15 August 2012 by Alex Stewart
One of the greatest wonders made by man, Petra is Jordan's most valuable treasure. Images of the 'rose-red city half as old as time' are everywhere, yet nothing, not even that Indiana Jones film, can prepare you for the first sighting. Lost for centuries, the city is celebrating the 200th anniversary of its rediscovery during 2012, meaning that there's never been a better time to visit this archaeological icon. Read our round up below to find out how.
The unique city was half carved, half built into a sheer rock face by the Nabateans, an Arab people who settled here more than 2,000 years ago. It went on to became a bustling caravan stop on the Silk, Spice and other trade routes that connected China, India and southern Arabia with Egypt, Syria, Greece and Italy.
The site remained in the hands of the Nabateans until 100AD, when it was over-run by the Romans. Gradually, Petra fell into decline, although the Crusaders briefly constructed a fort here in the 12th century. By the 14th century though it had fallen off the map and was lost to the western world.
For 500 years it escaped detection and was left in local hands, until Swiss explorer-scholar Johann Ludwig Burckhardt rediscovered it in 1812. Burckhardt tricked his way into the site disguised as an Arab, wanting to make a sacrifice at the tomb of the prophet Aaron. Recognising the significance of what he saw, Burckhardt brought the place back to people's attention.
Since then, Petra's position as an iconic archaeological site has seen visitor numbers grow and grow. Today it's recognised as a unique artistic achievement and a testament to the engineering skills of a lost civilization.
The approach to the city is through the Siq, a narrow gorge over 1km in length that's flanked by vertiginous 80m high cliffs. There are no vehicles here so you must walk or hitch a ride on a horse-drawn carriage. The colours and rock formations are dazzling, even before you catch a first glimpse of Al-Kazneh, the Treasury, as the early morning sun causes the stone to blaze. Synonymous with Jordan's antiquity, it's one of the most breathtaking sights in the Middle East.
The Treasury has a massive façade, 30m wide and 43m high, carved out of sheer, dusky pink rock. The scale of the place is dizzying. Originally sculpted in the 1st century, it was the tomb of an important king. In the same valley there are also hundreds of elaborate rock-cut tombs decorated with intricate carvings. Carved to last through the afterlife, more than 500 have survived earthquakes and the passage of time. Although empty, they're still entrancing.
There's also a vast Roman-style amphitheatre, which could seat more than 3,000 people. Obelisks, temples, sacrificial altars and colonnaded streets can also be found throughout the valley; clamber onto a donkey or a camel and get in touch with your inner explorer as you uncover highlight after highlight. Above it all stands the Ad-Deir monastery, which was originally neither a church nor a monastery but another grand tomb. It's accessible via a flight of 800 rock-cut steps but the effort to ascend them is rewarded with panoramic views over the city and surrounding desert.
How to visit
Petra can be reached after a three-hour drive from the capital Amman along the Desert Highway or five hours on the more scenic King's Highway. Alternatively, stay in Wadi Musa, just outside the site, where there's a range of accommodation for all budgets; the pick of the places is the Movenpick Resort Petra, a luxury oasis close to the gates of the site that boasts a roof garden with great views, ideal for drinks at the end of the day. There are also some decent restaurants serving traditional cuisine such as the distinctive national dish, mansaf, lamb cooked in a yoghurt sauce and served with rice.
Full-day tours of Petra are readily available; ideally, to explore the place comprehensively and visit the two good quality museums on site you really need 2-3 days though. The best time to visit is during the early-mid morning or late afternoon, when the angled sun highlights and enhances the natural colours of the rocks. It's also possible to visit at night, when the approach to the historic city is along a candlelit path.
After your exploration of Petra, visit Dana, a mountain village perched high in an interesting nature reserve, take in the unspoiled vastness of Wadi Rum, around an hours drive south of Petra, or head north to the Dead Sea for some deserved relaxation.