Petra | Al-Batrāʾ [ٱلْبَتْرَاء] is without doubt the crown jewel of Jordan. It was the capital of the Nabataean Kingdom, and a strategic point in the middle of the trading routes. Nabataeans were one of the nomadic Bedouin tribes in the Arabian Desert that eventually settled and established the capital of their kingdom around the 2nd century BCE. Soon, Petra became a major trading hub and flourished as the Nabataeans were extremely skilful in harvesting rainwater and agriculture in the barren deserts. The Nabataeans also became very good at carving the sandstone of the canyon where they built their city. They lived in caves in the rock and created intricate façades in the sandstone of the mountains surrounding the site.
Eventually, water dried out and Petra fell, becoming a lost city, a tale told by crusaders when they returned home. In 1812, Swiss traveller Johann Ludwig Burckhardt “discovered” Petra for the Europeans, and excavations and archaeological expeditions took place throughout the 20th century. At this time, a Bedouin tribe, the Bidouls lived in the area, and in 1985 they were resettled in a nearby village built by the Jordan government before the site was designated a Unesco World Heritage Site.
As part of the concessions made for the Bidouls, they were given sole rights to the exploitation of the archaeological site, and their traditional customs were declared Unesco Intangible Cultural Heritage. Unfortunately, these traditions have devolved today into blatant child labour, peddling, and animal abuse. Barefoot children run after tourists to sell trinkets, women handle myriad of stands illegally selling rocks and fake archaeological artefacts along with imitation jewellery, cosmetics, decoration and so on, and men offer the services of thirsty and sad-looking donkeys, dromedaries and horses to move round the area. And while I can understand choosing to ride an animal in the long distances and heat, I saw a poor dromedary covered in red graffiti made by tourists that made me want to scream at people.
In 1989, Petra was featured as the lost city of Alexandretta in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, something that is considered the start of the Western tourism in the area. The film features the entry canyon, the Siq, and the Treasury as the Temple of the Holy Grail, possibly inspired by the crusade references from the Middle Ages. Aside from being a Unesco World Heritage Site, Petra is one of the New Seven Wonders of the World, and a geoarcheological protected area.
We were picked up at 8:00 and driven to the visitor centre. We had been warned beforehand to say no to anyone trying to rent / sell us anything as long as we were with the guide, who insisted on “taking care” of us for a couple of hours until he gave us free time until 18:00.
As you leave the visitor centre behind, there is about a kilometre and a half of barren desert. To the right of the trails stand the Djinn Blocks [أنصاب الجن], so named because the wind makes a sound around them (a djinn is an invisible spirit, sometimes called a genie, from the pre-Arabian mythology that was later incorporated into Islamic theology). On the other side of the path stands the Obelisk Tomb [مدفن المسلات].
The following area is the canyon Al-Siq [السيق], another kilometre and a half’s worth of walking between two fantastic rock walls. The Siq is an opened fault that was subsequently eroded by wind and running water. It was used as the caravan entry to Petra, and the lower area shows rests of Roman roadway, and the water canalisation built by the Nabataean. There are also some sculptures, both religious (baetyli) and non religious, such as a merchant with their dromedary. Some of the side fractures have brick dams to protect the main route.
At the end of the Siq stands The Treasury | Al-Khazneh [الخزنة], the most famous building in town, built in the 1st century BCE, probably as the Mausoleum of Nabataean King Aretas IV. Older tribes of Bedouins thought there was a Pharaoh’s treasure in the upper urn, so they tried to shoot it down throughout the 19th century. I had wanted to go up to the view point, but the locals made sure that you could not do it on your own so you were forced to tip them and support their submerged economy – thus, I decided against it in the end.
The canyon opens to the right and you move onto The Street of Façades, flanked by Nabataean tombs. As the canyon opens, to the left stands the Nabataean amphitheatre [المدرج النبطي ] and to the right, the Tomb of ‘Unayshu carved into the rock.
Once in the open, turning back you can see the Royal Tombs, from left to right Palace Tomb, Corinthian Tomb, Silk Tomb and Urn Tomb. To the right there are the remains of a Byzantine church that we did not climb to.
The Colonnaded Street holds the Temenos Gate, the Great Temple [المعبد الكبير] on the left and the Temple of the Winged Lions [معبد الأسود المجنحة]. It ends on the Qasr al-Bint [قصر البنت], the only building in the traditional sense that it is still standing after thousands of years of erosion and earthquakes.
Here we made a stop at the restaurant / bar to have a drink and gather a little strength before we took on the 850 upwards steps on the Ad-Deir Trail. The hike was a bit difficult due to the uneven steps and the donkeys constantly going up and down, carrying tourists. The views of the canyon were spectacular, and at the end of the hike stands the largest stone-carved building in Petra, The Monastery | Ad Deir [الدير]. It is 47 m high and 48 m wide, built in classical Nabataean style – an interesting detail is that the columns are purely decorative, and not at all functional. I enjoyed the hike, but apparently my family did not.
After the Monastery, we made our way down, leisurely, and stopped at the places the guide had told us about. We decided not to hike up any more sites and just strolled back to the visitor centre. From there, we stepped into The Petra Museum [متحف البتراء], where we could see some of the found artefacts and decorations up close and protected from erosion.
We finished around 17:30, so we just set to wait for the bus at whatever shadow we could. Having read a lot of bad reviews about Petra by Night, I decided that 9.5 hours / 15 km (24326 steps) in the site had been enough and I did not need to walk the Siq again illuminated by candles. Yay me getting over my FOMO. We had some dinner in the hotel – and what I really regretted was not packing my bathing suit, because I would have loved a soak in the swimming pool.