As soon as I returned from Jordan in May, the immediate questions that family and friends asked were not about my general experience travelling in Jordan but specifically about Petra.
“Did you go to Petra, is it like in Indiana Jones?”
“You went to Jordan? Oh my god, Petra!!”
“How was Petra?”, “I hope you went to Petra!”
People tend to associate Jordan with Petra only. It is not surprising because there is indeed something extraordinary about Petra. Each time I see images of Petra, it takes my breath away.
However, the image that one often sees of Petra is just the facade of the Treasury which was filmed in the climactic final scenes of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Actors Harrison Ford and Sean Connery appear from The Siq on horseback and walk into the Treasury in search of the Holy Grail. I believe Petra was made more famous as a result of that scene in Indiana Jones so much so that tourists come to Petra for that obligatory photo in front of the Treasury but they move on very quickly to other tourist spots thereafter.
Petra is a whole lot more than just the Treasury. It’s actually a region which lies in a remote valley in the heart of the Shara mountains.
Petra was the capital of the Nabatean Empire during the first centuries BC and AD. The ancient city prospered from trade routes in frankincense, myrrh and spices. Apparently the city had a population of 30,000, and was quite cosmopolitan during those times with grand buildings, elegant villas and gardens.
Unfortunately, Petra’s prosperity started to decline in the 4th century AD when discovery of monsoon winds caused a shift in trade patterns from overland to sea. In addition, Rome was diverting trade from Petra to Egypt and Syria. Petra declined rapidly and eventually was annexed by the Romans.
Misfortunes continued to hit Petra. A massive earthquake struck the ancient city, destroying much of the city. Coupled with changes in trade routes, Petra’s downfall was inevitable. By the 7th century AD, Petra was abandoned.
The ancient city continued to remain deserted and hidden (except for the Bedouins living in the area) for two millennia until it was discovered by a Swiss explorer Johannes Burckhardt in 1812. Burckhardt set out to “rediscover” Petra: he dressed as an Arab and convinced his Bedouin guide to take him to Petra. The rest, like they say, is history.
The Main Trail
The only way to get around Petra is on foot, thus there are many trails that one can explore. Most visitors stick to the main trail but before you judge to say that you prefer other trails to avoid the “tourists”, let me reassure you that the Petra site is huge and the main trail itself covers an area which takes about 1.5 to 2 days to explore.
The crowd typically clusters at the Treasury but once you move on after the Treasury, the crowd diminishes and in some paths, you will not see a single soul and will come to realise how still everything is!
Here are highlights from the Main Trail:
⦁ The Siq
The Petra adventure begins the moment your tickets gets checked at the entrance gate. After that, visitors must walk on a gravel path for about half a mile in a wide open valley called Bab Al Siq, before reaching the start of the Siq.
The gravel path drops sharply as visitors enter the Siq (meaning “gorge”) and walk a further 1.2km through this narrow gorge which was the result of tectonic forces splitting the mountain into two.
The Siq is one of Petra’s spectacular and stunning natural feature: waters of Wadi Musa flowed into the gorge, formed a bed of gravel and eroded the sharp corners of the mountains into smooth surfaces. In addition, the desert winds rubbed away the soft sandstone exposing lovely shades of rose colour.
⦁ The Treasury
After what seemed like an interminable long walk (almost 2km) from the entrance gate, the passage through the Siq ends and opens up onto Petra’s famous symbol: the Treasury (Al Khazna). It is believed that during the Nabatean times, the Siq was used as a grand caravan entrance into Petra, therefore the Treasury was purposely built to impress visitors the moment they arrive.
And the Treasury is undoubtedly, strikingly beautiful! Its entire structure was carved deep into the rock face and because of its hidden location behind high walls of the valley, it has been protected from wind and rain for 2,000 years! Hence, the detailings on the facade are still intact and well preserved.
Access to the interior of the Treasury is barred. There are no stone lions or Crusader symbols inside the Treasury – unlike the scene in the Indiana Jones movie – in fact, it’s only a square chamber.
The best times to view the Treasury is between 9am-11am or late afternoon from 3pm onwards. I prefer the afternoon time as that’s when the whole facade turns to a soft, rose colour giving Petra its name the “rose city”.
⦁ The Outer Siq, The Street of Facades and The Theatre
Beyond the Treasury is the Outer Siq from which the trail continues to the Street of Facades and it’s around here that visitors will find cafes offering water, soft drinks, light refreshments and shade.
Just past the Street of Facades is the Theatre dated to the first century AD before the Romans annexed Petra from the Nabateans. Apparently, the Theatre is able to seat up to 8,500 people, more than the Roman Theatre in Amman.
⦁ The Royal Tombs
At the end of the main trail through the middle city are four impressive structures adjacent to each other: the Royal Tombs.
⦁ The Colonnaded Street and the Great Temple
Right in the heart of Petra is Colonnaded Street which would have been the main thoroughfare of the ancient city.
The Great Temple was one of the largest complexes in the ancient city, served as a gathering place, trade centre or a council hall.
The Monastery Trail
The Monastery route is my favourite walking trail, a trail involving an hour’s climb of 800 steps. As daunting as it might sound, I thoroughly enjoyed this climb though at some point, I’d thought my lungs were going to burst from exhaustion. It didn’t help that I was climbing at 11.30am when the sun was beating down my neck!
Why is the Monastery trail my favourite? This is where I gradually overcame my fear of heights. I had challenges when I climbed a mountain in Bali years ago and since then I had avoided steep hikes. But I conquered this fear by climbing up this route slowly on my own, ignored other climbers who were faster than me, took mini breaks and most importantly, I stayed focused on my reward – to see this view:
The High Place of Sacrifice Trail
At the Street of Facades, there are steps close to the cafes, signposted to the left which begin the High Place of Sacrifice walking trail. The High Place of Sacrifice is a place of worship on a mountain plateau which is accessible by climbing rock-cut steps to the top. The climb takes about 30-40 minutes, up to the top of the cliff where visitors can admire the vast landscape of the mountainous terrain and sight the white tomb of Aaron (Jabal Haroun) in the far distance.
Visitors can return to the Street of Facades by coming back the same route but it is recommended to take a longer loop down the back of the mountain into Wadi Farasa that brings you once again to the Main Trail. This is because the alternative trail leads visitors to some caves with vivid rock colours.
If you wish to explore Petra over 2 days, then it’s best to purchase a 2-day pass ticket rather than a single ticket for each day.
For accommodated visitor (stay at least one night in Jordan), the entry costs JOD50 for 1 day, JOD55 for 2 days and JOD60 for 3 days. For non-accommodated vistor, the entry costs JOD90.
Visitors are advised to show their passports when purchasing tickets at the Visitor Centre (I guess that’s where they see your date of entry into Jordan to confirm that you are an accommodated visitor).
2. Horse Carriages and Camel, Horse and Mule Rides
Your ticket includes a horse ride from the gate to the entrance of the Siq. You do not have to go on the horse ride but perhaps you might want to when returning to the gate as you could be exhausted from the walking and climbing throughout the day. Furthermore, the walk from the Siq back to the gate is a slight uphill path. I chose to walk instead.
Horse carriages are also available but I was slightly mortified at the racing speed these carriages were driving through the Siq. Unless you have difficulty in walking, I would not recommend the horse carriages.
Horse, mule and camel rides are available too along the trails and routes inside Petra.
3. Walking Trails & Guides
You do not need a guide on most of the routes on the Main Trail, the Monastery and High Place of Sacrifice trails because the paths are well-trodden. However, it’s best to share your plans with your guide so that he is aware of which trails that you intend to explore as some trails are remote which might be prudent to have a guide.
4. Basic Necessities
Because the sun is quite strong, do remember to wear a hat/cap and sunglasses. Or you can purchase the Jordanian headscarf 🙂
Slop some sunscreen and carry a bottle of water with you. Do wear proper footwear as well – no sandals – as the terrain is quite rocky and gravelly.
This was part of my 5-day private tour of Petra & Wadi Rum which was generously discounted by Jordan Select Tours. Opinions expressed in this post, if any, as always, are my own.
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