more time to admire the craftsmanship left by these ancient artists. They also offer “Petra by Night” tour where you will go with a group through the Siq in the evening and end at the treasury lit up by candle light. Others that have witnessed it say there is nothing else like it and though I did not make the time to do this tour it gives me yet one more reason to consider coming back to this Ancient City.
Once again, stay safe until we next meet and remember to always use your Outside Voice!