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Wikipedia | Google | Google Images | FlickrLocated on the slopes of Jebel al-Madhbah, in Ma’an, Petra is Jordan’s captivating former capital of the Nabataeans . With impressive rock-cut architecture, ruins, and water conduit system carved meticulously into the walls of the red canyon, it was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985 and has been called ‘one of the most precious, cultural properties of man’s cultural heritage.’ It has recently been chosen as one of the New Seven Wonders of the World.
HistoryBefore becoming part of the Roman Empire in 106 AD, Petra served as the ancient capital of the Nabataean Kingdom since its establishment in 312 BC. Buildings and structures were chiseled into the protective red canyon walls, their details and ornamentation an ongoing legacy of the civilizations existence. It was further expanded under Roman rule and developed it into a significant trade and commerce center in the region.
In 363 AD, a huge earthquake hit, destroying many of the surviving structures and water conduit system, leading to Petra’s gradual decline. With nearby Palmyra becoming increasingly important for local trade, this further reduced Petra’s significance.
When the region was conquered by Arabs in 663 AD, Petra’s remaining inhabitants left and the city was seemingly forgotten. In 1812, Swiss Explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt ‘re-discovered’ the city, now occupied by Bedouin s, and revealed it to the European world. This led to a wave of Western explorers, keen to document through words and images what became known as the ‘rose-red city, half as old as time’. After the Trans-Jordan was formed in the early 20th century, extensive excavations unearthed the ruins of Petra, establishing it as a major tourist attraction, as well as the setting for a number of movies.
Visiting PetraPetra is now protected as an archaeological park, entered through a long, winding sandstone canyon, known as the ‘Siq’, where carvings and patterning adorn the walls. Built into the sides of the canyon are terracotta pipes, used by the Romans to carry water. As you leave the Siq, the stunning Treasury, also known as al-Khazneh, is revealed before you, one of Petra’s most impressive buildings. It is topped by an urn, believed to contain the hidden treasure of a Pharaoh and the bullet marks in it are the result of Bedouin travelers opportunistically hoping to get lucky over the years.
After the Treasury you enter another canyon, the Street of Facades, which is lined with the faces of tombs. At its end sits the 7,000-seat Roman Theater, originally constructed by the Nabateans and later enlarged and fortified by the Romans. If you are lucky, a classical performance may be taking place within this spectacular setting during your visit.
On the hill opposite the Roman Theater lie the Royal Tombs, the name referring to the grandeur of their scale rather than any solid proof that they were designed for royalty. For those feeling energetic, take the more than 800 steps up to the entrance of the Monastery, otherwise known as ‘al-Deir’, which was built during the 1st century AD. It is famed for the elaborate carving of its exterior in the rock face, considered an impressive human feat.
For great views of Petra and to get an idea of its scale, walk to the High Place of Sacrifice on one of the mountains surrounding the site where carved sacrificial altars stand. If you want to venture further, there are a number of excellent hikes in the regions that allow you to get away from the crowds. The highest peak, Jabal Haroun, or Mountain of Aaron, is around 6 hours' walk away and offers impressive views of the surrounding landscape.
You need at least a couple of days to really experience Petra, particularly if you want to venture to some of the little-visited sites that surround the main tourist area or explore the beautiful walking trails in the surrounding mountains, some of which pass through ruins which were part of the original Nabataen Kingdom. You can visit Petra independently, but local Bedouin guides, many of whom were born and raised in the area, offer a wealth of information and your business helps to support the local community. If you don’t feel like walking around the site, or tackling some of the challenging climbs, both donkeys and camels are available for hire.
Try to arrive early, particularly during the peak tourist months, as by late-morning the site can get incredibly crowded, making it difficult to appreciate its architectural wonders.
Petra by NightOn Monday, Wednesday and Thursday evenings, a special event known as ‘Petra by Night’ is held within the ancient city’s canyons. It is an evening of Bedouin music and entertainment with the Treasury as a backdrop and candles lighting Petra’s famed rock carvings. It is a stunning opportunity to absorb the Bedouin culture and hospitality and witness the city in a different light.
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Author: Pip Strickland. Last updated: Mar 24, 2015