Unearthed by tomb raiders, made famous by Indiana Jones: Petra is a sprawling mass of tombs, temples, obelisks and monuments, well worth the necessary few days leg-stretching to make the most of this unique and charmed place. Rediscovering this astounding complex of cliff-carved façades, as Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt did exactly 200 years ago, must surely have been worth writing home about.
Now well known to the world – in no small part thanks to its on-screen role in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade – Petra is now in company with the likes of Cambodia’s Angkor Wat, Peru’s Machu Picchu and the Great Wall of China on the list of ‘New Seven Wonders of the World’. It’s thrilling to imagine what this intrepid explorer must have felt on first seeing Petra.
It is believed that in around 1200 BC, the Petra area (but not necessarily the site itself) was populated by Edomites and the area was known as Edom (‘red’). It didn’t really come into prominence until 312 BC through the success of the spice trade and the migration of the Nabataeans – ancient, caravan-trading Arab tribes who came from the Arabian Peninsula to settle in southern Jordan. The city became their capital. Petra was awarded UNESCO World Heritage Site status in 1985.
The site is not only beautiful, but also secure – the winding, narrow gorge, or As-Siq, at its eastern entrance would have lent itself to defending the city from invaders. Getting trapped in this bottleneck as a tourist is unpleasant, but nothing to what invading armies must have felt in a similar spot, with 80m-high cliffs on either side.
Your initial impatience to see the famed Treasury will soon be forgotten as you wind your way towards it via many other interesting spots, and your first peek of the striated rocks may well come as a surprise. The walk through the gorge to the treasury is substantial, especially in baking summer sun. A water conduit carved into the rock accompanies you down, demonstrating the Nabataeans’ admirable ability to control the water supply of this desert city.
Inside the ruined city
The Treasury, or Al Khazneh, is every bit as awe-inspiring as you might expect. Colossal, it has been carved out of the sandstone rock, intricate details and all. But the Petra experience doesn’t end there. There are various tracks you can explore to unearth the rest of what’s on offer, most of them steep (it’s worth bringing a sturdy pair of shoes). Further inside the site is the Urn Tomb, the largest of the Royal Tombs, and one that merits a diversion from the main track.
The walk up to the Place of High Sacrifice is a bit of a trudge, but a fruitful excursion: the views at the top merit the effort of carting a wide-angle lens up there too. You can walk back down a different way via the Lion Monument, Garden Temple and a series of other unfinished tombs, but save some energy to scramble your way up to the Monastery, or Ad Deir, or if your legs are kaput you can ride a sturdy little donkey. Be warned, though, they know the way like the back of their hoof, so tend to wander lackadaisically close to cliff edges. Stop to catch your breath – or steady your nerves – at any of the stalls selling Berber jewellery and ornaments that punctuate the route.
The Monastery looms at about 45m high. Bolder and less ornate than the Treasury, it pays your effort back in dividends. From up here, wander just a little further to see the incredible, apocalyptically named view of ‘the end of the world’ out over the gargantuan Rift Valley.
Food, photos and facilities
Eat: At the end of a long day filled with wonder and inevitable weariness, head to traditional, cavernous restaurant, Al Qantarah (+962 3215 5535) for Middle Eastern cuisine.
Avoid: It’s hard to feel like Indiana Jones on your last crusade when tourists in novelty T-shirts are atop camels posing for photos in front of the Treasury. This is not Petra’s fault, but it is an incentive to get there early.
Stay: La Maison (+962 3215 6401) is a good choice. Recently renovated, it has rooms in a variety of sizes, a robust breakfast and free Wi-Fi.
Need to know
Intrepid Travel offers an eight-day Explore Jordan group tour from Dhs5,215 per person, which visits Amman, Wadi Rum, Petra, Dana Nature Reserve, the Dead Sea and Madaba. The price includes accommodation, transport, some meals and activities, and tour guide.
Dubai to Jordan
Flight time: Approximately three hours.
Time difference: One hour behind the UAE.
Dhs1 = 0.20 Jordanian dinars.