Petra, the great Ancient City that lies half-hidden in the wind-blown landscape in southern Jordan, is one of the world's most treasured Unesco Heritage Sites. Voted by popular ballot in 2007 as one of the 'New Seven Wonders of the World', it has retained its magnetism even through times of strife in the wider region.
A visit to Petra when it was rediscovered for the wider world by Jean Louis Burckhardt in the 19th century meant going in disguise, speaking in local dialect and engaging the trust of surrounding tribespeople. Today visitors are welcomed both by the Bedouin who still relate to the Ancient City as home, and by the townspeople of neighbouring Wadi Musa whose facilities make a several-day visit to the Ancient City a pleasure. With nearby Nabataean attractions at so-called Little Petra, desert camping and numerous hiking opportunities, at least two days should be allowed to do Petra justice.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Petra.
The spectacular sandstone city of Petra was built in the 3rd century BC by the Nabataeans, who carved palaces, temples, tombs, storerooms and stables from the soft stone cliffs. Today it is a World Heritage Site that needs little introduction; suffice to say, no visit to Jordan is complete without at least two days spent exploring the remarkable Ancient City. It is approached through the adjacent town of Wadi Musa, which is the accommodation and transport hub.
The 1.2km Siq, or canyon, with its narrow, vertical walls, is undeniably one of the highlights of Petra. The walk through this magical corridor, as it snakes its way towards the hidden city, is one full of anticipation for the wonders ahead – a point not wasted on the Nabataeans, who made the passage into a sacred way, punctuated with sites of spiritual significance.
The most accessible of Petra’s High Places, this well-preserved site was built atop Jebel Madbah with drains to channel the blood of sacrificial animals. A flight of steps signposted just before the Theatre leads to the site: turn right at the obelisks to reach the sacrificial platform. You can ascend by donkey (about JD10 one way), but you’ll sacrifice both the sense of achievement on reaching the summit and the good humour of your poor old transport.
Hidden high in the hills, the Monastery is one of the legendary monuments of Petra. Similar in design to the Treasury but far bigger (50m wide and 45m high), it was built in the 3rd century BCE as a Nabataean tomb. It derives its name from the crosses carved on the inside walls, suggestive of its use as a church in Byzantine times. The ancient rock-cut path of more than 800 steps starts from the Basin Restaurant and follows the old processional route.
Originally built by the Nabataeans (not the Romans) more than 2000 years ago, the Theatre was chiselled out of rock, slicing through many caves and tombs in the process. It was enlarged by the Romans to hold about 8500 (around 30% of the population of Petra) soon after they arrived in 106 CE. Badly damaged by an earthquake in 363 CE, the Theatre was partially dismantled to build other structures but it remains a Petra highlight.
The most distinctive of the Royal Tombs is the Urn Tomb, recognisable by the enormous urn on top of the pediment. It was built in about AD 70 for King Malichos II (AD 40–70) or Aretas IV (8 BC–AD 40). The naturally patterned interior of the Urn Tomb measures a vast 18m by 20m.
Downhill from the Theatre, the wadi widens to create a larger thoroughfare. To the right, the great massif of Jebel Al Khubtha looms over the valley. Within its west-facing cliffs are burrowed some of the most impressive burial places in Petra, known collectively as the ‘Royal Tombs’. They look particularly stunning bathed in the golden light of sunset.
Known locally as Al Khazneh, this tomb is where most visitors fall in love with Petra. The Hellenistic facade is an astonishing piece of craftsmanship. Although carved out of iron-laden sandstone to serve as a tomb for the Nabataean King Aretas III (c 100 BCE–CE 200), the Treasury derives its name from the story that an Egyptian pharaoh hid his treasure here (in the facade urn) while pursuing the Israelites.
Downhill from the Theatre, the Colonnaded Street marks the centre of the Ancient City. The street was built around AD 106 and follows the standard Roman pattern of an east–west decumanus, but without the normal cardo maximus (north–south axis). Columns of marble-clad sandstone originally lined the 6m-wide carriageway, and covered porticoes gave access to shops.