Petra in Jordan: The ‘Lost’ city of and Secrets of the Tombs
The ‘Lost’ city of Petra in Jordan was a prominent centre of trade thousands of years ago and was located at the cross-roads of ancient Near East. Believed to be established by the Nabataeans, the city flourished as trade flourished between Arabia, Egypt and Syria. At the height of its prosperity, the city probably housed as many as 20,000 inhabitants.
Petra is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site and it gets the title due to the unique structure of the city - it’s almost completely carved out of sandstone mountains, including the tombs, temples and houses of Nabataeans. After the Nabataeans it was inhabited first by the Romans and then by the Byzantines. Each civilisation left a distinct mark on the city, keeping it’s original flavour intact.
|The Treasury at Petra|
A brief history of Petra
But why exactly was Petra set up in this difficult to access location? Who were the Nabataeans? Why was the city abandoned and how did it disappear? And finally, what is Petra like now?
To understand these, we will have to go back in time and do a quick overview about Petra’s history. Archaeological findings have placed the foundations of the city to about first or second century BC and the Nabataeans are credited to be it’s founders. The city was naturally protected by the canyon and it’s very narrow opening (only about 7m) called as the Siq. While Siq provided the natural defence, it was also prone to flash floods and so the Nabataeans also built and extensive water management system.
|The entrance to Petra|
|The trek to The Monastery|
However, when Romans attacked the city relentlessly, it did fall and became a part of the vast Roman empire. The Roams chose to not damage the stunning marvels, but added some of their own. Most free standing structures at Petra date back to the Roman era. The Nabataean Gods were absorbed and renamed to their Roman counterparts.
Later when the Byzantines came to the city after Rome fell, they were upset by the human figures adorning these gigantic structures (most of these were tombs) and defaced them all. The city still flourished as it was an important part of the trade routes. However, with time, the trade routes changed and it became more and more difficult to sustain living in this far off city. Over a few hundred years, the original inhabitants left, leaving the city in ruins. Some local bedouins continued to live here in the original cave homes of the Nabataeans.
|Another view of the Treasury|
The city was practically lost to the Western world till 1812 when a Swiss explorer, Johann Ludwig, rediscovered Petra. Since then, it has been extensively excavated and is now one of the most visited archeological sites of the world.
Petra is now the pride of Jordan and an absolute must-visit even if you just pass by the beautiful country. It has been developed into a very well preserved archeological site, very easily accessible from the modern town of Petra.
Do watch this video on Petra to get an even better idea of how the place looks like :)
Do watch this video on Petra to get an even better idea of how the place looks like :)
Here are some of the most iconic sites and things to do at Petra. Each of them is unmissable :)
Siq - the entrance to Petra
The archeological site is accessed through a narrow crevice in the canyon, and locally known as Siq. The walk through the Siq is an experience in itself, and it’s also a perfect gateway to the city itself. It’s a long walk but you won’t mind even a bit of it. Much of the Siq is not carved and one can marvel at the natural beauty of the walk, especially as the rocks change colours all through the day. The Siq leads to the most iconic site in whole of Jordan - Al Khazneh or The Treasury.
|A carriage through the Siq|
|The Treasury - at the end of Siq|
Al Khazneh - The Treasury
Originally built as a Tomb, the Treasury derives it’s current name from the legend that the the pirates hid their loot in the urn on the second floor. No treasure was ever found though the urn is riddled with multiple bullet marks.
|The Treasury in it's full glory!|
Now Al Khazneh is the most popular destination at Petra and the most photographed as well. Whether early in the morning or late in the evening, the tomb never fails to fascinates its visitors. To me it is the most beautiful in the evening before the sun sets. As Deepti and me were on our way back to join the rest of the gang, we came face to face again with the Treasury and it was completely empty. It certainly looks good with life all around, but when seen without anyone around, the place has a very different feel. I felt much closer to it when we were alone together.
The Treasury has also been a favourite with Hollywood, including the extremely popular and famous Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.
Ad Deir - The Monastery
Built in the first century in classical Nabataean architectural style, the Monastery is almost as stunning as The Treasury, but much less visited as it’s a long trek away in the desolate Sandstone mountains. It was most probably built as a temple, though most likely it was used later as a church by the Byzantines.
|The facade of The Monastery|
|Beginning of the trek to the Monastery|
|Looking up at the Monastery|
We also met Moon, a bedouin, there and he literally took our breath away! Every day he climbs the Monastery, jumps over it’s columns and then finally rests on the urn. This feat is even more stunning as the height of the monastery is about 45m!
The East Cliff of Wadi Musa has some of Petra’s most beautifully preserved facades collectively known as Royal Tombs. Easy steps from the ground level take you to the Tombs and each one of the tomb is unique and has a story to tell. Based on how they currently look, they have been given modern names, as no one really knows their original names.
|The King's Domes|
|My friend Mohammad at the Tombs|
Starting from right to left, this is how the tombs are named:
The Urn Tomb - has a large urn on top
The Silk Tomb - the texture of the rock which looks and feels like Silk
The Corinthian Tomb - due to the use of Corinthian columns
The Palace Tomb - one of the largest facade of Petra
The Sextious Florentinus Tomb - named after the Roman governor buried here
The Carmine Tomb
Petra also has a Roman theater which is actually carved into the mountain, like all the buildings of Petra. We barely spent any time there, and I really wanted to climb up the mountain and take some pictures, but unfortunately it didn't happen.
|The Roman Theater|
Petra by the night
One of the things that must not be missed (but I did miss it) is Petra by the night. On some days of the week the Treasury is illuminated with thousands of lamps after sunset and the place looks like a magic land.
In case you want to read more about it, check out this story here by friend Prasad, who visited Petra a while back and was lucky enough to witness Petra by the night :)
Lunch in Petra
Just when you start the hike for The Monastery, there are a couple of restaurant and it’s absolutely worthwhile to have your lunch there. There are a few more cafes before these, but I would recommend having your buffet lunch here and also cool down.
|Lunch at Petra|
Replenish with loads of water, and then start walking again :)
The Bedouins of Petra
The Bedouins of Petra claim to be descendants of the Nabataens who established the city of Petra more than two millennia back. Even after the city fell, they continued living in the area in the same caves which were the original homes for the Nabataens.
These men and women are different from the other Bedouins of Jordan - they have beautiful long hair, kohl in their eyes and a distinct sense of humour. As they interact a lot with the tourists, they have good command over English and love to talk :)
|A dashing Bedouins|
|Traditional homes of the Bedouins|
Petra kitchen - let's cook something :)
Oh, and if you still have some extra time, make sure you learn to make some great Jordanian food at this great place called Petra Kitchen.
Deepti and I spent every possible minute inside the site and so missed out on joining our co-travellers when they cooked our dinner. There was some great vegetarian food as well and I loved it all :)
Read more: Vegetarian Food in Jordan
|Enjoying my meal with my new friends :)|
The site is open from 6am to 6pm during the summer and from 6am to 4 pm in winter. The Park police try to move tourists out of the site before dark because the terrain is difficult to manage in the dark.
Jordanians and Residents : 1JD per person, per day
Non-Jordanian accommodated visitors (Visitors who have spent an overnight in Jordan)
One day entry: 50 JoD
Two days entry: 55 JoD
Three days entry: 60 JoD
Non-Jordaniain non-accomodated visitors (Visitors who have not spent an overnight in Jordan): 90 Jod
All children under 15 yrs. irrespective of nationality: Exempt from all charges
1 JoD is apprimately Rs 100, so the maximum entry fee could be Rs 10,000 if you don’t stay overnight in Jordan (which is a little unlikely if you travel from India)
How to reach Petra?
You can easily travel from Amman to Petra and come back to the city by the night, but I recommend at least one night stay, even if you are not doing ‘Petra by the night’. To reach Petra, you can hire a cab or take a local bus. You can also rent a car from Amman and drive to Petra. The railway network is not much there, so roads remain the only viable option.
Tips for Petra
- Go early in the morning to catch the morning light at Petra - it changes at different times of the year, but reaching around 9-10am would be good to see the Treasury covered in Golden sunlight.
- Carry lots of water!
- Eat at the restaurant inside, just before the trek for The Monastery.
- Carry a cap or a headgear to save your head - it can get very very hot there.
- Don’t take a mule unless you really have to, the place is best explored on foot.
- Interact with locals (the beduins) and hear their stories. They will add a lot of value to your trip.
- Don’t miss the Little Petra which is often skipped by the tourists.
- Do not throw any garbage around - there are enough dustbins, and if you can't find it, ask someone!
Here's another excellent guide with tons of tips about your visit to Petra: Everything you need to know before visiting Petra
Is Jordan Safe?
I guess one question that worries anyone who is planning a visit to anywhere in Middle east is Safety. Well, I spent more than a week there and spoke to multiple people and also did quite a bit of research on it, and here is my answer - YES, Jordan is very safe.
If you are still not convinced, check out this detailed article 'Is Jordan Safe for travel?'