Perhaps there is nothing as awe-inspiring in Jordan as the moment you near the end of your 1.2 kilometer walk through the dim and narrow, red-hued sandstone walkway known as the siq that leads inside Petra. It is here you’ll first lay your eyes on the Petra treasury, known in Arabic as Al Khazneh. It is one of the most elaborately decorated buildings carved from the top down, like all of the buildings here in one of Jordan’s most ancient of cities. A city ancient Nabateans carved into the rose-red sandstone mountains and cliffs.
Not much is known about the Nabateans. They were most likely part of the north Arabian tribe of Bedouins that roamed the Arabian Desert. They became wealthy thanks to the lucrative incense trade. As a result, they settled in these cliffs and peaks. It was here that they carved part of their new kingdom out of the red sandstone and called it “Raqmu”. The name was perhaps after one of their kings named Rekem. Nevertheless, its name was later changed by Pliny the Elder who referred to it as the city of “Petra” (“stone” in Greek). Eventually, Petra grew into a major Nabatean city connecting camel caravans between the Mediterranean in the west and the Arabian Sea in the east and south from Egypt to northern Syria and all the way to Greece.
A new age of immense expansion and extravagant construction began when the Romans arrived in 63 B.C. Indeed, you can see their influence in Petra’s 6,000 seat theater. Also, as in some of the city’s most impressive facades like the Treasury and Petra monastery (known as ad-deir). Here you will find unmistakable Hellenistic features, with ornate Corinthian columns, bas-relief Amazons, and fanciful acroteria carved into the rock face.
However, perhaps one of the most impressive architectural feats of the Nabateans that led to the rise of this desert city was their ability to create an artificial oasis. They did this by controlling the water supply that supported some 30,000 inhabitants. This area of Jordan is famous for its flash floods. However, the Nabateans controlled these floods by using dams, cisterns and water conduits. This allowed them to store water during drier parts of the year. In fact, as you walk along the siq, you’ll even notice that an irrigation channel is carved into its twisted passageway and drops only 12 feet over its 1.2 kilometer course.
Petra continued to flourish under Christianity in the third and fourth centuries. However, after an earthquake in A.D. 336 the city started to wane under the early Islamic dynasties of the seventh century. The once flourishing city was abandoned, but not forever.
In 1812, Petra was rediscovered by Swiss explorer Johann Burckhardt. It continues to spill the secrets of its past as archaeologists have only explored about half of the expansive site. Additionally, in 2016, a colossal structure was found still buried in the sand thanks to the use of satellite imagery. Because of its rich history and unmatched beauty, it’s no wonder that Petra remains one of the top tourist attractions in Jordan.
Maybe you’re asking yourself “Where is Petra located at on a map?”. It’s about a three-hour drive south from Amman and about a two-hour drive north from the Red Sea port of Aqaba. Buses, organized tours and private taxis run the route nearly every day. Also, if you’re a hiker, the Jordan Trail passes through Petra and connects you to Wadi Rum, as well.
One of the most common mistakes people make about visiting Petra is that it only takes a day to see all of it. However, you have to remember that, at over a hundred square miles, Petra is expansive. It is nearly four times the size of Manhattan. Although camels, donkeys and horse and buggies might help you pick up the pace, the most amazing sites of Petra are best reached by foot. This also means you should prepare yourself for a lot of hiking especially over steep terrain.
As a result, plan on spending the night in town and divide your sightseeing into a series of smaller hikes. Additionally, you may want to get a licensed Petra guide to show you around secret tombs. He can provide you with interesting facts about Petra you would never find on your own. Also, while you’re spending the night, check out the tour called Petra by Night. The Jordan Pass holders might miss out on, as the show is not included in the price. “Petra by Night” is a show that delivers a haunting and unforgettable visual that you surely don’t want to miss.
Petra is open year-round, but checking Petra, Jordan weather, you’ll find spring and autumn offer the most moderate weather. Summer is also a great time to visit, but be warned: it can turn insufferably hot. The coolest months are January and February with the occasional downpour, so dress appropriately. Additionally, remember the high elevation means nights in the desert hills are usually cold, so bring a jacket or coat, depending on when you visit.
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