Petra is an approximately 3.5 hour drive from Amman where you will probably fly in to. If you are travelling independently the best option is probably to find a driver. This is indeed what we had decided to do. And I will caution you here possibly more than anywhere a driver will simply drive you to the agreed destinations. Don’t expect any hints, tips, side trips or additional information unless you’ve agreed with this upfront.
Certainly deserving of one of the Seven Wonders of the World and UNESCO World Heritage Site is a story in itself. Petra is justifiably Jordan’s main tourist attraction and is certainly goes to my top ten across the globe.
Petra has been an important religious and trading site since the time of the Nabateans and it is thought that some of the areas where in use as early as 6 BC, when it is thought the Nabateans made Petra their capital.
The Nabatean’s made were great traders and offered protection to the caravans that were carrying incense from Arabia, silks from China and spices from India. Petra provided a strategic link between Arabia, Egypt and Syria as we now know them. It was during this time that they carved the channels in the Siq which delivered water into Petra. You can still see these channels which are above your head as you walk down the Siq into Petra. It was the Nabatean’s who carved the monuments that you see today which have been named The Treasury and The Monastery and they also inhabited many of the caves and built the tombs in Petra.
The Romans took over Petra in 106AD during the reign of the Roman Empire. It was then that Petra experienced a revival and during this time it is estimated that the population swelled to between 20,000 and 30,000 people. There are ruins including a theatre seating 8000 people which is deep into Petra.
Petra was largely unknown to the Western world until 1812 when Swiss explorer, Johann Ludwig Burckhard went in search of the lost city. He disguised himself as an arab scholar and explored extensively through both Syria and Jordan. His accounts of Petra opened this amazing ancient city encouraged others to later make the journey.
While warned that Petra was going to be a physical experience I probably didn’t quite understand what that meant. So I will try to explain for the benefit of future travellers. After the entrance gate you walk maybe 500m to the entrance of the famous Siq. The Siq is a long canyon or passageway leading you to the main attractions. The road by the entrance is gravel and then the path along the Siq is paved. There are men on horses offering a ride from the gates to the Siq entrance. You can catch a carriage from the entrance through the Siq to The Treasury if you are old or have difficulty walking. Apparently they make a list and you have to book it for the return. Even with this the afternoon returns are a bit hit and miss. If you can flag a cart down at the end of the day it will be a black market one and be prepared for extortionate prices.
Guides are available for your first day but to be honest I would only take one if you have run out of time and not done any reading about Petra. We found that the guide gave us minimal information above what we have previously read but there are some excellent guides. It is luck of the draw which one you get at the gates and you have no influence over this decision.
All that aside once you enter the Siq it is a gentle stroll down the hill for the next 1.5 kilometres. Enjoy the coolness of the shade because it is going to get hot. While we did see an Asian lady climbing in heels I would recommend wearing comfy shoes and if you have bad ankles some supportive hiking boots as few of the surfaces are flat. It is interesting to see the remains of the water course which bought Petra it’s water during the height of occupation.
The canyon towers over you creating a real sense of grandeur but I can’t help thinking of those Western movies of my childhood and expect Indians with arrows to attack at any time. Adding to this sense is the echo of the horse’s hooves as the carriages bring some of the tourists into the Treasury.
There is already evidence of carvings in the rocks on the walls, which hint of things to come. One of the reliefs you can see the outline of camels but nothing prepares you for the end where the rock opens up into the best known monument The Treasury. It’s directly opposite where you come out and its hard to tear your eyes away from it. Photos simply do this amazing carving no justice.
The most surprising fact to me was how much excavation is still being completed. When Jordan had a lull in tourism during the Gulf war recently efforts where more concentrated on excavation and they have found that there is in fact another level below that one which you stand. Years of deposited sand covering an entire floor and this has only been discovered in 1995. There are similar discoveries happening all over Petra but progress is slow as it relies on foreign leadership and funding and also keeping the attractions open for visitors.
Keep walking through a couple more small clearings and the valley opens up into a large valley. Here you can see caves where tombs were made and also where some probably lived. This walk is very exposed and by now it will probably be getting hot. There are plenty of little shops to take water and shade in and I was surprised the prices weren’t as bad as warned. It is worth the look into the mosaics under cover on the way across the valley. It is a small hill to walk up relatively speaking.
It is as this valley opens up on the right you can see the mosaic artworks that are believed to date back to the 5th and 6th Century where they were housed in a Byzantine church. They are amazing pieces of artwork and also offer an insight into both the animals that were revered in those times and also daily life. You can see pictures of deer, camels, dolphins and chickens.
At the base of the hills on the other side is a café run by the Crown Plaza and small museum. The café does charge a lot but you will need a break. If it is still early and you plan to get up to The Monastery. The walk is rated difficult as it involves over 800 steps up reasonably step hill. In itself the walk is decent but it is also a heat trap so even in October we found it hot. Once climbing you are rewarded with a smaller monument than the Treasury but it is intriguing. There is a small cafe where you can have a needed cold drink and seat. Save some gas in your legs and head up another hill / rock to the look out where you get some amazing views back over the valley. Another popular walk is up to the High Place of Sacrifice.
All over Petra are gypsies selling anything from fossils and rocks to jewellery. Not many of them are authorised and few unfortunately are the original Bedouin. They do however add colour and interest. They bring donkeys, camels and their children in to make a living. This will be one of the few times you will see women in any sort of enterprise – albeit on a small scale.
Petra is also known as the Rose-Red city for the colour of the rock which seems to have originated from a poem written by John William Burgon called Petra, which was published in 1845. Incredibly having never seen Petra he describes a 2000 year old city carved out of rose-red rock. As soon as you see the landscape it is obvious how these great living monuments both got that name and how the nickname lives on today. The towering carvings and caves are living in the rock which is a vivid red and orange swirl of colour. In the harsh midday sun the sandstone can wash out to look more taupe, so if you want to see Petra at its best arrive in the early morning light or make sure you are around as the sun fades.
The town that is centred around Petra is called Wadi Musa and while is nice enough doesn’t really have any other claim to fame. I would recommend at least two full days to really enjoy Petra and many recommend three days. If you are after something slightly upmarket the Crowne Plaza is basically at the entrance and offers the best value in town. There is a Movenpick Hotel but the rates are very high. I suggest you pop in for an ice-cream after a day of hard walking.
As for after your days walking if you are on a budget or not particularly fussy about a pillow menu the Valley Stars Inn offers excellent service with basic rooms. It is some distance from the action in town (including the Petra gates) but they will grab a vehicle and drop you anywhere you need to go. It is a family run hotel and if you let them know in advance you can enjoy their mother’s home cooking which will be the best meal you have in Jordan.
If you’ve any energy left after a day walking then the Cave Bar in the Crowne Plaza is the only true bar in Petra and one of the few in Jordan. Part of the bar is in ancient caves and in the warmth the nicest spot to sit is outside in the courtyard. Skip the wine though and stick to a beer or brave a cocktail. This is also a good spot to try the Hubbly Bubbly if you’ve been eying it up but too scared to go into one of the male dominated cafes. The Hubbly Bubbly is the Arabic smoking pipe, which are often enjoyed in cafes and restaurants all around the Middle East. They come in all sorts of fruit flavours and apple seems to be one of the most popular.