In Jordan's barren desert landscape, among pink sandstone cliffs and narrow gorges, lie the ruins of one of the world's most fascinating cities. 2000 years ago, Petra was one of the Middle East's richest trading cities, but when the country's political center moved north during the 700th century, so did the income-generating trade routes. Petra was abandoned and left to her fate.
Over the centuries, the remote desert city was forgotten by all but the local Bedouins, who took over the area and guarded the city's secrets. It wasn't until the end of the 19th century that the place was rediscovered to the outside world and the reputation of the magnificent fairytale city began to spread.
Today, Petra is a world heritage site and named one of the modern wonders of the world. A place to discover, experience and explore over several days. I visited Petra for a day and an evening, which only scratched the surface of this magnificent city.
Water cisterns and trade routes
The city of Petra was founded by the Nabateans in 600 BC. The Nabateans were a nomadic Arab people with great knowledge of trade, life in the desert and how to collect and store drinking water. Building a large city in the middle of an inhospitable landscape might sound like a challenge, but the location was well chosen. Several of the major trade routes of the time between China, the Arabian Peninsula and Egypt met here, and the flow of exotic goods and spices was great.
To make the city attractive to visitors and to enable life in the desert, however, access to water was required, a problem to which the Nabataeans had the solution. During the summer months, the area around Petra is exposed to extreme heat and drought, but during the winter months, large amounts of rain fall. Through an advanced system of water channels and aqueducts, the winter's rain could be collected in large underground cisterns and Petra became a verdant and prosperous city in an inhospitable landscape.
It is easy to think that Petra is synonymous with the famous building The Treasury (Al-Khazneh), but Petra is the remains of an entire city and a civilization with marketplaces, temples, tombs and dwellings. A city where 30.000 people once lived and worked. The city covers an area the size of four Manhattans and since the archaeological excavations began at the beginning of the 20th century, only a few percent of the city has so far been excavated. The inscriptions are few and the city still today holds infinitely more questions than those that have been answered so far.
It is early morning when we begin our trek to Petra, a distance of about 2 kilometers from the visitor center to the first real stop at The Treasury. The temperature has approached zero during the night and I am grateful that I packed both a fleece jacket and a windbreaker.
The first half of the route is on a wide road through Bab Al-Siq, a rocky area with numerous buildings, tombs and remains that most tourists pass by a little too quickly in their eagerness to get a picture of The Treasury without the hordes of tourists.
One of the places worth stopping at in Bab Al-Siq is The Obelisk Tomb, a family tomb carved into the rock wall around the year 100. Topped by four pyramid-like obelisks and crowned by a windswept statue, the architecture is clearly inspired by both Greek and Egyptian visitors.
Through the gorge Al-SIQ
A crack opens up in the rock in front of us. Al-Siq is an impressive gorge, embraced by rolling soft rock walls in tones of burnt earth. The entrance is bordered by the remains of an arch that collapsed after 2000 years during an earthquake at the end of the 19th century. A reminder that the area is a living place that is still being shaped and changing.
Al-Siqis not a gorge created by the movement of water, but a natural crack in the rock. This was the main route for the ancient caravans into the city and many feet and hooves have passed over the years on the cobbled road. The wavy walls get closer the closer we get to The Treasury and when it's at its narrowest I can almost reach between the walls when I stretch my hands out.
Al-Siq is not just a dramatic trade route to reach Petra. Along the way we are met by eroded statues, small temples and carved wall niches. Places of reflection and worship for the ancient visitors and a sacred pilgrimage route for the Nabateans.
The rock walls rise up to 80 meters above my head and despite the lack of sun, it does not prevent a single fig tree from bearing fruit. A memory of the verdant and living city that Petra once was.
Along one rock wall, water flows in a terracotta channel. One of the most advanced solutions to make use of the rainwater that seeps down the walls of the gorge during the winter months. But while the water was vital during Petra's glory days, today it is a curse for those trying to protect Petra for future generations.
Stone feet of a camel and a man in sackcloth are all that remain today of the large statue of a camel caravan in Al-Siq. Erosion by wind and water wears hard on the city's monuments and it is a constant struggle to succeed in preserving what remains for the world. Add to that the complexity of the fact that 1 million visitors are expected to come to Petra in 2023. To compare to a handful of visitors per day twenty years ago.
After a little more than a kilometer of hiking through the gorge, we see the first glimpse. With every step we take, the rock walls open up a little more and suddenly I'm standing in front of one of the world's most famous historical buildings - The Treasury.
Treasury – Al-Khazneh
It's hard not to be captivated by the sight of Petra's most famous building The Treasury. Unbelievably beautiful and so unique. A building that is not built at all, but completely carved out of a rock. Despite the area's many and severe earthquakes over the past 2000 years, this rose-red facade has withstood the test of time and the details that meet visitors even today are impressive.
According to recent archaeological explorations Al-Khazneh were probably neither a treasury nor a temple. The building is believed to have been created around 100 BC as a mausoleum for royalty. Thanks to sketches from the area's first archaeologists in the 19th century, they have succeeded in filling in details that have today eroded away. On either side of the entrance are the remains of two statues of men on horseback. These are thought to be Castor and Pollux, twin brothers in Greek mythology. The female statue in the center of the rotunda is believed to be the Egyptian goddess Isis, an important goddess in all rites that revolved around death and the dead. A fitting goddess at a mausoleum.
We are definitely not alone in front of the Treasury, even though it is early morning. The tourists pour in and the vendors shout out their offers of camel rides, paid lookouts and Bedouin necklaces. But despite all the people, I only have eyes for the Treasury. This place sucks me in, enchants me and takes my breath away. A real bucket-list moment.
The Royal Tombs and the Street of Facades
From The Treasury the main route continues into the city of Petra on the so-called Street of facades. The road is now wider and large graves with high stone facades are lined up.
Before we reach the theatre, our guide turns right and brings us on to a smaller trail up to the mountain and the Royal Tombs. Actually, no one knows if these are royal tombs, but those who built these tombs were undoubtedly influential and had plenty of money.
The Royal Tombs is an area with a large amount of impressing tombs with decoraded facades. Some of the tombs have been as decorated as The Treasury, but here, in an exposed and open position, nature has worn down the details of the facades.
The most famous graves are The Urn Tomb, The Corinthian Tomb, The Palace Tomb and The Silk Tomb. Unlike The Treasury you can enter the empty tombs here. The most impressive tomb is The Urn Tomb, where the perfectly square room has stone walls that shift in different shades of red. It almost feels like standing in the middle of a wild fire, where the rust-red colors of the stone dance like flames on the walls.
A few rocks tumble down from the cliffs next to me. A bunch of goats darts fearlessly between the narrow ledges of the cliffs. When Petra became a World Heritage Site in 1985, the Bedouins who lived in the area were forced to move out, but some Bedouins chose to remain in the caves and continue to live their traditional lives. But it is not possible to live on livestock alone anymore, nowadays tourism is the main income.
In one of the natural caves below the royal tombs, a man is selling traditional tea and soft drinks. The floor of the cave is covered in hand-knotted rugs and the tea kettles are boiled over an open fire. Drinking sweet tea together is something of a ritual that the Bedouins do every day and they are happy to invite visitors for a cup. A Bedouin we met later during the trip put the feeling into words. "No matter how hard life is or whatever is going on in the world, you can always sit down and have a cup of tea".
The colonnade and Qasr al-Bint
I make my way down small paths from the royal tombs on the hill and soon reach the main street and Pelargångsgatan - The Colonnaded Street. Built by the Romans who took over Petra in 106 and once the heart of the city. Most of the large pillars that once lined the street are no longer standing, but some old stone pillars still reach for the sky. It is easy to imagine a bustling Roman city in this dramatic landscape.
Many years before Petra developed into an important trading city, a temple was built here at the junction of two caravan routes - Qasr al Bint. Petra may appear on the surface as a city built of caves, but in reality Petra had thousands of ordinary buildings. At its height, the city was home to verdant gardens, grand temples, Roman villas and luxurious fountains. Unlike the permanent tombs and caves, however, most of the city's regular buildings were destroyed in the 363 AD earthquake. In a few trembling minutes, nearly half of all the buildings in Petra were destroyed. Qasr al Bint is one of the few buildings that survived, albeit in a damaged condition.
Beside Qasr al Bint lies the remains of a large building that did not survive the earthquake's powerful attack. The Great Temple – a building of religious significance, but probably not a temple. The large pillars that formed the body of the building have fallen and the cylindrical blocks of stone lie on top of each other like a challenging picking stick.
At the end of the main street you will find the hiking trail to another of Petra's most famous tombs - The monastery - Ad-Deir. Ad-Deir is one of Petra's highlights and the building resembles a larger version of The Treasury. According to our guide, the moderate 3 kilometer hike (with 800 steps) would take 2 hours round trip, which there simply wasn't time for during my visit. Petra covers a very large area and if you only have one day you will have to prioritize hard.
the theater in the rock wall
It's almost time for me to head back to the waiting bus. From the end of the colonnade to the entrance to Petra, it is a four kilometer walk back to the entrance, a walk that takes longer than you think. The amount of disturbing elements such as tourists, donkeys, camels, vendors and sights slows down the pace considerably.
On Fasadgatan I stop at Petra's big theatre. The only Roman theater in the world that is completely carved out of a rock. Originally, the theater had room for over 5.000 spectators, but during the rule of the Roman Empire, the theater was expanded by cutting away the tombs that were previously located above. It is exciting to visualize the 8.500 people who sat here in the audience 2000 years ago, fully absorbed in a drama or a musical performance.
A unique place
When I pass by The Treasury on the way out, I hardly have time to stop, but I take one last look at the area's great attraction. How long will we be able to protect this treasure for future generations? I carefully insert the image of Petra into a well-chosen memory compartment in my life story, knowing that the Treasury will never, ever be able to be more beautiful than it is right now.
Petra by night
Three days a week there is an event in Petra called Petra By Night.There is a separate entrance to this event and tickets are bought in cash at the box office at the entrance (17 JD). During the event, candles are lit in paper lanterns along the whole asand once there there is some type of entertainment and light show. The treasury was lit up in garish neon colors and the entertainment consisted of flute music for a few minutes and then a man reading something inaudibly. Go to Petra by Night if you want to experience the Siq in the glow of the stars and thousands of lanterns, but don't expect a fantastic light show à la Las Vegas at The Treasury.
Where is Petra?
Petra is located in southeast Jordan, about 3 hours by car from Amman. The nearest town is Wadi Musa, where there are several hotels and restaurants. I traveled here on a round trip by bus, but it is also possible to book day trips from, for example, Aqaba.
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How much does it cost to visit Petra?
The vast majority of visitors to Petra buy Jordan Pass - a very popular tourist pass with entry to Petra and 40 other places of interest around the country. A Jordan pass with two-day entry to Petra costs 75 JD (about SEK 1200), compared to a single 2-day ticket to Petra for 55 JD (about SEK 850).
3 Tips for your visit
- Spend two full days in Petra. Then you also have time to see The Monastery and some of the stress-free viewpoints. I had skipped Petra by Night.
- Wear sturdy shoes. I had jogging shoes with me - which works fine in most places, but if you want to walk some of the trails over the rock outcrops, sturdy shoes are good. It is especially important to have good shoes during Petra by Night, as it is easy to sprain your feet in the dark on a very uneven road.
- It's cold during the winter months, so skip the summer dress and opt for a fleece jacket/windbreaker instead.
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