Discovering Petra – Jordan's Ancient Capital
If you have spent time researching and dreaming of seeing Jordans most popular site, Petra this post is for you. We visited Egypt and Jordan with friends as part of a 50th birthday trip and loved both countries. Petra was a highlight for me, as I hope it will be for you. Walking down the wash is such a surreal feeling and then when it opens up with the Treasury right in front of you the scale blows you away. You know it is impressive but its not until that moment that it really sinks in.
There is MUCH more to Petra than just the Treasury or the Monastery. You need to commit a full day in your comfortable shoes to get the most out of Jordan's ancient capital. You should also allocate some time prior to visiting the main UNESCO Petra site to visit Little Petra. You won't be sorry.
Little Petra is effectively a gully that started it's life as a resting place for Bedouin traders. Shade for 80% of the day was a real draw card not to mention the breeze that is constantly lessening the horrific summer temperatures. Over time Siq al-Barid (little Petra's Arabic name – literally meaning cold canyon) became a trading post in itself and Little Petra was born.
The buildings that line Little Petra's stone walls are estimated to have been built during the first century and evolved into a mini suburb that housed traders from the Silk Road. After falling into disuse it was abandoned for centuries with only Bedouin's using a small component of the village.
It was excavated in the late 20th century with some interesting discoveries. One dining room has beautiful artwork depicting vines and grapes and wine consumption. The style of this art is Hellenistic which suggests use by Greek or Roman visitors at some point.
The little city is well constructed, had a full running water system, sewerage drains and basement wells to store the water for the long tough summers.
While its easy to dismiss Little Petra it is well worth the visit and do get the guide. You just can't learn enough on your own to grasp the complexities of this tiny city. Check out this half day tour on Viator, which visits Little Petra for 3 hours in a 4×4.
Petra Major – The Main Site At Petra
It is impossible to describe the immensity of this stunningly built city. Everything is MASSIVE. Everything is remarkably built carved into the sandstone hills. Petra even had buildings that had an earthquake protection system. I know right – that seems crazy! But it is true. Some of the smaller buildings were constructed on a floating timber base that could move and absorb the earths rumblings if need be. It's design is ingenious and its amazing to think of the skill involved in construction so long ago.
Petra is believed to have started its life as early as 9000 BC and is thought to have been the capital city of the Nabataean Kingdom. It is amazing what is still standing and honestly I wish some of those ancient construction experts were still in business today!
Again – as usual I wouldn't even attempt Petra without a guide. We lucked out and got an amazing one who sneakily disobeyed the odd rule here and there and climbed us up and through a rear chamber of the city in the first few minutes. I was a little concerned about his disregard for the “keep out” signs but he did tell us (unprovoked) at the end of the day that he only takes about 5% of people up through that path. Apparently we had impressed on him immediately that we were considerate in nature (his words) and wanted to really experience Petra and learn, which pretty much describes us to a T.
What is the best way to do Petra
Again, get a guide. There are heaps that mill around the entrance so you could head down the day before and organise one, or you could take a day tour that you've previously organised. I wouldn't recommend doing it yourself. Yes you can still see everything however did you know that a lot of the buildings are still standing because they built to accommodate earthquakes? Nope – I didn't know that either and that's the kind of thing you learn by taking a guide.
On arrival we headed right down to the rear of the site and then worked our way back up toward the entrance culminating in a visit to The Treasury. I would recommend doing it this way as then you can get up to the Monastery earlier in the day when its not as hot on the stairs.
We also started what we called the “petra scale” – as in how big, how impressive and how intricate buildings and locations across the site were. Doing the site from the back and working your way forward means that everything gets a little bigger, a little more impressive and way more meaningful now that you know the stories behind it.
How long do I need for Petra?
One day is enough and while you do walk a lot, there are many places to sit and relax as well.
Is there food I can buy at Petra?
I would recommend taking a pre packed lunch. There is a café but the food looked pretty appalling to be honest. Luckily we did bring out own lunch and we sat in the amphitheatre eating our lunch imagining events that must have gone on there. We sat with our cold drinks (café bought), olives, cheeses, meats and crackers and pretended we were watching an Olympic style event.
Getting To The Monastery at Petra
Brad V (who I've never forgiven) conned me into taking a donkey up to The Monastery. If you've ever read anything of mine before you know I'm a hiker and ALWAYS walk. But he sold it as an experience so I paid my money hopped on the donkey and off we went.
It will be fun he said. Hmmm….
When have you ever ridden a donkey in a UNESCO heritage site he said.
Geezes bloody Hell! I'm not sure I've ever been that scared in my life.
The steps literally wind their way around a mountain and you are sitting up like a pumpkin on a rock that moves clip clopping up, around and across these stairs. I cried, I threatened, I cajoled and I repeatedly tried to get off but my donkey kid was not having it.
Now I realise that he thought I wouldn't pay him if he let me off but far out – I almost just jumped I was so scared. Brad was peeing himself laughing and has since told me there may be video of me crying but we made it to the top and sent the donkeys back down to get another unsuspecting poor sod!
What to see in Petra
After climbing the steps up to the Monastery you do find yourself hoping its worth it. It absolutely is. Its probably not quite as grand a scale as other places in Petra, but the fact that it is much more remote, and literally carved into the mountain does mean it is one of the most impressive locations in Petra for sure.
You can go inside the building and the change in temperature is immediately obvious. It must be at least 10 degrees cooler inside the building. There is a little drinks stand set back from the Monastery which is wonderful and the views out the other side of the mountain are worth walking over for.
The Amphitheatre is very impressive. I can't begin to imagine how many people actually fit in there and while I don't want to imagine what would have went on, sitting on the stone steps does in a way conjure the sounds and smells of everything this ancient site must have seen.
The Princes Palace
The Princes Palace is one of the largest monuments in Petra. Towering over 5 stories high, this particular monument embraces multiple architectural elements, mainly it is thought as decoration. At almost 50 metre wide and just under that (46m) tall, the building has very ornate columns on the façade of every level combined with mouldings and doorway frames around each of the four entrances.
What's most interesting I think is that the top levels of the façade were built freestanding so now, almost 12,000 years later, while they have decayed, they are for the most part still visible. How is that even possible??
As you return from the Monastery you will find yourself in what was once the main street of Petra. Along this stretch your tour guide will show you interesting building techniques, the earthquake preventions I mentioned earlier and tell you what each building was most likely used for. Again the scale here is amazing. Even the simple market buildings were massive.
Our guide mentioned that there is a line of thought that the size is directly related to the cooling properties of each building. That does make sense when he shows us what can only be hot air vents at the top of one structure that are designed to let the hot air out which in turns pulls the fresh air in from the entrance.
It is quite surreal walking down this promenade and while Petra was very quiet when we visited this area is where we encountered the most people. The noise of everyone talking, the kids walking past with camels and donkeys and the tour guides and groups did mean that I got a little of the feeling of what this could have been like during trading days.
The Treasury at Petra
The Treasury at Petra would be possibly one of the most photographed buildings of any ancient site world wide. The Treasury, or Al Khazna is almost 40 meters high and is one of the most impressive buildings I've ever seen. Standing at the bottom of this amazing structure you are gobsmacked by not just how big it is, but by the quality of the build.
It's original function isn't clear, however the discovery of a graveyard beneath the Treasury has added speculation by the experts that it was built for King Aretas III as a tomb. The Treasury is crowned by a funerary urn which was said to hold a wealth of hidden treasure. I'm assuming that this was a similar situation to the Egyptian burials where the King was buried with a lot of his wealth. If you have found out I would love to know if that was the case.
Day Tours That Visit Petra
Wrapping Up: Visiting Petra
The long and the short of it is that Petra is one of the most amazing things you will ever see especially when you take into account its age. I loved it and it is one of the few things I would never hesitate to do again
Check out the Jordan Travel Guide for all the info, posts & places to visit in Jordan.