My first awareness of the existence of Petra was seeing it in the film Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. When I learned that it was a real place and not just a movie set, I added it to my bucket list.
Set in the desert in southern Jordan, Petra was an important stop in the camel caravan routes dominated by the Nabateans about 2200 years ago. What remains of this series of valleys that once housed 30,000 people is an impressive numbers of tombs cut into the sides of the cliffs on either side, as well as some temples. Clearly this was a prosperous society if they could spend so much time and effort on carving huge tombs out of solid rock and decorating them.
According to our Lonely Planet guidebook, there are 800 registered sites in Petra, 500 of which are tombs. They range from a simple cave cut into the rock, unadorned inside or outside, to the grandeur of the most famous tomb, called the Treasury.
Few of the tombs have anything to see inside (and the few we went into smelled like they’d been used as stables for the many donkeys and mules that work there), but some are grandly-carved on the outside. They look especially lovely in the morning light, which turns the rock reddish. Some of the tombs have eroded into dramatic swirls in shades of red and brown.
The pillars and other carvings on the exteriors of some of the tombs show the effects of the trade that moved through here: Corinthian capitals, for example, and Assyrian influences are visible.
You’d need weeks to visit every one of the tombs, and an enormous amount of energy for all of the climbing up and down you’d have to do, but you can see the most impressive spots in a couple of days, as we did.
Some tips for your visit to Petra:
- Get there early. Even now, in the middle of the summer, it’s relatively cool in the morning. From the visitor’s entrance, the walk is mostly downhill to get to the Siq, which is the deep cleft, more than a kilometer long, through which you have to walk to get to the valley with all the tombs. There are horse-drawn wagons that go through the Siq, but, at least officially, these are only for the elderly and the disabled.
Your entrance fee includes a horse ride from the visitor’s entrance to the beginning of the Siq. Take it. Save your energy for all the walking you’re going to do later.
- Take a lot of small bills with you. Everyone wants a “tip.” The horse ride, for example, is officially included in your entry fee, with the suggestion that you give a tip as well. However, the people leading the horses seem to have a different opinion on the matter. We tried to tip them one Jordanian dinar (about one euro) per horse, and they became quite aggressive and argumentative about demanding more. They settled for two JD one time, and wouldn’t take less than three JD another time.
- Speaking of riding, there are many donkeys, mules and camels on offer if you get tired. I’d recommend saving the riding for the trip back up the valley to the Treasury. After that you’ll still have to walk uphill through the Siq, but you can take your “included” horseride from there to the entrance. I have no idea what a fair price is; you’ll need to haggle over the price for the camel or donkey and the amount of the tip. I hate haggling, but it’s better than that long walk uphill after a day on your feet!
- Bring water. A 1 ½ liter bottle per person should be enough, plus whatever sodas or juices you buy along the way.
- Put on sunscreen and wear a hat.
- Wear thick-soled shoes. I went the first day in my Converse sneakers, thinking that would be easier for walking on uneven, sandy surfaces than my walking sandals. I was wrong. The soles were too thin and by the end of the day the bottoms of my feet felt bruised.
- If you can manage the stairs, go to the High Place of Sacrifice. The view is magnificent, and from there you can spot even more tombs that you didn’t even realize were there.
- The Monastery, another long, hard climb, is worth it too, according to my husband, who says it’s the best preserved building (not a tomb!) in Petra and offers amazing views. I couldn’t manage more climbing at that point. Note that he didn’t climb them both on the same day, which I wouldn’t advise unless you’re a serious and trained hiker/walker.
- “Petra by Night” is a sort of low-tech sound and light show in front of the Treasury (two pieces of Middle Eastern music, lots of candles, and a cup of sweet spiced tea). I don’t think it was worth the price of admission, especially considering that you have to walk all the way down the hill from the Visitor’s entrance to the Siq and through the Siq to the Treasury, as well as all the way back uphill: no horses available this time. There are also no toilets near the Treasury, so, when I asked, I was pointed to a dark cleft in the rocks and told to go au naturel.
Despite the difficulties of visiting Petra – all that walking – it is definitely worth it. It’s a beautiful, raw, impressive, ancient place. You’ll sleep an exhausted, satisfied sleep when you’re done.
Have you been to Petra too? What were your impressions?