We’ve just returned in a state of wonderment after spending a day exploring the ruins of an ancient city which had its heyday more than 2000 years ago.
The Lost City of Petra is one of the 7 Wonders of the World and is situated in southern Jordan.
It’s an ancient and archaeologically acclaimed city famous for it’s spectacular rock-cut facades carved into cliffs and canyon and it’s quite literally out of this world. We returned exhausted, flabbergasted and full of wonder for this incredible place, our imaginations fired up by its muted history, intrigued by the lost stories of its tombs, and amazed by its huge temples, obelisks and fabulous views.
First and foremost, how did a city like this come to be? After all, it’s a two hour drive by coach from the port at Aqaba through desert and craggy bare faced mountains, past lonely Bedouin settlements and across vast mottled plains.
To a newcomer it feels as if it’s in the middle of nowhere, hidden deep in the Shara Mountains. Yet it was once a bustling trade centre, the capital of the Nabatean Empire from the 1st century BC, a vital part of a trading route connecting ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt which amassed great wealth trading frankincense, myrrh and spices with the Greeks and Persians.
The Nabateans were also masters of hydrological engineering and developed a water conduit system to control the water supply to Petra via dams and channels, so it’s not unreasonable to assume that water was also traded to passing Caravans too.
After an earthquake destroyed much of the city, and when trade routes moved to the sea, Petra’s fortunes waned and by the 7th Century AD it was abandoned and lay forgotten until it was discovered again in 1812 by Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt.
After walking down along the gravel road from the Visitor’s Centre you approach the city through a narrow gorge called the Siq (Arabic for gorge) which is 1.6 kilometres long, and in places only about 3 metres wide.
It’s a natural geological feature Dave told me, that’s formed from a split in the towering sandstone rocks. You meander through lots of twists and turns, and there are some beautiful rose, pink and umber colours in the rock faces.
The gorge is deep, in places cool and shady. It’s mysterious too, and if you listen hard enough you can almost hear the sounds of the ancient past and imagine how things once used to be.
Then you’ll hear the clip-clop of horses hooves and carriage wheels coming up behind you – a chariot perhaps!
No, just one of the many horse drawn carts which transport tourists to the site, coming at quite a lick through the gorge, and woe betide if you don’t get out of their way.
Young boys selling postcards thrust strings of cards at you, “1 Dinar, 1 dollar, you buy!” say the tiny touts desperate to make a sale, just before your attention is grabbed by a Roman soldier appearing from nowhere dressed in full armour. (You can pay to have your photos taken with them.)
At the end of the Siq you come to a clearing and now it’s time to stop and walk very very slowly as you make the final turn out of the Siq because it’s here that the beauty of Petra suddenly opens.
I don’t believe it’s possible to conceal a gasp as you gaze up, up … and up again at Petra’s most elaborate and well preserved ruin, The Treasury (Khazneh) which stands about 40 meters high.
The Treasury is an ancient tomb carved into the cliff face, intricately decorated with Corinthian capitals and friezes, which dates from around the 1st century BC. On first sighting it is unbelievable.
The Treasury is awe inspiring, imposing, majestic. But the scene around is equally enthralling. There are camels with colourful saddles and cloths, some standing others lying down taking a rest, most of them giving the occasional grunt and groan.
There are touts asking if you’d like to ride a donkey, or take a camel ride further into the lost city, “Come on you know you want to,” said one little rascal no taller than Dave’s waist, “For your wife!” he said. “You know she’ll love you more!”
Another tout implored, “Come ride, it’s only half an hour to the Monastery, I have Ferrari.” Looking at the donkey on offer, we thought perhaps not.
Then there are the small makeshift stalls selling everything from silver bangles to necklaces, pashminas and Arabian inspired clothing.
It was like being in a scene from a movie or cast back in time to an ancient bazaar.
We walked on down through the main part of the city, which opens up with huge and fantastical carvings and columns. There are so many tombs hand carved into the towering sandstone cliffs and the colours of the rock have to be seen to be believed; pink, tea rose, orange, umber, burnt sienna and back to pink – you can see why Petra is also known as the Rose City.
Swifts darted across the canyon, bright shrubs dotted our way, and the sound of folkloric music drifted down from the hillside. There was so much going on, that it really was a feast for the senses.
We came to a Roman road with well preserved colonnades which was once the main street of Petra. We walked on down the hot dusty valley looking up at the Royal Tombs with their incredible colours, carvings and facades.
Then we saw the huge amphitheatre (which once seated 3,000 people) which had been carved out of the mountainside by the Nabateans in the 2nd century. Then after passing more temples and huge ancient ruins we started the long trek up to the Monastery.
Ad Deir, The Monastery
The temperature was touching 40C when we started our climb, and it was good that we had plenty of water with us. The route took us up 850 steps, roughly hewn into the rock face, which wound up another deep gorge. I wasn’t sure what to expect at the top, and at one stage I very nearly turned back as it was so hot, taking the lead from quite a few other walkers who had gone half way and returned back down to the valley both red faced and defeated.
On the way to the Monastery we passed donkeys transporting tourists, who didn’t want to walk, up and down, and watched them teetering over canyons and walking stoically upwards as their riders clung on for dear life. I was glad instead to be hot, puffing, sweating conkers and walking, when I saw them!
It was a tough walk. It was midday and the sun ricocheted off the canyon walls and heat emanated from the stone underfoot, but every now and then we came to sparse bit of shade or small cut through the mountain where a breeze whooshed through like nature’s air conditioning.
Even more welcome were the little stalls selling cool drinks or fresh orange juice and Turkish coffee.
Some of these hugged clifftops and had amazing views, others nestled under rocky outcrops. And then there were old ladies selling trinkets and clothes from side stalls under tarpaulin, like big tents begging you to spend “Just one Dinar.”
For me it was a little reminiscent of the spirit of trekking in the Himalayas. And it was quieter up in the canyon, not so many people ventured up there, and we met and chatted to Bedouin (who were dashingly handsome with long dark flowing hair and flashing dark eyes etched it seem with kohl eyeliner akin to Captain Jack Sparrow in The Pirates of the Caribbean).
We also had time to pass the time of day with stall holders, and other trekkers when we stopped for breathers along the way. The man below said, “Have a break!” and followed it with, “Have a Kit-Kat!” we had to laugh. He was so friendly, so we did stop and buy from him.
When we turned the corner to Ad Deir (the Monastery) I stopped dead in my tracks. Partly through exhaustion but mostly in awe. It’s 47m wide and 48.3m high and it is one of the most imposing sights I’ve ever set eyes on. Hewn into the rock face it dominates the surrounding area, and it’s sheer architectural majesty drew me in and left me speechless.
If you are fit and able to walk up steps, I’d recommend the Monastery as a must-see in Petra. Although Petra, whatever you get to see, like the BBC once suggested, is definitely one of the 40 places you have to see before you die.
13 Top Tips
- Wear Trainers as many of the paths are uneven, sandy and stony.
2. If you want to walk all the way to the Monastery from the Visitor Centre you can expect a round trip of around 15kms. Note the last part of the walk is steep and it can be very hot, and it encompasses about 850 steps cut into the rockface.
3. If you are on a ship’s tour, you will probably have to leave the Guide early on, and walk ahead of the group. We left our group and armed with a map walked almost constantly for 4 hours to get there and back in time for a late lunch with the group.
4. The walk down through the Siq to the main part of the city is not difficult as long as you are reasonably fit. From the Visitor Centre to the Treasury and back is around 4 kilometres on a mostly flat, well formed track.
5. You can hire donkeys or camels to transport you around (please be kind to the donkeys and don’t get on if you are overweight).
6. We heard some tales of $10 donkey or camel rides turning into $60 trips – there are seasoned operators around, so be careful, take small notes that don’t require change and make sure you barter the price you are about to pay – and that it definitely takes you not only to where you want to go but also BACK, and gets you OFF the animal at the end.
7. Once on the walk, and past The Treasury, we found that we could buy water (but take plenty of your own anyway) at various small stalls. We also found we could purchase cool drinks, coffee, and souvenirs.
8. Take US dollars – not AUD$, – in small notes or otherwise take Jordanian Dinar with you).
9. Wear light clothing that covers your arms and legs (from the sun).
11. Take a wet flannel (in a zip lock bag) to put around your neck if it gets very hot. For me, this was a life-saving tip walking in the heat.
12. Listen as you’re walking because the donkey carts come up behind you fast and they don’t stop.
13. The horse carts from the visitor centre to the Treasury are paid on how many people they take, so they go as fast as possible. I wouldn’t want to be in one!
8 Fast Facts
- Petra is also known as The Rose City due to the colour of the sandstone from which it’s carved.
- It’s Jordan’s most visited tourist attraction.
- Petra is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
- Archaeologists have explored only about 15% of Petra
- According to Arab tradition, Petra is the spot where struck Moses a rock with his staff and water came forth, and also where his brother is buried.
- Petra is featured in quite a few movies, including Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Arabian Nights, Mortal Kombat, Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger, The Mummy Returns and Passion in the Desert.
- In 1979 Marguerite van Geldermalsen from New Zealand married Mohammed Abdullah, a Bedouin in Petra. They lived in a cave in Petra until the death of her husband. She wrote the book Married to a Bedouin.
- Ship’s Tour
I’m travelling as a guest of Princess Cruises and on the morning of our ship’s tour to Petra, the Sea Princess docked at the Jordanian port of Aqaba in the Red Sea.
Founded around 1300BC Aqaba’s situated at the northeastern tip of the Red Sea and lies across the border from Eilat in Israel.
A stunning sunrise heralded a hot day, and over a cup of early morning tea we watched the mountains change colour behind the white-washed buildings of the city and contemplated the excitement of our day ahead.
Tip: The Gulf of Aqaba is a renowned site for diving and snorkelling with 110 species of soft corals, 120 species of hard corals and over 1,000 species of fish living in the world’s northernmost coral reef ecosystem.
We left the Sea Princess at around 8am to travel to Petra in an air conditioned tourist bus with a friendly and well informed guide called Yusef. The drive took us through stunning desert scenery and past Bedouin encampments, and after our time in the Lost City we enjoyed a very tasty lunch with lots of local cuisine choices in the Movenpick Hotel close to the Visitor Centre.
Once inside the hotel, which looked ordinary from the outside, we were blown away by the Arabic architecture, the cool courtyard with a lovely sitting area and a fountain, the beautiful mosaics, and the ornate mother of pearl inlay furniture.
All in all the ship’s tour to Petra was, for us, exceptional and well organised.
Would you like to visit Petra, or have you already been? Would love to hear your comments.