Walking through the canyon that forms the entrance to Petra, it’s hard not to feel the intensity of place.
The narrow pathway winds its way between the two steep red rock walls on either side. A beautiful natural formation with the promise of a spectacular manmade site at the end, getting closer each turn, the anticipation building.
What makes travelling to Petra’s heart so special for me today is that nobody else is here yet, except for my G Adventures group that I am travelling through Jordan with.
We have come first thing in the morning, at 6 o’clock, and the canyon is deserted. The sun is coming up and there’s enough light, but there’s also something still fresh and crisp about the day, before the world wakes up and gets into its busy routine.
It’s how I imagine the explorers of decades ago arrived at Petra. Perhaps even how the original inhabitants would come into their city. Quiet and serene, inspirational and emotional.
It won’t take long until this canyon is chaotic, full of tourists talking noisily and bumping into each other as they stop to take photos.
As I come out of the canyon and see the Treasury for the first time, also almost empty of other people, I find myself holding my breath, my heart racing in excitement. It’s a special moment, full of emotion and wonder. I hold this first impression carefully with me for the rest of the day as I set out to visit Petra here in Jordan.
What is Petra, Jordan?
I’ve wanted to visit Petra for a long time. It’s one of those places that has always had an allure, seeming to symbolise the perfect travel experience of adventure and history. Perhaps, if I’m being honest, I was also inspired in a large part by the Indiana Jones scenes filmed here.
Now that I’ve finally arrived, though, I realise how little I actually know about the site other than the superficial iconic images that are always used to illustrate coverage about it.
So, what is Petra? I set out to find the answer.
The first thing to know is that is was once an enormous city that existed from about the 3rd century BC until around the 5th century AD. It was the capital of the Nabataean Kingdom (which I’ll explain more about in a second) and much of their wealth was spent on the infrastructure here.
It means that Petra is more – oh, so much more – than just the Treasury. It also means that you need at least an entire day to do it any justice. You could even visit for more than one day and still not run out of things to see.
The official size of the Petra Archaeological Park is about 260 square kilometres – four times the size of Manhattan. Although most visitors (myself included) will only see a tiny fraction, it gives you an idea of the scale we’re talking about.
At its peak, Petra would have had a population of tens of thousands of people. The homes that they lived in are mostly gone now – lost to time – although you can see the flattened areas where they would once have been. So what are left now are all the great monuments that a capital city like this needed.
Although there are temples and theatres, most of the important things to see in Petra these days are actually tombs. They were cut into the rocks with impressive facades. All the photos that you have probably seen before of Petra are most likely of the facades of tombs (the famous Treasury included).
The history of Petra, Jordan
Knowing a bit about the history of Petra might help you understand the site a bit more – and it’s a history that is important and interesting, but oddly unknown.
I had never heard of the Nabataean people before – but they were actually a very wealthy and powerful kingdom. They were originally nomads who then focused more on trade and found this to be very profitable.
In this area where they were based, they found themselves at the crossroads of continents, right in the middle of land trade routes that connected Africa, Asia and Europe. This made them very wealthy and they built the city of Petra with their riches, for comfort and protection but also as an administrative base as their little empire expanded.
The best guess of when Petra was founded as a city is about the 4th century BC, although people were already using this spot as a settlement for thousands of years before this. It offered protection from the harsh desert conditions and was easier to get water.
Under the Nabataeans, Petra grew quickly and to a grand scale. However, in 106 AD, the area came under Roman rule. The city continued to operate and more tombs were built but that all seemed to stop about a hundred years later for some reason.
From then on, Petra’s declined. It was partly because of earthquakes that damaged the city, partly because of changing politics in this part of the world, and also partly because trade routes were moved and the Nabataeans lost many sources of income.
At some stage, Petra was lost from view and became a mystery to the outside world. It wasn’t until the early 1800s that the city was again ‘discovered’ by the world after a Swiss explorer tricked the local people who had been keeping its location a secret.
That leads us to today, when it’s become a symbol of travel in Jordan and one of the most important archaeological sites in the world.
How to visit Petra in one day
So, with all this in mind, maybe you’re wondering about the best way to visit Petra.
As I mentioned, I have come with my G Adventures group, as part of a week-long tour of the Highlights of Jordan. Of course, I highly recommend seeing the country this way and having our guide Abdullah show us Petra is one of the benefits.
I should also point out the way that G Adventures does this kind of trip. Although Abdullah spends the morning taking us around many of the highlights at Petra, we have the afternoon to ourselves, and I’m able to go off on a couple of hikes to see other spectacular parts of the site.
However, if you would prefer to see Petra independently, I’ve got some suggestions to help you plan your day. It can all seem quite overwhelming at first but there is a fairly obvious path to follow in the main section.
The two deviations I would recommend do not have well-marked starting points but you’ll find them easily enough if you know where to look.
I’ve put together this map with my suggested walking route and the main landmarks along the way (you’ll see dozens of other things as you go along, though).
If you’re using your smartphone, just click on the icon in the top right to open the map in your Google Maps app and all of the markers will load up. Then, as you walk around, you will be able to follow the route.
The Siq (literally ‘the Shaft’) is the canyon that you’ll come through to get to the main part of Petra. It’s about 1.2 kilometres long and is a landmark in itself. The rock walls on either side are up to 180 metres tall and you’ll see statues carved into some of them as you walk through.
The Treasury is the most famous tomb in Petra and the first one you’ll see. It was built in the 1st century AD and only got its name much later on because of a belief treasures were hidden inside. You can’t go inside but there’s not much to see anyway – just an empty space.
The theatre here at Petra was obviously influenced by Roman design, with whom the Nabateans would have been trading with when it was built at the turn of the millennium. However, it is particularly special because the seating rows were carved out of the side of the cliff. It could hold about 8000 people.
The Urn Tomb is the first of the row of major royal tombs that you’ll see along the side of a mountain. I suggest going up to look at this one because you can go inside and get a great sense of how the tombs were built and what they looked like. But then I recommend coming back down to the main path and seeing the others on your way back later on.
The Great Temple
I haven’t said much about the religion of the Nabataean Kingdom. They didn’t follow any of the major religions we know today, but rather a hybrid of beliefs with multiple gods. The Great Temple shows that they took this seriously and the scale of the building is rather impressive.
Crown Plaza Restaurant
I’ve marked this restaurant on the map because it is a perfect shady spot to have a rest. There is nothing spectacular about the food and you’re much better off bringing something with you and eating it at an outside table. You can buy cold drinks here but there are dozens of other vendors on the site where you can do that too. But, the shade… oh, how you’re going to want it by this point!
The hike to the Monastery starts from near the restaurant. It is a steep walk with lots of steps and takes a minimum 45 minutes to go up. It’s not easy but I think it is definitely worth it.
The Monastery at Petra is another tomb and it has an incredible and well-preserved facade that’s about 50 metres wide. The setting is quiet and beautiful and it’s a lot less crowded here because many people are put off by the hike up.
The Byzantine Church is not particularly impressive visually but I think it’s worth stopping for a look because it shows the development of Petra towards the end of its inhabitation. The church was probably built around 450 AD and has floor mosaics from that period.
If you still have energy and time, I would recommend doing this final hike to go up to a viewpoint of the treasury. It’s another steep walk that will take a minimum of 40 minutes to go up.
At the end you’ll be rewarded with a stunning view down to the Treasury, as well as some other views of the site along the way. There are a couple of cafes where you can rest in the shade with a cool (or hot) drink.
There are some places that exceed all the expectations you could possibly have. Petra is one of them! This ancient city is incredible, with one marvel after another. I spent 10 hours exploring it with my @gadventures group in Jordan 🇯🇴 – and still wanted to see more!! More details of my trip in the link in my bio. #GWanderers
Visiting Petra has exceeded all expectations for me. As I said earlier, I have wanted to come for a long time, and I was not disappointed. Not only is it definitely a highlight of Jordan, it is one of the most incredible places I have been in all my travels.
I hope that now you know a little bit more about it, you are even more inspired to see it for yourself.