Instantly recognized for its rose-red stone and intricate design, Petra has carved out its place in our imaginations. There are few globetrotters who don’t yearn to visit, and from the moment you emerge from the Siq and first set eyes on the magnificent Treasury, you’ll understand why.
Even with stiff competition from Wadi Rum, the Dead Sea, and the ancient city of Jerash, Petra is Jordan’s number one draw. This magnificent monument to Nabatean engineering rivals Machu Picchu, Egypt’s pyramids, or Angkor’s temples for sheer ‘wow’ factor. But beyond the Instagram-ready facades, what’s it actually like to visit Petra?
Petra is a much larger site than many visitors expect, with a 4 km/2.5 mi main trail taking visitors to most of its landmarks. The trail begins at the entrance to the Siq. This narrow gorge-like walkway in the rock beckons visitors to step into history behind its pink sandstone façade. It would seem almost natural if it weren’t for the mostly flat walkway, interspersed with plaques explaining points of interest along the 160 m/525 ft path. Give yourself about thirty minutes for the walk.
No matter how many pictures you’ve seen of the Treasury, be ready to catch your breath when the Siq at last opens up to that view. Painstakingly restored over the years, its details leap from the stone, from Corinthian columns to decorative sculptures, to the flourishes of the supposed funerary urn at the façade’s top. Over 2,000 years old, Petra has withstood the test of time—and now, the test of human humidity against its pink sandstone—to be one of the best-preserved sites of its period. Tourists aren’t allowed inside the Treasury, which to be fair, helps the enduring archeological mystery. Despite its name, experts are far from agreeing as to the Treasury’s original purpose.
As the gorge opens up onto the Street of Facades, the reality of Petra’s past as a flourishing city sets in. Doorways cut into rock loom over the sandy valley. Here, you can hike off the main trail to avoid the crowds and reach some of Petra’s more obscure treasures such as the High Place of Sacrifice. These trails however can take some time, so skip the longer ones if you’re only in Petra for the day. They also aren’t particularly well marked, so hire a guide if you want to stay on track and gain an insight into all you’re seeing.
Near the base of the treks, be sure to check out the Royal Tombs. You can even go inside, though they’re largely empty. Don’t miss the view of them from the Byzantine church across the way. The Amphitheater is another highlight of this part of the city, carved to seat 8,500 people. At the very centre of Petra stretches its famous Colonnaded Street. The heart of the ancient city, this Nabatean version of 5th Avenue served well into the sixth century, receiving a few facelifts and revivals as time wore on. There are layers of history to uncover here, so again, a knowledgeable guide can make all the difference to your visit.
Petra’s highlights beyond the Siq can take several days to see properly. One that everyone wants to see however is the Monastery, Ad Deir. Though nicknamed for numerous crosses and other apparent religious symbols carved into its walls, the original purpose of Ad Deir is unknown. While it’s spectacular in the late afternoon sun, don’t leave a visit too late in your day. There are over 100 monuments in this area alone to explore, so plan accordingly. Petra closes at 4pm during winter, and 6pm during summer, when you’ll want to dress for temperatures skimming 35C/95F.
This article was originally published in Vol. 29 of Globetrotting Magazine.
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