The wonders of Petra

We made the long, arduous journey to Jordan with the express purpose of visiting Petra, one of the world’s most famous archaeological sites. Recognized as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1985, it was also named one of the Seven New Wonders of the World in 2007.  But for many people (myself included), Petra was made famous by the movie, Indiana Jones and the last Crusade, released in 1989.

Petra dates back to around the 6th century BCE when it was the impressive capital of the Nabataean kingdom.  Then the Romans absorbed it into their empire around 106 AD, and they continued to expand the city.  A catastrophic earthquake in 663 AD destroyed most of the buildings and the ingenious water management system.  By the time Saladin conquered the Middle East in 1189, Petra was long abandoned and forgotten for many centuries.

It wasn’t until the early 19th century when Western explorers and historians discovered this ancient city, and another century would pass before real excavations would begin, in 1929.  Today Petra is Jordan’s major tourist attraction, generating about 80% of the country’s tourism income.

Our first day in the modern town of Petra began with a typical middle eastern breakfast at our hostel (Cleopetra Hotel) – boiled eggs, humus, tomatoes, cucumbers, flat bread, cheese, butter, jam, tea and instant coffee.  Our hostel also offered a bagged lunch for a mere 3 JOD (about $4.50 CAD) which we took advantage of both days we were there.  The hostel was very clean, and the beds super comfortable, making our stay in Petra very enjoyable.  They offer a free shuttle service to the entrance of Petra, and they also can arrange any tours or transportation you need while in Petra.  We would definitely recommend this hostel to other budget travellers.

At breakfast, we met a Canadian couple (Jim and Sophia) who we immediately hit it off with.  They had just arrived from Jerusalem where they would return after spending two days exploring Petra.  Turns out, we had reservations at the same hostel in Jerusalem, on the same day….how’s that for a coincidence.

By the time we arrived mid-morning, the sun was already high in the sky and very hot, although the ambient temperature was a comfortable low-20’s Celsius.  The site was crowded with throngs of tourists including many large tour groups.  Motorized vehicles are not permitted and the site is huge, about seven square miles.  If you get tired, you can travel by camel, donkey, horseback , or horse and buggy.  I loved watching the camels with their long, gangly legs plodding along silently on their oversized, thickly padded feet.  They looked so graceful yet goofy at the same time.

Video:  Camels in Petra

Entrance fees are steep, 50 JOD for a one-day ticket, or 55 JOD for a two-day pass.  We opted for the two-day pass because of all the recommendations we had read on-line to give yourself more than a day to fully explore the site.

On the first day, we hit all the major sites, and on the second day we hiked to the High Place of Sacrifice.  Here are the highlights.

The Siq: Our journey began with a two kilometre long trek,, winding through a sandstone canyon that featured colorful and unusual patterns in the rock walls. You can still see the remains of the terracotta pipes built into the sides of the canyon that were used in Roman times as part of an extensive water system that made it possible to live in this arid land.

The Treasury:  At the end of the Siq, through the cracks of the narrow rocks, you catch your first glimpse of this is stunning edifice carved into the sheer mountainous rock face. Leaving the gorge, you enter a natural square where you now see the colossal, overwhelming façade of the Treasury in all its majestic glory.  Too bad there were so many tourists crowding the area when we first arrived.  Later in the day, it was far less crowded and much more enjoyable to view in the shadows of the late afternoon sun.

The Colonnaded Street:  For several more kilometres, you follow what was once a grand boulevard ornamented with a double row of columns, along which you can see the remains of ancient buildings, tombs, a 7,000 seat amphitheatre, temples and much more.

At the end of our first day, as we made our way back through the boulevard, the sound of a choir reached our ears.  We thought perhaps there was a recording being played in the royal tombs in the distance, and I jokingly said perhaps it was a passing choir who decided to test the acoustics of the tomb.  Well, the ethereal voices drew us to climb to the royal tombs, even though we were dead tired and were ready to call it a day.  Much to our surprise, there was indeed a choir singing the most beautiful music imaginable, their voices being carried far and wide.  It turns out, they were in Jordan for a choir festival and decided to take advantage of the ethereal setting to practice for their performance scheduled the following day.  What a special treat!

The Monastery: At the end of the boulevard, you begin the 850-step trek to the Monastery, tucked away, high in the mountains.  After climbing for about an hour, we entered a large courtyard area where the imposing Monastery stood, a beautifully carved building literally cut out of the side of the mountain.  It is huge, even the doorway is several stories high.  Interestingly, the name of this site does not accurately reflect its purpose; it was probably a temple.  It may have been named the Monastery because of its remote location.  This was my favourite site in the entire ancient city because of its isolation on the mountain top, the wonderful 360 views we enjoyed and the peacefulness that I felt looking down at this magnificent testament to an ancient peoples while perched on a hill top on the opposite side of the courtyard.

High Place of Sacrifice:  On our second day, we hiked to the High Place of Sacrifice, another moderately challenging hike up 700+ steps to the top of another mountain.  There on the mountain top, we were rewarded with the remains of an ancient place of worship along with spectacular views of the lost city below.  The hike down the back side of the mountain offered new sites that were completely hidden from the main boulevard where we had walked the day before. Very few people chose this longer route down the mountain, and we enjoyed peaceful, solitude for much of the way.

After our first day in Petra, we were exhausted from over eight hours of hiking in the hot, desert sun and minimal sleep the night before.  Earlier, we had made plans to have dinner with Jim and Sophia and I think we all thought it was going to be an early night.  Little did we know that we would quite literally run into the Canadian ladies we met on the Ferry the day before who were staying at the hotel where we decided to have dinner.  We ended up having a party of ten at dinner, enjoying one of the best meals we’ve had in a while.  Not surprising to me, we all ran into each other on our second day at Petra (the ladies’ first day), because it just happens that way sometimes.

On Sunday, we left Petra for Jerusalem at 8:00 am, about a half hour after Jim and Sophia.  They were planning to take the southern route via Eliat, while we had opted for the northern route via Amman.  Since we were all travelling to the same hostel in Jerusalem, we jokingly challenged each other to a “mini amazing race” to see who got there first.  Much to our surprise and relief, our journey to Jerusalem went smoothly.

It took three hours to reach Amman by bus (5 JOD each), including a 15-minute bathroom stop along the way.  From the bus station, we hired a taxi (21 JOD) to take us to the King Hussein/Allenby Bridge where we passed through the Jordanian customs without queues or issues of any kind.  A special bus (5.30 JOD) transported us to the Israeli side, where we went through five distinct checkpoints (each with their own queue) before clearing customs.  It was crowded and chaotic on the Israeli side, but it only took us an hour and a half to get through which we thought was pretty good.  Now that we were on the Israeli side, it was a simple matter of exchanging some of our Jordanian money for Israeli Shekels so that we could purchase our bus tickets (38 shekels each) to Jerusalem which was only an hour away.  We were dropped off near the Damsacus Gate, which was about a half hour walk from our hostel.  Unfortunately, we made a few wrong turns and it took us close to an hour, arriving around 4:00 pm.  As we finished checking in, Jim and Sophia arrived, having had an equally easy and incident free travel day.

Category: Jordan, Middle East
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One Response
  1. Angus says:

    Love the picture of Indiana Chris framed by the rock. Where’s his whip?