The ancient city of Petra is one of Jordan’s national treasures and by far its best-known tourist attraction. Located approximately three hours south of Amman, Petra is the legacy of the Nabataeans, an industrious Arab people who settled in southern Jordan more than 2,000 years ago. Admired then for its refined culture, massive architecture and ingenious complex of dams and water channels.
A very brief history of Petra
The Nabatean Kingdom chose Petra as its capital around the 6th century BCE, carving what is one of the greatest wonders of the world out of the unique reddish rock that this region of Jordan is built upon. The extensive city was one of the most advanced of its time, with water management systems, and extensive and enormous monuments and features. When the Nabatean Kingdom was absorbed into the Roman Empire, the Romans continued to develop the city and it remained an important point on several trade routes including the ancient Spice Route.
An earthquake hit Petra around 660 AD, and with vital infrastructure destroyed, the city was abandoned and largely forgotten, until 1812 when the first Westerner, a Swiss explorer named Johann Ludwig Burckhardt discovered it. At this point, Bedouins had made the city their own, living in the caves and ruins. Over the next 200 years, more explorers and archaeologists uncovered parts of the city, with Scottish explorer David Roberts being the first to chronicle the city in 1839. It wasn’t until the 1920’s however, that excavations began in Petra, and more of the city was uncovered, and more recently, that the Bedouin population moved out of the site itself following its designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Petra is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site that enchants visitors from all corners of the globe. Much of Petra’s appeal comes from its spectacular setting deep inside a narrow desert gorge. The site is accessed by walking through a kilometer long chasm (or siq), the walls of which soar 200m upwards. Petra’s most famous monument, the Treasury, appears dramatically at the end of the Siq. Used in the final sequence of the film “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.” The towering façade of the Treasury is only one of the myriad archaeological wonders to be explored at Petra. Various walks and climbs reveal literally hundreds of buildings, tombs, baths, funerary halls, temples, arched gateways, colonnaded streets and haunting rock drawings – as well as a 3,000-seat open-air theatre, a gigantic 1st-century Monastery, and a modern archeological museum, all of which can be explored at leisure. A modest shrine commemorating the death of Aaron, brother of Moses, was built in the 13th century by the Mamluk Sultan, high atop mount Aaron in the Sharah range.
Today Petra is a National Park, and the most popular tourist site in Jordan. Managed by a conservation trust, the site is extensive, and for those who wish to really explore in depth, a few days is required. Most visitors, however, come to Petra for one or two days, and see the main highlights and famous points including the Treasury, the Siq, and Royal Tombs.
Entrance to the city is through the Siq, a narrow gorge, over 1km in length, which is flanked on either side by soaring, 80m high cliffs. Just walking through the Siq is an experience in itself. The colors and formations of the rocks are dazzling. As you reach the end of the Siq you will catch your first glimpse of Al-Khazneh (Treasury).
The long walk through this canyon is an exciting journey that is well worth a visit, not only for the historical treasures that lie beneath, but also for being one of the unique geological landscapes in the World. Carved out of pale reddish sandstone, the eastern side of this area is bounded by the King’s Wall
This is an awe-inspiring experience. A massive façade, 30m wide and 43m high, carved out of the sheer, dusky pink rock-face and dwarfing everything around it. It was carved in the early 1st century as the tomb of an important Nabataean king and represents the engineering genius of these ancient people.
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The Treasury is merely the first of the many wonders that make up Petra. You will need at least four or five days to really explore everything here. As you enter the Petra valley you will be overwhelmed by the natural beauty of this place and its outstanding architectural achievements. There are hundreds of elaborate rock-cut tombs with intricate carvings – unlike the houses, which were destroyed mostly by earthquakes, the tombs were carved to last throughout the afterlife and 500 have survived, empty but bewitching as you file past their dark openings. Here also is a massive Nabataean-built. The word “Khanzeh” treasure, was given by the local Bedouin tribes behind the belief that the urn on top of the front entrance contained the treasure of a pharaoh. The treasury’s surface is sculptured in the first century AD and decorated with mythological figures and deities Nabataean. The facade of Petra is carved in a pink rock, ranging in color from white to pink, yellow and tawny. The facade leads to the grave serves as a tomb for the Nabataean king Aretas III and subsequently as a place of worship.
THE ROMAN THEATRE
Roman-style theatre, which could seat 3,000 people. There are obelisks, temples, sacrificial altars and colonnaded streets, and high above, overlooking the valley, is the impressive Ad-Deir Monastery – a flight of 800 rock-cut steps takes you there. Within the site there are also two excellent museums; the Petra Archaeological Museum and the Petra Nabataean Museum both of which represent finds from excavations in the Petra region and an insight into Petra’s colorful past.
A 13th-century shrine, built by the Mameluk Sultan, Al Nasir Mohammad, to commemorate the death of Aaron, the brother of Moses, can be seen on top of Mount Aaron in the Sharah range.
During any trip to Petra, you can’t miss the unpredictable Royal Tombs that took its name from the rich decoration. To reach them you have to climb a stairway that leads to the famous Urn Tomb, which was used as a place of worship during the Byzantine Empire.
Beside the Urn Tomb is a small tomb known as the Silk Tomb. This name comes from the rich color of the sandstone. Then come next to the Palace Tomb, the Corinthian Tomb and the Tomb of Sesto Fiorentino.
The Monastery (Al–Dair):
This monastery is a one hour climb up 800 rock steps from the basin restaurant/museum area. Don’t be intimidated by the ascent though; donkeys are available, but the essence of the experience for many people is in the walk itself.
What to expect:
While it is not as famous as the Treasury, the Monastery is considered one of the most impressive views at Petra. It is similar to the Treasury yet only larger (50m high x 45m wide). While containing much less decoration, it is still beautifully carved and worth every one of the 800 steps you took to reach it.
Wadi Araba Vantage Point:
If you are a lover of scenic landscapes and breathtaking views, another part of your day should include this location. With just an extra ten-minute walk from the Monastery, you will be happy you took the extra time. Here you will enjoy panoramic views of the Wadi Araba Valley. This walk can be extra rewarding for the bird watchers among the group as eagles populate this area in abundance.
High Places of Sacrifices:
This is another place that is offered that provides the opportunity for both a close look into the faith of the Nabateans priest as it was used for animal sacrifice, and also provides a very spectacular view of the city below. Get yourself ready for 700 steps into the mountain (again donkeys can be hired for those looking for a ride up). Your trek up will begin in the area by the theatre near the Treasury.