Jordan, throughout history was a crossroad between east and west. Ancient roads through the desert connected civilizations like the Greeks, Nabataeans, Romans and more recent states like the Umayyads and the Ottomans.
The lost city of Petra was founded by the Nabataeans in 321 BC as the center of their trading empire. Although the Nabataeans were nomadic in nature, they managed to use their trading wealth to build this amazing city into the rocky mountains.
The Nabataean civilization declined and the city disappeared from history for a long time until it was rediscovered in 1812. You can read more about Petra history here. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Petra
Our trip to Petra was both exhilarating and exhausting. We packed some snacks and lots of water and started on our way at 8 am. In hind sight I think we should have started much earlier or spent the night close by. In Fall and Winter the sun sets very early and makes for a much shorter day for exploration.
The trip from Amman to Petra takes from 3 to 4 hours depending on your stops. We like to stop a lot on the way to rest and explore. Our first stop was at a Falafel place to pick up breakfast. It is probably the best falafel in Jordan. What distinguished “Abu Jbara” restaurant is the variety of falafel sandwiches, toppings and breads available. You can basically custom build your Falafel experience. If you like spicy food, ask them to add Shatta (a very spicy sauce).
Along the way we stopped at a souvenir shop to use the restrooms and buy hats for the tour. Our guide mentioned that the sun is usually blazing in Petra. He also suggested using a lot of sunscreen. We ended up buying much more than hats. Prices were reasonable compared to the expected high prices in Petra.
Outside the ancient city of Petra you will come across the town of Wadi Musa. The town has grown dramatically in recent times due to the importance of Petra as a tourist destination. You will find many hotels and restaurants. Some tourists prefer to spend the night in the region to visit Petra and Wadi Rum.
On the outskirt of Wadi Musa, we stopped at a fresh water spring called Ain Musa. Legend has it that the prophet Moses stopped at this location – on his way to the Promised Land - and struck a rock to produce the spring for his followers. The spring has been running continuously since those ancient times.
A little further down the road from the spring there is a commanding view of the mountains in which Petra was carved. You can see strange formations reminiscent of Mount Rushmore – but it is all natural.
Once we arrived at the entrance plaza we bought our tickets and started our journey through time.
Tip: Wear old tennis or hiking shoes. Most of your walking is going to be on soft red dirt that clings to shoes.
It is an amazing feeling to walk into the Siq (Gorge) and be surrounded by huge cliffs from both sides. The cliffs are as high as 260 ft. and can get as narrow as 9 ft. – they can block the sunlight and give a brief refuge from the heat.
As you walk through the Siq notice the irrigation canals carved through the walls. The Nabatean’s carved those canals and built dams along the way to catch and redirect rain water.
Important Tip: Watch out for carriage and horse traffic – try to stay close to the walls. The riders sometimes hurtle around the corners and threaten pedestrians.
At the end of the Siq you will start seeing hints of the most famous Petra building “The Treasury (Al-Khazneh)”. As you exit the Siq you will have a full view of the treasury that commands a large clearing in the middle of the mountains.
The treasury was built by the Nabateans the first century AD as mausoleum and crypt – contrary to popular myth that it was used as a place to hold treasures.
Petra's history is mired in mystery and myth. It started as an Arab Nabatean settlement with Greek and Egyptian influences - but was absorbed later by the growing Roman Empire. There is conflicting evidence about who built what.
Regardless of origins, the rest of Petra is as breathtaking as the famous Treasury. Most visitors just hike through the Siq and admire the treasury then turn back.
Don’t be one of those tourists. Keep going and experience the various tombs and residences etched into the mountains. Admire the colors of rock formations – which oscillate between various shade of red and pink. Visit the amphitheater which was designed in a way to overlook the largest collection of tombs and don’t miss Qasr Al-Bint which was built as a temple. Ask about the legend of Qasr Al-Bint also known as the Temple of the Winged Lions.
Tip: If you don’t have a guide with you, hire one at the entrance plaza. The prices are reasonable and they can provide valuable information about the sights and history.
If you have the time and the stamina, plan on climbing close to 800 steps to the Monastery (El Deir). The climb is hard but it is worth the effort. If you are not up it, you can hire one of the Donkeys to take you all the way to the top - although I am not sure which one is more risky – climbing the stairs or riding the Donkey.
Tip: Before you start climbing the steps, visit the restrooms at the restaurant situated next to the museum. You can also take a break at the restaurant and have some snacks.
I don’t want to spoil the surprise for would be adventurers, so I am not going say a lot about the Monastery itself. The Monastery was built by the Nabteans as a temple to one of their Gods but possibly used later by Christians. No one knows for sure.
Tip: All along the way you will have opportunities to ride a horse, a carriage or a donkey to your destination. Each operator has boundaries they can’t cross. Agree ahead of time on the destination and the price. As usual, you can negotiate the price.
By the time we made it to the top of the stairs and enjoyed the view it was getting dark. So we had to hustle back down and all the way out of the Siq before it really got dark. There is no lighting at night in Petra – unless you arrive during one of the special nights when they light up the city with candles. Check the Visit Jordan website for candle light schedule . There is a separate fee for those events.
See a map of Petra at http://www.atlastours.net/jordan/petra_map.html.