I’m sure that every dedicated traveler has at least one dream destination, a place on our planet they absolutely have to see before their ticket gets punched for the last time.
Mine was Petra and it took me many years before I finally had a chance to make my dream come true. Having parked myself in Beirut for several months, it would have been a crime not to hop on a plane and cover the distance of a one hour flight to Amman. Last week, I did.
To build up anticipation, I didn’t rush to Petra straight away. I went north to Jaresh first which was a half day trip, but the next day off I went to Petra. I like to get a car and driver so I can stop along the way when I want and take pictures of unexpected sights, like the camels which got it into their head to cross the desert highway just when it got particularly busy and quite a few frustrated drivers had to hit the brakes.
Or the coffee vendor with beautifully hammered silver urns who was only too happy to have his picture taken. The drive from Amman to Petra takes about 3 hours on the modern desert highway or about 5 taking the more scenic Kings Highway.
The first thing I learned when planning my trip was that most people go for three days. That’s the time you really need if you want to explore every nook and cranny of the capital of the Nabateans which they started constructing some 2200 years ago. I had no idea how massive the complex is. Visitors either go with organized tours or, like me, with a car and driver and find accommodation in the modern town of Petra. There are plenty of hotels to choose from, from budget to 5 star.
Much of the appeal of Petra comes from the location. It’s a unique site where awesome, multicolored sandstone mountains with steep, rocky slopes and towering, craggy cliffs provide the background for the celebrated buildings, theatres, tombs, facades and palaces most of which are carved out of the rock and reach dimensions which simply leave you open mouthed.
The Nabateans, a gifted and highly sophisticated people who settled in Southern Jordan wisely chose their city which lay on the ancient Arabian trade routes and was the basis for their wealth and profits which in turn enabled them to embellish their city and form an important and powerful kingdom which ultimately ruled much of Arabia. Although they were fiercely independent and fought ferocious wars to protect their predominance, they were also open to other cultural influences which explains the particular style of the treasures of Petra.
In 106 AD however, the state was annexed by the Roman Empire and although the Nabataean civilization continued to flourish for some time, shifts in trade and power finally lead to its decline and Petra fell into ruin. After the 14th century, one of the great civilizations of the world was completely lost to the west until…. another one of the great discovery stories happened: a Swiss traveler by the name of Johann Ludwig Burckhardt rediscovered Petra as late as 1812 and, knowing the story, I was keen to re-live what he must have felt when he clapped eyes on a place which Dean Burgon in his famous poem describes like this: “Match me such a marvel save in Eastern clime/ A rose-red city half as old as time”.
Back to Mr. Burckhardt. He was a thoroughly prepared, British sponsored traveler, who learned perfect Arabic in Cambridge and joined the African Association in an expedition to discover the source of the river Niger. He submerged himself completely into the Arabic world by taking a muslim name, dressing in Arabic clothes and sharing the life of camel drivers and members of caravans. After criss crossing Syria and what is today Jordan, he literally happened upon Petra, he wasn’t looking for it.
So, here I was at the entrance to the complex, paying my admission and setting off on the trail which leads to the first wonder of nature, a 1200 m long deep and narrow gorge known as As-Siq. The rock walls soar up as high as 80 m and the path gets narrower and narrower. You can either walk, or ride on horse back or, hire a small carriage for 2 people, the clip clopping hooves of the little horse echoing off the surrounding cliffs.
I didn’t know where to look first; up, down, sideways at the many carvings which appeared already in the rock surface or straight ahead. The gorge gets really narrow, there is a final bent and then comes the moment which must have stopped Mr. Burckhardt cold: the first glimpse of Petra’s most famous sight: the façade of what is called The Treasury.
I knew what to expect but I can easily imagine what a person faced with this sight unexpectedly must have felt. Everybody stopped and just gazed and then tried to capture the moment as best as possible. Even if you do nothing else, this is one of the unforgettable experiences every traveler treasures forever.
It was carved in the 1st century BC as a tomb of an important Nabataean king and combines Hellenistic elements with Nabataean art. 30m wide and 43m high you can only feel dwarfed by this truly majestic sight.
There are a total of 34 different places to visit in the entire complex which explains why you can easily spend three days. The furthest is Ad-Deir. Reached by climbing 800 stairs with stunning views along the way a tomb/temple which was an important pilgrimage destination looms up into the sky and is Petra’s second most famous site.
You can admire the High Place of Sacrifice, the colonnaded street, a massive theatre and much much more, but given that I only had a few hours, I walked on a bit further, then turned around and retraced my steps past the Treasury and listened to a musician playing a one string violin at the foot, providing sounds of melancholic back ground music which were exceptionally compelling in this awesome place.
Given that approx. 2 mill people visit Petra each year, the end of November is a good time to visit. The weather is warm but not hot and few tourists come.
If you go during the season make sure to start your visit at 6am, just when the complex opens.
Admission is expensive. 1 day costs $120. It gets cheaper if you pay for 2 or 3 days, but you have to prove that you are either a cruise ship passenger or stay in a hotel. Horse back riding is included in the price but the carriage is not.
A car and driver for a day trip from Amman costs between $100 and $120.