Petra needs little introduction as one of the worlds most famous archaeological sites, and no trip to Jordan would be complete without a visit to what some are calling the 8th wonder of the world. That obviously isn’t an official title, but Petra was officially recognized as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1985.
Established possibly as early as 312 BC as the capital city of the Nabataeans, Petra is undoubtedly a symbol of Jordan, and not to mention Jordan’s most-visited tourist attraction. It is therefore incredible to think that Petra was once entirely lost, a whole city which up to 30,000 people once called home, vanished from the world for nearly a millennium as trade routes shifted and the area was hit by a devastating earthquake. It wasn’t until Aug 1812 that a 27 year old Swiss explorer by the name of Johann Ludwig Burckhardt introduced this incredible, half built half carved city back into the world, risking attack as an infidel to follow up rumors of ruins within a narrow mountain valley of Wadi Musa. That’s some risk, but I’m glad its one Mr Burckhardt took, otherwise I might not have got the chance to visit a place I have been dreaming of ever since I discovered the wonderful world of travel.
Last week saw that dream realised, and whilst it was amazing for the most part, within this post I also wanted to highlight just a couple of extra things that are worth being wary of upon your own visit to Petra. I don’t mean to put a downer on things, but safety first right?
So lets start with the good, of with there is much, and which also is really quite difficult to put into words. Even now, my visit to Petra doesn’t feel entirely real, as if a dream. Plus in truth and somewhat humorously, a few of my photos look like I’m standing in front of a blue screen.
A day at Petra all starts at the rather grand visitors centre, but our party of 4 were swiftly out of there owing to a desire to beat the crowds which were soon to amass (8am ish). From the visitors centre it is around a 20-25 minute walk down to the famous Treasury, the same Treasury that in the late 80’s I came to know as the holy temple, a temple found in the Canyon of the Crescent Moon and which housed the Holly Grail. I chose wisely with my film choices, but beware that Petra was also used as a film set for Transformers Revenge of the Fallen, a horrible film that reduced me to man tears at how it destroyed my favourite childhood cartoon. Damn you Michael Bay! Damn you!!
Anyway, childish ranting aside (sorry), that 20-25 minute walk from the visitors centre is not overly difficult, and there is plenty to see along the way – such as The Obelisk Tomb in the 2nd photo below. You can expect more than one sales pitch from local salesmen trying to sell you a horse or donkey ride, but that slight annoyance aside (assuming horse riding isn’t you thing), the walk down to the Treasury sets the tone for a real adventure. The minute you set out you know you’re on the trail to something special. Its tempting to run, but I am neither fit enough or silly enough to assume I could have made it to the Treasury without doing myself some damage and requiring medical attention. I and our group instead opted for a swift but steady pace. Our quest had begun.
It would be wrong to assume that your day at Petra only begins once you reach the Treasury, the journey down from the visitors centre is not to be overlooked as something really quite special. As-Siq as it is known is the 1200m long and narrow gorge that leads the way to your intended destination, but by its own right it is quite stunning. Whilst our band of 4 were moving at a swift pace, we made sure to take in our incredible surroundings, admiring the ledges dug into the cliff faces which allowed the flow of water into Petra, then looking skywards in an attempt to make out the peaks of the cliffs that stood some 80 metres above us.
The colours surrounding us were beautiful, and there was actually a lot more green than I was expecting, it created a vivid contrast against the reds, oranges and browns on the cliff walls. It would have been easy to spend a lot longer exploring As-Siq, and it must be expected to a point because there are plenty of benches around where you can park yourself and allow for some real quality time in the gorge. Alas we were on a mission, and knew that the way in was also the way out, so would see As-Siq again later in the day.
We ventured further, deeper into the gore, keeping a steady pace so to beat the other early risers. Over flat ground, rough ground. A left turn, then a right. Having already walked the trail to see the Treasury by candle light the previous night, we kind of knew the trail, but it felt like it was taunting us, adding a couple of extra twists and turns so to make us wait just that little bit longer. The tease!
But then As-Siq ended, we had made it through the narrow pass and before us stood the same magnificent work that we had only a few hours earlier seen under candle light, now fully illuminated by the morning sunshine. It was glorious, almost hypnotic. We had made it, it was real, or was it? How? Who? When? So many questions, yet at the same time I was more than contempt simply standing and staring, jaw crazing the dusty surface beneath my feat. One word, WOW!
Al-Khazneh (the Treasury)
Standing some 43 meters tall and 30 metres wide, Al-Khazneh is thought to have originally been crafted from the sandstone rock face in the 1st century AD as a tomb before later being converted for use as a temple. Neither of those uses scream treasure, so it is often asked how the Treasury got its name. There are 2 theories, the most popular being that pirates once hid ancient pharoanic treasures in the giant urn which stands in the center of the 2nd level. The bullet holes around the urn which you can still see today are said to have been fired by Bedouins hoping to crack the urn and reveal the treasures inside.
Although we had risen before sunrise to ensure a relativity quiet viewing of Al-Khazneh early in the day, we were not the first to reach the Treasury that day, in fact we had been beaten by the cast of a Bollywood movie who put on quite the show in between letting us tourists get those kodak moments we craved.
Street of Facades + Theatre
After eventually tearing ourselves away from the Treasury and emerging further from the Siq, we entered onto what is known as the Street of Facades. Lined with deep cut tombs, this street is what links/linked the Treasury and the heart of Petra. Walking the street you can clearly see where time has shaped Petra. Colours are now blended, edges smoothed. Some of the tombs are open to explore, and explore we did, although that said there is little inside each of the tombs except a smell that isn’t entirely kind on the nostrils. Still, it was fun to play explorer.
Travelling further down the street and we eventually reach the impressive Roman esq theatre. Almost entirely carved from solid rock (parts towards the front were built freestanding), the theatre was built in the 1st Cenntury AD by the Nabataean, initially to hold around 3000 people, but then later expanded to hold an impressive 7000.
Continuing roughly the same path but taking an easy left around a corner, we left the Street of Facades behind and made our way onto Petra’s Colonnaded Street. This street was central to the city of Petra, flanked by temples, public buildings and shops. Think of it as Petra’s High St, or Main St, its where most of the day to day action took place. In places you can still see the marble pavement under foot … and some sheep.
After negotiating our way through/around said pack of sheep, the clock was ticking around to about 10am in the morning and the sun was rising higher into the sky. In no time at all we’d already clocked up 2 hours of incredible sightseeing, but there was a lot more to follow.
Although 2 hours had passed since we had made it to the Treasury, we’d been pretty direct with our time in Petra to this point, and with good reason. Making it to the Treasury before the masses was stage 1 of the mission complete, but now it was time for stage 2.
Ad-Deir (the Monastery)
Stage 2 was a tad more labor intensive than stage 1, and involved climbing some 800 rock cut steps up a marvelous mountain to Petra’s Monastery. Not only were we feeling the burn from the sun in the sky, but from the lactic acid forming in our leg muscles. Much like the As-Siq earlier, the path seemed never ending as if there was forever to be just one more turn. Fear not though, for those of you who ignored the step machine in the gym like myself, there are plenty of stalls and cafes selling refreshment along the. Some also offer some pretty sweet views to take in whilst you catch your breath.
When you first cast eyes on the Treasury, chances are that you’ll think you’ll never see anything like it again in your lifetime. Its a fair call, but wrong. Climb the 800 steps necessary to reach the Monastery and you’ll see that it clearly gives the Treasury a run for its money as the most impressive structure within Petra.
The Monastery is actually slightly bigger than the Treasury, 50 metres tall and 45 metres wide, and like the Treasury, has been given a slightly misleading name. The Monastery as we know it is more likely to have been another temple within Petra rather than a church.
On the left hand side of the Monastery, there is a steep path that tourists are generally discouraged from climbing, both for their safety and for the preservation of the monument. The path leads up to the urn on top of Ad-Deir, its pretty damn high, but whilst tourists are discouraged from following the path, the local kids love it and like to show off by not only taking the path to the very top, but also by playing on the urn, climbing as high as possible and jumping from ledge to ledge. Look at the chaps below I managed to swiftly snap on my iphone (hence and apologies for the poor photo quality), nutters!
Our viewing point from which we took in those crazy climbers was a small cafe, housed within a cave directly opposite As-Deir. The cafe have laid on some great seating which allows you to sit out for lunch and watch the Monastery as if it were a movie screen. Naturally little moves in the case of the Monastery, but it is just as watchable as any film I have seen of late. We sat for a good hour simply sipping tea and taking in the marvel before us and wondering how on earth people were able to create a thing of such intricate beauty so long ago. Magic!
After yet more tea and a spot of lunch we climbed just a little further to get a few photos of the Monastery from a higher vantage point. In the vicinity of our vantage point (as per photo above) there were several signs competing for our attention with the promise of ‘the best view in the world’, and whilst the 3 separate views were pretty decent, they were also a ploy to lure us nearer to stalls selling incredibly overpriced scarfs and such. No scarf should every cost 60JD.
The walk back down the 800 steps and back into the centre of Petra was a lot easier than the walk up, and by 1pm we were back walking along the Colonnaded street for the second time, heading in the direction of the Royal Tombs.
The Urn, Silk and Palace Tombs (aka the Royal Tombs)
The Urn Tomb is the largest of the the Royal Tombs, and is believed to have been carved around 70AD. Access to the tombs is via several sets of step bearing arches (there is lots of climbing involved at Petra). Entrance to the tomb is proceeded by a great column lined courtyard, and with your back to the tomb, that courtyard provides a huge panoramic view over Petra. Inside the Tomb is one single but very large chamber which according to Greek scripture was adapted in 446 AD to serve as a Byzantine church.
The Palace Tomb (below) is cleverly named so because it looks like palace. Say what you see hey? Its elaborate structure means that the Palace Tomb is one of Petra’s half carved half built wonders. Of its visible three tiers, parts of the two upper tiers are those said to be built rather than carved. The Palace Tomb is also unusual in that it contains 4 chambers whereas most other tombs within Petra contain only one or two.
The Silk Tomb (below) although small is no less striking in feature in comparison to the other Royal Tombs, due mainly to its swirly exterior colours.
And so upon exiting the last of the Royal Tombs, walking back up the Street of Facades and likewise back through As-Siq to the visitors centre, our day at Petra had come to an end. From sun up till almost sundown, they were nine of the must awe struck hours I have spent on this earth.
I have no doubt that my words above have all but failed to do Petra any kind of justice, so I shall finish this section with the words of another, someone who did a far better job than I at putting this unique wonder of the world into written word (although he never actually visited the site, but ssshhhhh, no one needs to know that part).
John Burgon – Winner of the 1845 Newdigate Prize with the following poem about Petra
It seems no work of Man’s creative hand,by labour wrought as wavering fancy planned;
But from the rock as if by magic grown,
eternal, silent, beautiful, alone!
Not virgin-white like that old Doric shrine,
where erst Athena held her rites divine;
Not saintly-grey, like many a minster fane,
that crowns the hill and consecrates the plain;
But rose-red as if the blush of dawn,
that first beheld them were not yet withdrawn;
The hues of youth upon a brow of woe,
which Man deemed old two thousand years ago,
match me such marvel save in Eastern clime,
a rose-red city half as old as time.
OK so that was all the (very) good stuff, but now regrettably its time to deal with what I saw as the bad, and which largely centres around the animals on site. I’ve never really been one for animal riding, and as such I know little of proper animal care, but I’m pretty sure that riding animals with limps and open wounds is not correct. Nor tying up animals in the searing heat with little or no water or shade. Maybe the animals are fit for it, I don’t honestly know if they can handle such conditions or not, but for me personally this did not make easy viewing and had my girlfriend quite upset at times.
Next up on the naughty list we had the lies dealt out by those looking to make money from the animals. Not all the owners lied, some told you the price of a ride up front, and that was cool, but others would tell you that the price of a ride on their horse or donkey was included in the price of your admission into Petra … only then later to tell you, once your ride was over of course, that there was a mandatory tip due. As a result of this tactic, I saw more than one disgruntled visitor arguing over this tip, why it should be paid and why it is so much. A few of the arguments also looked quite heated. Its a good thing Petra has tourist police … or is it?
The Downright Ugly
So for this part reader discretion is advised. It ain’t pretty, but if you’re a solo female traveller with plans of heading to Jordan, you may just want to grin and bear the next paragraphs so that you are prepared and as safe as can be when visiting this otherwise wondrous place.
So this is an ugly tale told to us by a solo female traveller the evening after both she and our group had separately visited Petra. I will state outright that I did not bear witness to the events described, only that I retell them as I was told.
Mrs K was a seasoned traveller and set out for a days tour of Petra alone. Dressed appropriately (head, shoulders and legs covered), much of her day in Petra was excellent. It was only later in the afternoon when she started the climb to the High Place of Sacrifice that things started to go pear shaped.
Mrs K explained to us that as she ascended the necessary steps up the mountain in order to reach the High Place of Sacrifice, she came into contact with a certain member of the tourist police several times. They passed each other on more than one occasion whilst the other stopped for a breather along the trail. Eventually the police office asked Mrs K her name, where she was from etc, the usual. They started to walk and talk until at some point the officer excused himself and walked out of sight behind a large rock. It is then that Mrs K said that she heard the officer pleasuring himself.
When the officer came back into view Mrs K questioned his antics and the officer defended himself, telling Mrs K that he was simply urinating. Mrs K wasn’t convinced and told us that she had heard some pleasurable sounding moans from her position. Anyway, she abandoned her ascent to the High Place of Sacrifice and started towards the tourist police central office to report the officer in question, he quickly followed pleading with her not to. His words didn’t stop Ms K, but once she had made it to the office to report the act, other officers were quick to try and put her off making a formal complaint, telling her that if she did the offending officer would surely lose his job. They applied pressure until Mrs K made reference to a husband and the British Embassy. All of a sudden the official complaint was typed up.
Exactly what happened I cannot be 100% sure of, I wasn’t there, but I spent a further 2 days in Mrs K’s company after Petra and she did not strike me as a person to lie or exaggerate. Either way, it clearly pays for solo female travellers to, where possible, try join a group when exploring Petra, just to be on the safe side. Also, slipping a ring onto your wedding finger might not be the worst idea either.
Where? How? What to take? How much?
Interested in visiting Petra? … you should be! Please don’t let the bad and ugly sections of this post put you off. I write them purely as warnings, so that you are prepared for your visit. Not to deter you entirely.
Southern Jordan, between the Dead and Red sea, east of Wadi Araba.
The is parking space if you arrive by your own/hire car. Our group took a taxi to Petra from Madaba at a cost of 60JD. A taxi from Amman would be around 80JD.
There are also buses that run from the capital Amman and from Aqaba. Click here for details.
What to take
There are a couple of things you do not want to visit Petra without. Some pretty obvious, but others you may wish to take note of …
- Water – Sold everywhere on site, but at inflated prices so take your own.
- Food/snacks – as above
- Sun screen
- Sun glasses
- Multiple layers – its brisk at 8am, but come midday you’ll be looking to strip off a little.
- Toilet paper – there are toilets on site, but paper was at a premium my good lady informed me
- Cash – if you want to purchase refreshment or souvenirs.
- Map – although you’ll likely pick up a copy of a free guide
- 1 day ticket – 50JD
- 2 day ticket – 55JD
- 3 day ticket – 60JD
- Petra by night ticket – 12JD
*Paying by card will add a small service charge.
There’s plenty to warrant a 2 or 3 day ticket, and for the extra 5/10 JD they’re both totally worth it. Our wee group was limited for time though so a 1 day ticket was our only option. Was it enough? Yes and no. I was certainly satisfied with my Petra experience, I don’t feel like I missed out on anything that I’d wanted to see prior to arriving in Jordan, but that said I’m sure had we gone back for a 2nd day that there would have been plenty to keep us occupied for another 9+ hours.
Whichever ticket you choose and however long you spend exploring Petra, I wish you a safe and happy time.