Some places are overrated; much touted by the media, the real experience would leave you somewhat cheated. Is this all? you might say. It would have been better if you didn’t leave your home in the first place.
The ancient city of Petra, that rose-red city that has captivated travelers and poets alike through the centuries, may be a lot of things, but one thing is for sure: it is all you have ever expected, and more.
When the Jordan Tourism Board invited me to go around the country for a week, there was only thing that kept going through my mind. I was finally visiting Petra…not in 2 years, not in 10 years, but pretty soon. I WAS GOING TO SEE PETRA!
Established in 312 B.C. by the Nabataeans, Petra was a perfectly hidden city, known only to locals and the stuff of legends for outsiders.
It remained hidden until 1812, when Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt–who pretended to be an Arab–succeeded in rediscovering the mythical city he had only read about. Before Burckhardt, the last westerners to see Petra hundreds of years ago were the Crusaders.
It’s very easy to get excited about this ancient city of the Nabataeans. If you love beauty, it’s hard not to get teary-eyed when you’re finally seeing the Petra Treasury in the flesh.
Carved from the reddish sandstone cliffs with no other tool but a chisel (and lots of courage and determination!), you would be hard-pressed not to feel wonder at the awesomeness of humanity.
When you can finally get your eyes off the Treasury, you’ll be able to appreciate the other attractions this once-powerful Nabataean kingdom can offer, from temples and tombs carved from the cliffs, to strange rock formations and artistic swirls of colors that make the rocks look like 3D canvases.
Indeed, from the Siq, the narrow gorge that leads down to the city, and until you get to the Treasury and to the Petra Monastery a kilometer or so ahead up the mountain, the colors and shapes of the canyon walls as well as the dwellings, storerooms, and stables carved into them can keep you in a state of wonder non-stop.
Who are these people who lived here? Surely, no man can be so powerful to create such beauty?
Wind and Water-Swept City
In the case of Petra, it wasn’t just the Nabataeans who were responsible for producing this mystical place; nature, too, had a lot of hand in it.
This stunning UNESCO World Heritage site is in a valley surrounded by mountains. It gets only a few inches of rain every year, so the Nabataeans became masters of water engineering.
They had a complex and intricate irrigation system comprising drainages, channels, dams, and tunnels to control water, distribute it for domestic and agricultural use, and save it for the future. The system also protected their tombs and monuments from flash floods.
However, in the millions of years of its existence, the wind and water had already left its mark, producing the rock formations that we see all over Petra nowadays.
Geologists can explain more about how erosion has managed to produce something so artistic, but as a tourist gaping at the multicolored swirls decorating the sandstone cliffs, I couldn’t care less. Petra is really something else.
When you arrive at the gate of the archaeological site, you still have to walk around a kilometer to reach the Siq, the canyon leading to the Treasury.
The road going down is rocky and dusty. You may be tempted to get on a horse, because locals there will tell you it’s for free. However, you are required to tip, and it can go as high as 18 JOD or more (1 JOD = USD1.41).
My tip: just walk, and pay attention to the cliffs you’ll pass by. You’ll see a lot of closed up cave dwellings. People used to live there until the Jordanian government proclaimed the area a protected site.
When you reach the Siq, a majestic, winding gorge over a kilometer long, you’ll have a couple kilometers more to walk before you reach Jordan’s most popular tourist attraction, the Treasury. Don’t rush ahead; walk slowly. The Siq itself is an attraction you can definitely appreciate.
Note how it towers over everything else; what does its shape remind you of? In some places, the canyon walls are dark and foreboding; in others, you can see streaks of ochre and other colors that you will later see in other canyons in Petra.
Try to go early or go back to the hotel late, so that most of the tourists will be gone already. I walked ahead of my group, and I saw no other people. The feeling was wonderful; I felt so one with the beauty around me. The Siq is imposing, yes, but it’s so beautiful you wouldn’t mind being enveloped in its majesty.
Al Khazneh, Petra’s Treasury
The moment I emerged from the Siq to see the Treasury, I was filled with so much urgency that I couldn’t stop taking pictures. I had to capture it! I had to find a way to immortalize the essence of Petra in my photos so that I can go back to it again and again, and feel the wonder that I felt the first time I saw it.
Pretty soon, though, I just decided to just sit down, relax, and absorb the beauty in front of me. Almost 40 meters high, the Treasury, the most recognizable landmark in Petra, inspires superlatives and all the clichés you can think of, and it deserves it.
Awe-inspiring, jaw-dropping, amazing…there’s no one word to describe the Treasury.
Built as a mausoleum in the 1st century AD, the Treasury is just one of over 800 monuments in Petra (another impressive one is the Monastery, which I will write about later). Back when people were still allowed to go in, they found nothing there; it was only relatively recently that it was discovered that the tombs were not at ground level, but were located way down. Flash floods had buried the lower floors, shortening the already impressive facade.
Al Khazneh is more than two thousand years old, but some of the details are still visible. There are four eagles at the top that are said to carry away the souls of dead, and the two figures at the entrance are of the twins Castor and Pollux who were said to be residents of both Olympus and the underworld.
Petra by Night
As if Petra during the day isn’t fantastic enough, the road to the Treasury is also open three nights a week (Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday). The path from the entrance, up to the Siq and the Treasury, are lit by over a thousand candles set in a bag of sand.
Visitors will gather in front of the candlelit Treasury, sitting on mats and listening to local performers. What can be more magical than sitting in front of an ancient treasure with a cup of chai in your hand, Bedouin music in the background, and millions of stars above you? In my case, what made it complete was a cat who decided to take a nap on my lap. I didn’t want the night to end.
Aside from music, however, a Bedouin man will also tell the visitors a moving story of a man dreaming of Mother Petra, asking him to take care of her. I just closed my eyes, petted the cat on my lap, and let the magic of the moment take me. It was the perfect end to a lovely day visiting Petra.
Is visiting Petra in your travel plans? Or have you been there already?
Petra is open daily from 6am to 6pm during summer and 6am to 4pm during winter. You can get tickets and guides at the Visitor Center at the entrance to the Petra Archaeological Site. Ticket is from 50 JOD (those staying at least one night in Jordan) to 90 JOD (on a day trip from other countries). Petra by Night costs 17 JOD. Children under 12 are free.
Disclaimer: Thanks to the Jordan Tourism Board for hosting me during the Unraveling Jordan campaign. As always, all opinions are my own.