No matter what you’ve seen of it in the movies, nothing can prepare you for the grandeur of Petra.
Bernard O’Shea is awestruck by an ancient city that’s like no other.
When I told my friends that I was going on a travel writing assignment to Jordan, their eyes lit up in awe: “Are you going to Petra?” they said, in reverent tones. Of course I am. You can’t go to Jordan and not visit Petra! Still, the veneration that people have for Petra made me question my own blase thoughts about the place. At the time I was more excited about swimming in the Dead Sea (which I will cover in a later post).
I had known about Petra mainly from the movies. It’s been featured in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and The Mummy Returns, among many other films. But you never know nowadays in film what is real and what is fake, what’s a prop or what’s a computer generated image. I had the feeling that Petra had been jazzed up in the movies, to make it more exotic than it really was.
Well, let me tell you, nothing can beat the real thing. The ancient city of Petra, once the capital of the Nabataeans and later a stronghold of the Roman Empire, is astounding. Its most famous icon is the building known as The Treasury, but it is so much more than that. It’s a surprisingly large complex that takes at least half a day to explore, and if you can see it in the early morning light, or at twilight, or even at night when allowed (an amazing experience), you should do so.
The starting point or drop-off point for tourists wanting to see this UNESCO World Heritage site is the Visitors’ Centre – great for souvenir shopping on the way out because there are a lot of craftsmen’s stalls. From here you have to proceed on foot. One of the first notable sights you will come across is the Obelisks Tomb …
From there you proceed down a stretch known as the Siq …
The Siq is an astoundingly beautiful two-kilometre sandstone gorge. In terms of physical comfort, this is the most pleasant part of the outing, for it is cool and shady. (A hat, sunglasses and water are a must, but you can buy food and drink along the way).
The narrowness of the Siq meant that it in ancient times of armed combat, it could be easily defended, for in parts it is wide enough to fit only a couple of people at a time.
As a bit of a tourist gimmick, at the start of the trip you might find your path blocked by a couple of burly soldiers in ancient combat gear, but this is more for photo opportunities and to set the mood rather than anything sinister.
In the most narrow parts of the Siq, the sense of being closed in, of almost being swallowed up by the towering canyon walls, adds to the aura of the place. Water channels on either side carried water from springs down clay pipes to Petra, which was a bustling city in its heyday along an important trade route.
At the end of the Siq, Petra’s most impressive monument looms before you, The Treasury (Al-Khazna in Arabic). Some 39.5 metres tall, it was carved into a single block of rock by the Nabataeans in the period 60 BC to 50 AD. The Treasury was actually used as a mausoleum by the Nabataeans and as a place for royal tombs, but it gets its nickname from more modern times – the Bedouins believed that pharoah had hidden treasure in the urn at the top, which is littered with bullet holes because hopeful treasure hunters would fire at it with rifles in a bid to dislodge its riches.
Information signs near the building tell us the following: “The facade of the Treasury reveals a Hellenistic influence, with six Corinthian capitals topped by a frieze of winged griffins and vases among scrolls. In the centre of the facade is the goddess Isis, and she is surrounded by dancing Amazons (female warriors) with axes over their heads.”
Unfortunately, unless you are a very important person, you won’t be allowed inside. (I was very disappointed – I was expecting to be able to go in and see all sorts of exotic things in the way that Indiana Jones did.) But really, it does not matter. For this is an edifice that you can marvel at for a long time, from all sorts of angles. It’s hard to drag yourself away from it, even though there’s much more to explore. Opposite The Treasury is a kiosk with souvenirs and refreshments, and tables and chairs – probably the most unusual dining setting that you will ever find yourself in.
But don’t dilly-dally too long, there is a lot more to see in the surrounding gorges and hills! There is a fascinating stretch known as The Street of Facades, and a bit further beyond are the Royal Tombs and the Amphitheatre …
Petra is often nicknamed the Rose City, because of the pinkish and reddish hues of the rock that much of it is carved into. Sometimes the colouring in the rock is really beautiful …
Next up is a distinctly Roman stretch … the Colonnaded Street and the ruins of the Great Temple.
Nearby, you will be pleased to know, for you’re probably hungry and thirsty by now, is a restaurant and a smallish Museum (worth a look but don’t lose any sleep over it if you miss out). Further on from the Museum is the strikingly beautiful Ad Deir or Monastery, also in the Hellenistic style. After that you may have to retrace your footsteps back to the Visitor’s Centre, but if you are weary you might like to catch the camel taxi …
Some tour operators will drop their clients off at the Visitor’s Centre, then the driver will go round to the Museum to pick them up from there. However, the walk back gives you a different perspective, and there are other trails that lead to sights with intriguing names such as The Snake Monument and The High Place of Sacrifice,
Although Petra can be easily reached and explored in a day from the plush resorts at the Dead Sea, or even from the Jordanian capital, Amman, my advice would be to spend a couple of nights in the nearby town of Wadi Musa – there are many comfortable hotels here, and not only will this give you more time to explore (and get you there in the early morning light which is often good for photography), you should be able to visit the other Nabataean complex nearby, Little Petra (Siq al-Barid, about 10 kilometres to the north). Here, if you are lucky, you might be able to dine under the stars and catch a show by a troupe of Bedouin performers.
Big Petra, Little Petra … what a combination, what an amazing experience. TWW
Bernard O’Shea was a guest of the Jordan Tourism Board. Photos © Bernard O’Shea.