Petra is an absolute showpieces of unique architecture and sculpture. The city is one of the ‘new’ Seven Wonders of the World, but would have fitted in the old list as well. As would nearby, but lesser known, Little Petra.
The entrance to the city is impressive. El Siq is a narrow, winding path of eight kilometers, through a narrow gorge, sometimes no more than 2 meters wide. At the end of it, a sudden, mesmerizing view. The Khazneh (or the Treasury) is a temple carved out in the red stones in classic Greek style. It is about 39.6 meters high, 28 meters wide and was built in 56 BC.
Research shows that the area was already inhabited in the Iron Age. From 1,200 BC, the Edomites lived in the mountains surrounding Petra. Edom means ‘red’, which probably refers to the colour of the mountains. Recently it was discovered that the Edomites were skilled at pottery. Various kilns were found near Petra.
But the builders of the current Petra (meaning ‘stone’ or ‘rock’ in Greek) are the Nabataeans. Not much is known about these people. They were nomads who moved from the Arabian peninsula to Jordan in the sixth century BC, and they probably drove out the Edomites with force, and learnt the art of pottery.
The Nabataeans were true art lovers and they were bold enough to mix their own culture with others. They were inspired by Greek architecture, and later on by the Roman and Egyptian arts of construction, so Petra’s more than 1,000 buildings have a unique mixture of styles. This is just one of the amazing feats the Nabataeans pulled off here.
Even now, scientists are still discussing the purpose of the city. Was it just a holy site where the most important inhabitants were buried? Or was it a thriving trade center? What is certain is that the Nabataeans used the natural ravines and gorges to create temples, houses, arches of triumph, bridges and tombs.
They worked with unprecedented precision, which can still be clearly seen today. The material they used was the porous sandstone present in the area, which lights up and changes colour in different light. Not many people are aware that the Nabataeans also built various buildings that were destroyed by natural disasters.
The Nabataeans chose a spot that was hard to reach, but in a strategic location. Even now, connecting roads to the Red Sea remain, which enabled trade with Arabia and Mesopotamia. The road through the Negev Desert leads to Gaza, and provides access to the Mediterranean (Greece) and Syria. The base is a rocky mountain with some of the rocks reaching up to 300 meters in height. The deep gorges are the remains of a huge river.
Scientists have discovered that the city was taken over by the Romans in 106 AD, but initially this did not slow down its development. However, Petra started to lose some of its importance in the centuries that followed, and gradually attention shifted to other cities like Palmyra (in Syria) and Jerash (in Jordan).
In the following centuries Petra is still used, for instance by Roman emperor Diocletian, who appointed the city as capitol of the province Paelestina Tertia. The crusaders also built a fortress just outside the city for their crusades. However after this, things fell silent around Petra, and the city sank into oblivion.
But in 1812 it was ‘rediscovered’ by Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt. He was chased away by the Bedouins that lived in the region. Scottish artist David Roberts was the one who told the world of the city. In 1839 he spent five days painting the various structures, and gradually the world became aware of Petra.
The increasing research in the area also led to the discovery of ‘Little Petra’ (also known as ‘Siq al-Barid’), a village just a couple of kilometers away. It is presumed that there was not enough room in Petra for all the merchants (and the camels and camel drivers) so extra living space was required.
There are significant similarities between the two places. Little Petra is also hidden between the rocks and a small pathway (more narrow than the one at Petra) leads up to the entrance. Remarkably, there are remainders of some type of protective measures made of stone, to seal off the village in case of an attack. As there was no water source, rain water was collected and channeled to shaded places. They used cement for these because the sandstone was too porous.
In the 21st century Roberts’ drawings of the area became increasingly important, as wind and rain erosion is slowly destroying the buildings in Petra and Little Petra. On the other hand, it gives Petra an illustrious character, one befitting this strange place, built by a relatively unknown tribe that nevertheless managed to create one of the wonders of the world.
Things to see in Petra:
The Treasury of the Farao (Al-Khazneh)
The Treasury is one of the most famous masterpieces of the Nabataeans. This highlight of Petra is the subject of decade-long discussions, but recent research seems to have discovered its purpose. It’s not a temple, as was the popular belief, but a royal burial site. They have discovered four graves, expected to be a king and his family. Scientists date the site to between the last century BC and the first century AC. This means it could be the grave of Aretas IV Philopatris. It’s also believed the building only took a few months to complete, that’s how skilled its creators were.
The Monastery (Ad Deir)
Despite its name, this was probably a temple, and not a monastery. It’s the largest monument in Petra and is located a little further away on a mountain, north-west of the centre of Petra. It is expected to have served as a temple for king Obodas I, who took the throne in the last century BC. It’s famous for its location and the style of building. The Nabataeans interpreted Greek building elements in a unique way. What’s most remarkable is the mixture of curved and straight lines. Its current name comes from the Byzantine time when Christians used the building for their sacred masses. Its most interesting feature is the almost 10-metre-high circular building (also called at tholos) on its upper level in the facade.
This temple is one of the biggest mysteries of Petra. Mostly because there is very little left of this building. Years of research has shown that this building is architecturally different to most of the other buildings in Petra. It’s one of the few buildings that wasn’t hewn out of rock. It was once around 35 by 42 metres, and contained a mixture of different building styles.
The Church of Petra
The church is one of the more recent discoveries in Petra. It’s likely to be a Byzantine or Roman church. It’s interesting that this building was not hewn out of rock. The ruins of this church were only discovered in 1990. Researchers believe that the first building on this site was built around 450 AC, but most of the remains date back to 500 AC. It is expected that an earthquake caused its collapse. What’s interesting here are the mosaics discovered on the floor of this building, depicting exotic and mythical animals, as well as human figures. In 1993, 152 papyrus scrolls (the Petra Papyri) were discovered that seem to have belonged to the deacon of the church, a certain Theodoros.
This series of tombs was probably made for the Nabataean kings and are practically in a line. They are relatively large, but unfortunately quite damaged. Due to wind and rain erosion, the facades have crumbled and pillars have fallen down. These are the graves:
- Urn Tomb: dates back to the 1st cenutry.
- Silk Tomb: named after the many colours of its sandstone.
- Corinthian Tomb: this tomb looks like a replica (or the original?) of the Treasury.
- Palace Tomb: this tomb is higher than the rest and very ornately decorated.
- Sextius Florentinus Tomb: thanks to the roman script engraved here, this is the only tomb that can be identified with certainty. Sextius was the roman governor of the province of Arabia around the first century.
This was the main street of Petra. The buildings along this road date back to the roman era. This is where the important buildings were, including palaces, bath houses and temples. It’s not entirely clear which buildings stood here exactly, because they are nearly entirely in ruins and covered by sand. Scientists are still researching this area.
Obelisk Tomb and Bab as-Siq Triclinium
The Obelisk Tomb is the best (and pretty much only) proof that the Nabataeans traded with the Egyptians. There are four 7-metre-high obelisks, a signature Egyptian shape, hewn out of the rocks. The tomb dates back to the 1st century BC, but not much else is known about it. Underneath, though not directly, lies Bab el Siq Triclinium. This is not a crypt so much as a hall for mourning as well as celebrating the deceased. Both these structures are on the Siq, the path to the entry into Petra.
The Greek were known to build their open-air theatres on the slope of a hill, but the Nabataeans chose to hew them out of the rocks. This theatre could initially seat around 3.000 people. Then the romans renovated it so it could house 8.000 spectators.
Temple of Dushares (Qasr Al-Bint)
This is the ‘palace of the daughter of the pharaoh’. Scientists believe it was once the most important building of the city. These days, only the walls remain. It’s close to the High Place of Sacrifice, where an altar can be clearly recognised, as well as small channels used to drain away the animals’ blood. You can also still see the small, circular cistern cut into the rock, where the priests would cleanse their hands.
The best excursions in Petra:
Walk through Petra at night
Petra is almost creepy at night. The moon and the stars illuminate the surroundings a little, causing only the outlines to be visible. However, when you walk through Siq, the lanterns are the only lights in the gorge. Then suddenly, you are in front of the Treasury illuminated by many lanterns, just as the Nabataeans had once illuminated their city. In the background you can hear the sounds of Bedouin music.
Take a good look around and take in the surroundings, as this is an entirely different experience than during the day. It’s great for those who want to see Petra in a different light, or if you want to take photos that stand out among all the standard pictures. Bring a tripod.
More information: www.visitjordan.com
Climb the rocks to see the whole Treasury
If you wish to see a different side to the most extraordinary monument of Petra you will be required to climb. There are several options, including a short climb starting on the right, across from the building. Once you’re up you will have a view of the entire Treasury and all the tourists. A perfect spot to let everything you see sink in, especially at daybreak.
Walk around Petra with an archeologist
There tours of Petra guided by archaeologists. This is an absolute added value in a place like Petra. Not only will you be able to see more, you will also have the opportunity to ask questions. Ideal for those who want to really experience Petra. Book in advance and take a tour of several hours. It’s worth it.
See the sunset at Petra
Petra is at its most beautiful when the sun sets. All the rocks will slowly colour red, causing the landscape as is has done for centuries, and many tourists will have left for their hotels by then. It’s great for those wanting to take beautiful photos of the many monuments, or those who just wish to enjoy the play of colours. If you want to experience this, it is recommended to stay at a hotel near Petra.
Hike to the Temple of el-Deir
You can choose to climb to the high-altitude Temple of el-Deir. The temple is really worthwhile, and so is the path leading up to it. You will see the literal greatness of Petra. You’ll also be able to escape most tourists as many prefer to stay in the lower parts. Take your time and take a good look around you. This part is considered to be the most beautiful part of Petra.
Do it the Indiana Jones way
One of the final scenes of the famous movie Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade has left quite an impression on many viewers, especially because the location really exists. Indiana Jones (played by Harrison Ford) reaches the monument on horseback, in search of the Holy Grail. So at the entrance you can hire a horse and ride through the narrow passageway, the Siq, to end up by the Treasure Chamber and other buildings. Make sure to get here early in the day, to avoid the large crowds of tourists.
View the stunning mosaics
In this dusty desert, you don’t really expect to see colourful mosaics, but the church of Petra does have them. They are a more recent discovery. It’s remarkable, because this is one of the few buildings not carved out of the rocks.
There are many mosaics of animals and human figures on the floor of the church, including a woman with one bare breast. Perhaps you can figure out for yourself whether this is a Byzantine or East-Roman church.
More information: www.sacred-destinations.com/jordan/petra-church
Look for the Djinn Blocks at Petra
For many tourists, it is the first impression of Petra sculpture. Near the entrance you will see three conspicuous, uniquely shaped monuments on the right-hand side. These are called the Djinn Blocks.
The Bedouins long believed they housed evil spirits, but the blocks were probably built for burial. However, who was buried here and when this happened is unknown. It is presumed that the buildings date back to the first century BC. They may be the oldest tombs in Petra.
Explore Petra’s desert on the back of a camel
Petra has a huge back country, which is not as popular with tourists. However, ‘the ship of the desert’ can easily take you there. You can take camel rides everywhere. They all walk the same route, most of the time, just make sure you know where you want to go and make this clear. You can also ride through the Siq on a camel, although the narrow passage to the entrance of Petra is probably more interesting on foot.
Search for bullet holes at the Treasury
When you go to the Treasure Chamber, take a good look at the urn in the middle of the upper floor. According to the legend, a mysterious pharaoh hid his treasures in the urn. The Bedouins have often tried to break the urn by shooting at it with their rifles, but they failed. The many bullet holes around the urn are evidence of their futile attempts.
Visit the Ammarin Bedouins
This is a bit of a tourist show, but the Ammarin Bedouins like to present tourists with their culture. A show includes a cup of fresh tea and music. It’s also possible to spend the night at a camp and sleep under the stars. We recommend arranging a visit in advance and to make sure you are well-informed.
Best time to visit Petra:
- Spring: Spring is ideal, because of the mild temperatures. However, keep in mind that there will be many tourists.
- Summer: Summer, on the other hand, is extremely warm and crowded. It will not be easy to take pictures; the light is very bright and the colours will be harsh. Go out in in the morning, but you’ll need lots of time.
- Autumn: Autumn is a fine period to visit Petra, because of the mild weather.
- Winter: Winter is relatively quiet (as far as tourism is concerned). There may be rain between November until March.
It can be extremely hot on many days here, especially around noon. Prepare yourself for the sun and make sure you bring along drinks or purchase some at the stalls.
Petra is very popular and attracts a lot of people, especially at the entrance and at the famous Treasury. If you prefer to avoid the crowds and the heat, you should come here in the early hours of the morning. If you like taking photos you should return in the afternoon, when the soft light accentuates the colors of the rocks just a little bit more.
Vendors selling old coins (and jewelry, etc.) may become a nuisance if there are not many tourists around. You are discouraged from buying such things, because they are often stolen from graves or fakes.
How do I get there?
Petra is 226 kilometers (140 miles) south of the capital Amman in Jordan. The road there is a well-maintained freeway, dozens of buses drive up and down from Amman to Petra (or, in fact, the nearby village of Wadi Musa) every day.