There’s a bandwagon around – it's 200 years since Petra was rediscovered – so I thought it was time to jump on.
If you’ve been fortunate enough to spend a few days working in Amman in Jordan, and it’s a few days until your next meeting, there probably isn’t anything better than to hail a taxi, and head south to Petra.
Getting to Petra
There are two roads from Amman to Petra. There’s the new Desert Highway which goes straight to Ma’an, before turning off to Petra and Wadi Musa which takes about three hours, and there’s the old Kings Highway which twists and winds its way past a series of little towns and crumbling castles which takes much longer. My taxi driver wouldn’t hear of my using the Desert Highway for my first visit to Petra. He was insistent that to see the real Jordan you needed to do what travellers to Jordan have been doing for hundreds of years, and follow the route of the ancient Kings. True to his word we stopped at crumbling crusader castles at Karak and Shobak, we ate fresh hot bread from roadside bakeries, we went through the Wadi Mujib, we looked for (and found) black irises on the roadside, we visited the Dana Nature Reserve – and to top things off I wound up being dropped at the Crowne Plaza Resort Hotel in Wadi Musa. I’d picked this hotel from the internet – and the feature in the description that got my attention was ‘200 metres from the entrance to the Ancient City of Petra’. The hotel didn’t disappoint and I spent the evening sitting on a hotel balcony looking out onto the hills that surround Petra – the hills that give absolutely no clue as to what they are hiding. Johann Ludwig Burckhardt probably sat somewhere nearby, albeit it in less comfort, in 1812 and wondered what he was going to see when he was taken into the city.
First Sight of the Treasury
The real benefit of having a hotel close to the entrance is getting in early. I was going to be able to spend two full days (plus a short visit early on a third day) around Petra, so I was first in line when the ticket office opened to get my three-day pass, and to start on the short walk down towards the gateway into the Siq. The Siq, the narrow passageway into the city, and the Treasury at the far end of the Siq, feature in all the guide books to Petra and you might think that this would take away any novelty or excitement. It doesn’t. The Siq draws you gradually down into the city. As you follow each twist and turn, you hope for a first glimpse of the Treasury. If it’s early in the morning you might disturb a few birds and the only sound is likely to be that of your own footsteps on the rock. Eventually the Treasury appears between two curves of rock, looking exactly like it does in the guidebooks. But bigger. And redder.
What the guide books really don’t prepare you for is the sheer scale of Petra. The buildings, which were famous even before Indiana Jones visited, are spread out over a huge area, and over quite substantial mountains.
There are several different areas within Petra, some dating back to the Nabataeans, others to the later Roman occupation of the site. The temples and tombs from the earlier period are in some places amazingly well preserved – the Treasury at the end of the Siq, and the Monastery high above the main (Roman) city centre being the most dramatic. The sequence of elaborate tombs carved into the cliffs also raise graveyards to a whole new level of grandeur.
The High Tops
Once you’ve seen the Treasury and the city centre, it’s time to start climbing. The Monastery is the most visited of the remote sites, and in addition to the dramatic façade, the climb and the cliff tops beyond give fantastic views across southern Jordan. On the other high points are dramatic sacrifice sites, some looking down onto the dramatic fascades. My favourite was Al Madbah, or the Place of High Sacrifice. Some of the routes are easy to follow up staircases and well-marked paths, other are much less obvious and make the map you’ve been carrying worthwhile.
Until 1985, when Petra was added to the UNESCO World Heritage Site List, there were still people living in the caves around the old city. Part of the deal for being added to the list was that the residents would be provided with a new village outside the old city boundary, which had things like electricity and water. The other part of the deal is that the former residents were given permission to come into the old city and continue to act as guides or to run stalls and shops. They do all these things, and also give the interested visitor the chance to talk about living in the caves. Some of the residents were happy, and able, to talk in English and to tell me that the new houses weren’t as good as the caves. The houses were too hot in summer, and too cold in winter while the caves stay at the same comfortable temperature all year round. Other residents weren’t able to talk much English, but were still very able to communicate. My strongest memory was encountering a young goat herd on one of the hill tops. He gestured me over to the little camp fire he had nearby, and insisted that I have tea with him – we weren’t able to talk but I really enjoyed just spending a quiet few minutes sitting with him before I headed back to the crowds around the main sites.
Petra by Night
There are lots of tourist things to do around Petra, but if you only opt to do one thing to complement the walking and wandering, you should visit Petra by night. The site closes at dusk, but on a few evenings the site reopens again after dark. You are guided down to the entrance to the Siq by torchlight then left to find your own way down the Siq which is lit from end-to-end by candles, and around the Treasury, which is also lit by hundreds of candles, local musicians play. I’m not sure that this really gives a realistic picture of which life might have been like in Petra, but it does give your imagination plenty to work with.
Petra is really easy to reach from either Amman in the north of the country, or from Aqaba in the south. Organised trips to Petra run from the big hotels in both cities, but only give you a very short time in Petra.
There are lots of hotels in/around Wadi Musa, and although all the hotels offer lifts to the entrance gates, however I think there is a real plus to being within walking distance. This makes it easy to get in early each day, and to be ahead of the crowds. Petra does get busy, so go early – when it’s both cooler and quieter.
Two days is barely enough to see the big sights, and get a feel for the place, so if you can manage three days do. By the time you add in the climbs to the various temples sites around the hills you are likely to be pretty tired and foot-sore. When I go again I’m going to take decent walking boots, and if the final walk back up the Siq to the hotel is just too much, there are always going to be local taxis to take the strain.