Petra: the stone city in Jordan

Petra is an ancient Nabatean city of stone in Jordan. Today I will tell you how it stole my heart, what you can see there, and why you should spend more than only few hours there.

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Ah, Petra! I miss it already… I have visited this city of stone for the first time in 2002, when I was 14 years old. From that visit I had only few scenes, places, sensations in my mind. I really liked it but I do not know why exactly (maybe sentiment?). But I always wanted to go back to Jordan. I felt a great chemistry to that part of the world.

When finally the opportunity came, I decided to see Petra as much as possible and spend 2 full days there.

Read my other posts about Jordan:
1. Jordan: practical info, costs, prices

Welcome to Petra!

We’re staying in a one star Sunset Hotel, a 5-minute walk from the entrance to Petra. It is modest, yes, but I really enjoy the breakfasts here. From the dining room I admire the surrounding rocks, behind which is the lost city. I’m not in hurry and simply take pleasure in looking the desert-stone landscape of Jordan.

We buy tickets to Petra in big customer service center resembling more a shopping mall. One day entry costs 50 dinars. Jordan knows how to beat money on tourists, no doubt… But admission for 2 days costs 55 dinars! Only 5 JD more? We don’t hesitate to buy tickets valid for 2 days. Especially that Petra is great and if you really want to enjoy every detail of it, one day is not enough.

We can see the first tombs and temples carved in rock while walking down the street to the famous gorge Al-Siq. But this is only a foretaste of what awaits us in a moment. I more enchanted by Bedouins on horses and camels, who look so majestic and oriental (despite wearing jeans and t-shirts) that I have the impression they were born in the saddle. Well… they were. They’re the riders of the desert.

Finally, we enter the Siq, which is 1.5 km long narrow canyon. We are lucky – on the first day of our visit to Petra there are almost no tourists. In the canyon we meet just a few people. It’s quiet, peaceful. Although everything is screaming with joy and excitement inside me.

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We don’t rush, spot the details of the gorge… And finally – we see it! Between the rocks we see the great, famous Treasury. If you watched Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, you probably remember the place where the Holy Grail was hidden. If not, take a look of this short part of the film. I think that in the first moment of seeing the Treasury everyone looks as amazed as the heroes of the film.

What is Petra and who made it?

The first settlements in the area were already established 7000 years BC, but the city of stone really is the work of the Nabateans, a merchant tribe That arrived here in the 6th century BC. For over 500 years they built Their city and carved monumental tombs in the surrounding rocks. The city benefited from an ideal location on the trade routes linking the Arabian Peninsula to the Mediterranean Sea and Palmyra in today’s Syria. In its heyday (8 BC – 40 CE), about 30 thousand people lived here! Petra was often destroyed by the earthquakes, and finally abandoned in the 6th century AD.

Since then only Bedouins stayed here and held the city in secret. But in 1812 it was re-discovered by Johann Ludwig Burckhardt, a Swiss traveler and Orientalist, who got to Petra disguised as a Muslim pilgrim. The lost city of stone and Jordan caught the attention of the world, and in 1929 the first team of archaeologists arrived.

You should know That the Nabataeans did not have Their typical architectural style, but as the nomads they had the opportunity to see other cultures and derive from Their models. It makes Petra a mix of Egyptian, Assyrian, Mesopotamian, Hellenistic and Roman architecture style.

Petra, although called the city, first of all is the necropolis – the vast majority of facades in stones are tombs (carved from top to the bottom).

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Petra in 2 days

The Treasury, Petra’s most famous facade

The Treasury (Al-Khaznah) is the most famous building in Petra and everybody who enters the lost city can’t wait to see it. You can spot it already leaving the Siq when it partially eclipsed by the high cliffs. Treasury was built in Hellenistic style as a royal tomb, but its name come from the legend of a treasure of the Egyptian pharaoh hidden in an urn in the facade.

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In front of the Treasury there’s a lot of horse carriages, camels and donkeys. Bedouins make here piles of money on tourists for whom ride the animal is an attraction. However, today there are no crowds, it is almost empty. The men offer us a tour on a camel for 5 dinars. It’s nothing. Tomorrow the price will be 10 times higher, but you will find many takers. Thank you, shokran, we prefer to explore the city on foot.

From the Treasury leads the Street of Facades, where are concentrated more than 40 houses and tombs. The entrances to some are below today’s street level and shows how level raised by hundreds of years.

Just down the street for road diverges – you can go right to the bottom with the center of Petra, or go up to the High Place of Sacrifice. I choose the first option, the second one I leave for tomorrow.

Petra: the city of stone and the Royal Tombs

The entrance to the center of the city of stone can be identified by the theater carved in the rocks, surrounded by tombs and houses. Especially those carved in the rocks on the left side of the city, their facades literally leave in awe, it is difficult to take your eyes off of them. These were established from the beginning of our era for the next 400 years.

Some facades are simple, others are much more detailed. But if you look carefully, you’ll see that every building has its own distinctive element.

Among the most beautiful facades are the Sextius Florentinus Tomb with gorgon’s head slightly damaged by erosion, or the Palace Tomb with lots of carved columns. My favorite, however, is the Urn Tomb, where you can climb on stairs supported on columns.

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We do not hurry. We have two days, remember? At the Urn Tomb we take a break on cushions in the shadow, it’s so quiet and peaceful. Amazing that today Petra is almost empty and we enjoy almost deserted views. Dozen of visitors don’t disturb us.

From this place we admire the ruins of the lost city of Petra, so beautifully situated between the large red rocks, completely hidden from the world. I sigh thrilled, imagining Burckhardt in 1812, when he discovered this place in disguise. Today, I think we all know Petra, but then? Shrouded in mystery, forgotten, inaccessible… For me it is still amazing in spite of restaurants, tourists and souvenir stalls. So how did feel the traveler who walked into a totally deserted city?

Although Petra is called the city of stone, in the rocks really is a necropolis, and the main city was built with stone blocks, more reminiscent of the ruins of the Roman city. This should not surprise, because many of the buildings and details here were created at a time when Petra was the capital of the Roman province. We can find here the street with columns, Nymfeum, or public fountain (yes, theoretically in Petra there is no water, but the town lies in the valley of periodic river Wadi Musa, and in ancient times a special system of canals and tanks was built here, collecting rainwater and water from the rock springs), ruins of the palace, baths, temples.

In such places I usually try to imagine how life looked here when the buildings were not ruins, with all these hustle and bustle on main streets, people traded, gossiped, argued, laughed…

Bedouins in Petra

Today, however, the souvenir stalls run by Bedouins amaze me. You can, for example, buy a stone. A stone, a pebble, a rock, striped or plain. Just choose the color, sir!, such stones in Petra you will not find anywhere! Many stalls are abandoned, though they’re left full of souvenirs. Why? Because the Bedouins do not steal from each other. It is forbidden by the code of honor.

For hundreds of years in many places in the desert merchants had their “stores” on water and food. If you steal them their stocks, they can die, the desert will kill them. Therefore, if you do not want to die, do not expose other people it to, Bedouin.

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Much has changed, of course, you can not trust everyone. But often I hear stories that someone, a tourist, left in Petra a wallet or a camera. He left it somewhere just while resting. When he returned for his lost belongings, Bedouins were waiting with it. They took care of it. But they will not take a finder’s reward, baksheesh. It is not proper, it’s a matter of honor that look after your property.

At least I still romantically believe in it. But traveling has taught me that people are inherently good. So why I should not believe?

The Monastery and the best view in Petra

At the end of the first day we’re going to the Monastery, one of the most famous tombs. It is hidden up in the mountains and the climb here takes 45 minutes. The two thousand years old trail is narrow in places and polished. In winter, when it rains, it can even be dangerous. Some enter here on a donkey, but such “pleasure” costs up to 30 dinars…

The Monastery, or Al-Deir, is impressive. The facade resembles the Treasury, however, Al-Deir is larger – measuring 50 meters wide and 45 meters high. It was built in the 3rd century BC as a tomb, but the name is due to the fact that apparently in Byzantine times it was used as a church.

Just before it there is a cafe, where we relax and enjoy the view. I feel great satisfaction that we decided to explore this stone city of Jordan in two days because we do not have to rush and we rest in front of the Monastery for about an hour.

From here you can climb even higher, and look at the beautiful mountains extending in the valley of Wadi Araba, the black colors of it reminds me of Tolkien’s Mordor. 😉 Of course there is many places to rest – there is at least several “cafes” or Bedouin tents, and to every each lead a sign “the best view in Petra.”

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Petra

Sunset in Petra and Petra by night

It’s a place I can recommend to watch the sunset. However, I choose today to see it in Wadi Musa valley, which is in the center of Petra. Amazing that there is no one in the entire city. We are all alone, once in a while just a Beduin will ride on a donkey or camel. Around the silence reigns, and we can enjoy the changing colors of the facades of tombs.

When we go out of Petra, the Bedouin are setting up their lanterns in front of the Treasury. “Oh, they prepare the night tour” I say and… leave! Hana, seriously?! Instead of slowing down to watch the Treasury lit by hundreds of lanterns, I skip the whole event! Normally for visiting by night you have to pay extra 12 dinars, and we could just sit in Petra a bit longer and catch up on this spectacular moment. We have already spent for the entrance 55 JD! And if someone told us to leave (although I haven’t seen any guards), we would simply say “sorry, we didn’t know” and left. But I could give a try…

Petra in 2 days

When we enter Petra on the second day, the Siq is crowded like crazy. It’s so loud that I could barely hear what we say to each other – talking of dozens of people echos the canyon, and as a result everybody talks really loud to be heard. We also don’t stay in front of the Treasury, it is overly crowded and noisy …

Fortunately, we left the second day for the High Place of Sacrifice, where crowds do not go. The trail to the top takes 45 minutes, like to the Monastery. On the summit we take some time to discover the area. It turns out that the entrance to the main altar, where animals were sacrificed, is not so easily seen and we almost missed it. Behind the altar there is a spot with magnificent views of Petra and… crowds of tourists. Where we are, there is no one.

We go down a different path, via Wadi Farrasa, the backs of Petra. Along the way we see the carvings in the rocks, water systems and tombs, which none of the tourists visits, because during a one-day sightseeing there is no time. We go to the city center. Despite the crowds, we met on the trail just 3 people (and a leg of a donkey, but I do not want to know how it got there – maybe other tourists on this route were also ate by something…?).

Once again, we’re walking a bit around the center, but today it’s not that nice. It is crowded and very hot, worse than yesterday. We leave earlier than intended. Still, we spent a lot of time here: 12 hours the first day and 6 hours the second. We are really satisfied that we were able to see Petra in our own speed. 🙂

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A few hours of sightseeing offered by excursions from Israel and Egypt, in my opinion is really little time. I love this lost city, its monumental facades and views, and I think it is worth to spend more time here, watch it carefully, without haste. Therefore, I really highly recommend it for 2 days! As we already pay this horrendously high entry fee, let’s see the maximum of it!

Is Petra is your bucket list? Or have you had the opportunity to be there already? How do you remember this place? Please share your opinions in the comments box below!

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Jordan, Petra – practical information

Admission to Petra is an example that Jordan knows how to make money on tourists. The one-day entry costs 50 JD, 2 days 55 JD, and for 3 days 60 JD. When buying tickets you must show a passport. Tickets are named.

As I stated all the post – personally I recommend Petra for 2 days. This is enough time to get to know it without rush. Especially if you go from June to September, because then the heat can be very high and it will slow you down!

What accommodation I recommend? Above all, those which will be near the entrance to Petra. If you are looking for a cheaper option I recommend the Sunset Hotel (click here for booking, rates and availability), which admittedly has 1* but for a night in the double room with breakfast you pay only 25 JD. If you prefer more luxury option, you should stay in 5* Movenpick Resort Petra (click here for booking, rates and availability), the undisputed choice if you want a high standard!

Remember that there is no hotels or camps inside Petra, and officially sleeping there is prohibited.

As for the food – Petra are cafes and restaurants, but the prices are quite high. It is better to buy yourself food in shops in Wadi Musa and just picnic during sightseeing.

How to get to Petra? From Amman there are daily minibuses (from the Wahadat station) for 7 dinars, the journey takes 4-5 hours. From Aqaba run 4 buses a day, it costs also 7 dinars, it takes 2.5 hours.

From Petra you can go to Wadi Rum by bus. It departs at 6 am. It is good to reserve your place a day earlier. Transfer costs 7 dinars, too. 😉

When to go to Petra? I do not recommend in winter because it’s cold and during heavy rains Petra may be closed. High season is in spring, when Petra blooms of aloe vera and then the prices are the highest and it’s also really crowded season. In summer the heat can be unbearable and autumn … autumn is cool 😉

If you plan to visit Petra from Israel, I recommend the services of Petra from Israel team, who organize trips there (including tailor-made). They offer a tour of Petra in 1, 2 or 3 days (and some other places in Jordan). Departures are organized from Eilat, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

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