The ancient rose-red city of Petra is one of those places that needs to be seen to be believed. Huge temples and tombs are carved into the vividly-coloured valley walls, hidden staircases lead to panoramic viewpoints across the site, and ruined temples line the main promenade. A visit to Petra is truly a once in a lifetime experience.
There are two main ways to enter the Petra site. The first is through the winding canyon known as The Siq. Here you can embrace your inner Indiana Jones as you journey through the narrow passageway before arriving at one of Petra’s most iconic sites; The Treasury (Al-Khazneh). The Treasury is incredibly impressive, and once you turn the corner and head into the main valley, the site is positively awe-inspiring. The second entrance is often referred to as ‘the back way’. This usually involves starting at Little Petra and trekking along narrow mountain paths before reaching The Monastery (Ad Deir), another of Petra’s most magnificent sites. From here you can walk down the 800 or so stairs to reach the main thoroughfare and continue your adventure.
Whilst it is possible to take in the key sites of Petra in a day, there are so many hidden corners to explore that a visit to the rose-red city can easily be spread across two or even three days should you wish to take things at a leisurely pace. A number of the valley walls are lined with empty tombs, which can be reached by sporadic stairways and paths. If you are willing to head a bit more off-piste and clamber across the rocks there are also incredible ‘rainbow’ caves, which feature a kaleidoscope of colours amongst the sandstone walls and ceilings. The elevated locations of the tombs and caves also offers stunning views across the main thoroughfare and the Roman theatre. For the best views, climb up the steep stone stairway to the High Place of Sacrifice. It is believed this area was used for religious ceremonies, and the panoramas across the site are spectacular.
The history of Petra is fascinating. The city was built by the Nabateans, a historically nomadic tribe who had used their knowledge of the inhospitable desert landscapes to become key players in the trade routes across Arabia. As of around the 3rd to 1st centuries BC, Petra was a major hub in the trade route connecting Asia and Europe, and at one point it is believed the city was home to approximately 30,000 people.
The Romans took control of Petra in around 63 BC. Whilst initially this helped the city to boom, with increased wealth and further construction, in the end, trade routes were diverted to other Roman strongholds, taking away much of Petra’s power. Whilst Petra continued to be inhabited over the following centuries, and ruins of Byzantine churches have even been uncovered at the site, its glory-days as a commercial capital remained in the past. The city once again became home to nomadic tribes and Bedouin, and the western world forgot about this once bustling trade hub.
Beyond Arabia, Petra remained little more than a myth until 1812, when the Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt followed the rumours of a lost ancient city to Jordan and tricked local Bedouins into revealing the location of the Petra. However, it wasn’t until the 20th century that serious excavations began at the site, and even now, it is only with the introduction of satellite imagery that archaeologists have begun to truly appreciate the extent of the site and the ruins which still lie buried beneath the sand.