Petra occupies a prominent place on the wish list of any traveler. It is one of the most fascinating and impressive places in the world. I wanted to go for quite some time, but I had not had the opportunity until I won a scholarship for rural tourism course in Israel.
In 2007, Petra was one of the winners of a contest to select the 7 New Wonders of the World. More than 600 million people voted in this election. Tourism soared in Petra and in 2010 they received 1 million tourists.
Unfortunately, the situation in Syria caused instability in the region, and scared tourists. The number of visitors dropped to 400,000 in 2015. In 2017, they got 200,000 tourists more, including me.
Jordan is a country that I thought was safe, even though it has a military presence on its roads. The people are super friendly, and their favorite saying is “you are welcome”.
Plan your trip
Crossing the border from Israel to Jordan is not easy if you want to do it on your own. The best option is to buy the Jordan Pass, which includes the entrance to Petra. Another option is to take a tour. We chose to cross in Aqaba to enjoy the Red Sea and then rented a car to drive to Petra.
Most people who visit Petra go for the day, although it is not relatively close to anything except Wadi Rum. Israel sells tours to visit Jordan that usually spend the night in a Bedouin camp in the desert.
I think it’s worth sleeping one or two nights a hotel in Wadi Musa, especially if you want to see Petra at night. That’s what we did and the next day we saw it during the day. The first day we had a delicious traditional dish with lamb and yogurt for lunch in “My Mom Recipe”.
We stay in Seven Wonders Bedouin Camp which arranged a guide for us to go through the back entrance to Petra (near Little Petra).
That day, we were the only ones who entered through that entrance that takes you directly to the Monastery.
When you arrive there are still no tourists and then you have to walk one way to the popular entrance. This is the opposite of what everyone does.
When we left Petra, we decided to be lavish and go to Mövenpick Resort Petra which is the most luxurious hotel in Wadi Musa, the town next to Petra. It’s really a spectacular hotel, and the price goes accordingly. We ordered a tasting option and they brought more dishes than we could eat.
To go to Petra you must bring shoes, hat, water (sold on site too), sunglasses, sunscreen and light clothing. Also, it is not advisable to go in the summer because of the extreme heat. The best season is spring (March-April), if not go in autumn (September-November).
Petra by Night
I had seen on the Internet the option of seeing Petra at night. They fill the path that leads from the Siq to the Treasury, famous for the Indiana Jones movie, with 1,500 candles (in paper bags). It seemed a bit romantic to be able to walk through that ancient, lit city. 4 people are in charge of putting and removing all the candles.
Petra de Noche is done three times a week, on Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. You must be at the visitor center at 8:30 p.m. to start this tour that lasts two hours. Tickets have to be purchased the same day, and can not be purchased in advance. But do not worry, the amount is unlimited. Usually it does not get crowded, but in spring it’s peak season and more than 1,000 people arrive.
Going at night is totally different than in the day. The climate is cooler and you can see a lot of stars as you go through the long corridor of more than one kilometer known as the Siq. You do not realize how high (80 meters) are the walls of the canyon until you see them in the light of day. When you come back during the day, look at the channels on their sides which were used to harvest and transport water.
When you finally reach the Treasury, you should sit on the floor while listening to typical Bedouin music. The Treasury has a massive front, 30 meters wide and 43 meters high. People pass by offering a complimentary mint tea. Then a Bedouin comes out playing a flute and tells you about the history of the Nabateans in Petra. The truth is that I did not understand most of what he said.
Petra is mentioned in the Bible
There is evidence of human life in Petra from the Paleolithic and Neolithic periods. Before the Nabateans arrived, Petra was inhabited by the Edomites since 1,200 BC. The Hebrews knew the city as Sela or Seir and it is mentioned several times in the Bible. The rivalry between the two was long and cruel.
Probably the most significant passage in the Bible is during the time of exodus, when Moses hits the stone and water comes out. This happened in Petra. Moises asked King Rekem to let them pass and he rejected his request, but allowed to sell them water and food.
Then the Hebrews had to take a longer route. They could not fight the Edomites because that was not the land that God had given them. Before dying, Moses placed a curse on the city of Petra and its inhabitants, “then no one will live there; no person will live in it” and that is how it currently is.
Moses’ brother Aaron dies near Petra and in the 13th century, Sultan Mameluk, Al Nasir Mohammad, builds a shrine on top of Mount Aaron in the Sharah range.
Greatness during the Nabatean period
The Nabateans (with a little help from the Romans centuries later) were the ones who really created Petra as you see it today. It was the capital of the empire between 400 BC (for certain 312 BC) until 106 AD when it was conquered by the Romans.
Petra became a prosperous city of passage, being the center for the commerce of spices that involved remote places like India, Greece, Egypt and China. The population of the city grew between 10,000 and 30,000 people. When you visit, you can see the caves in which they lived on top of each other, kind of precursors to modern skyscrapers.
To maintain its large population, its inhabitants created extensive hydrological systems, which included dams, cisterns, water channels carved in rock and ceramic pipes. The area was prone to flash floods and through this system, they could have water for droughts.
The city began to decline when the Romans took control. It was attacked by multiple earthquakes (363 and 551) and the increase in maritime trade took away the commercial importance of the city. Petra reached its lowest point at the end of the Byzantine Empire, around the year 700. From that period on, the only activity that occurred was an outpost built by the Crusaders in the 12th century.
Petra opens to the western world
The city was ‘lost’ to the rest of the world for hundreds of years. Until it was ‘rediscovered’ by Johann Ludwig Burckhardt, a Swiss traveler and geographer who converted to Islam. Previously, Dr. Seetzen had tried to find Petra and was killed.
Johann decided to change his name to “Sheikh Ibrahim Ibn Abdallah” and moved to Aleppo, Syria to learn Arabic and study Islam. He made a couple of test trips pretending he was a poor Arab, sleeping on the floor and eating with the camel drivers.
He was assaulted several times by the same people who he paid to protect him, who eventually abandoned him in the desert. This happened after Amman en route to Aqaba. Luckily he found a Bedouin camp and got a new guide who told him about the ancient ruins. He told the guide that he wanted to sacrifice a goat for Aaron and they took him through the Siq to enter Petra in 1812.
In 1929, a group of four people began archaeological excavations in Petra. Multiple scrolls in Greek that date from the Byzantine period were discovered in a church excavated near the Temple of the Winged Lion in Petra.
Archaeologists have only discovered 15%, 85% still remains below the earth.
In 2016, they used satellite images to discover a new monumental area covered by sand.
The name Petra is believed to be Greek, even though other people think it comes from the Arabic word “batara” (like Baatara Gorge) which means “cut,” since the stone was cut. Rekem was another ancient name for the city. Rekem was the Arab king who initiated the city (and the one who did not let Moses pass). His name is inscribed on a stone in Wadi Musa, opposite the entrance to the Siq, but the Jordanian government built a bridge there and the inscription was lost.
Petra was built in a valley with sandstone cliffs ranging from red and purple tones to yellow and orange. In the 19th century, the English biblical scholar, John William Burgon, described it as a “red-pink city, half as old as time.”
Petra is an archaeological park covering 264,000 square meters which is part of Wadi Musa. UNESCO listed the place as a World Heritage Site in 1985. In order to get this designation, the Jordanian government had to get the Bedouins out of Petra and build new houses for them. Even though they were taken out, they seem to still live there, because they sell everything to tourists and you can see them sleeping in caves and where it is cool.
What to see in Petra?
At the top of the Treasury there is a huge urn filled with bullet holes fired by the Bedouins who thought there was treasure inside. In reality it was solid stone. No treasures were kept in this place, since it was the tomb of an important Nabatean king.
As the tombs were carved in the actual stones, more than 500 were able to survive all the earthquakes. Unfortunately, the thieves managed to take away the treasures they found in this ancient city.
You can see a large Roman amphitheater with capacity to seat 3,000 people, which is still in very good condition. Its location is at the foot of a mountain overlooking the tombs.
If you do not take the route that I did, you must climb 800 steps to reach the site where the Monastery is. The Nabateans dedicated this temple to the god Obodas. During the Byzantine period, the monastery was used as a church. Arriving is a bit tiring if you do not do it early in the morning.
You can rent a donkey to take you on that journey. In addition there are camels and carriages with horses. You must always negotiate with the Bedouins, since it is like a game for them.