“Whew, guys. I’m shattered, absolutely knackered,” I told my friends, pausing for a reaction. Nothing. Not even a grin. As a lover of language, I had been taking note of their British and Australian idioms. My teacher companions were loaded with amusing phrases. So I’d attempt to slip them into my speech. It was all good-natured, of course. They didn’t seem to mind–thankfully.
“I dunno know how we squeezed it all in today,” I continued, reverting to my native Missourian, “driving two hours from Amman, then bobbin around and muddin-up under the hot sun… I’m still itchin from all that salt.”
“We also climbed a ton of stairs in Karak Castle,” Bree threw in. Everyone agreed they were tired after the first day, but we didn’t come all this way for a “hit or miss” trip of Jordan. We were all in.
So, Let’s Talk Petra
The Lost City of Petra. The City of Stone. The Rose City –whatever you call it, Petra is the highlight of Jordan. It was named one of the New Seven Wonders of the World in 2008 and has since been making the bucket lists of travelers all over the world. If you’re smashing Petra into a day trip, like we did, arrive early. Petra opens at 6 a.m., and it’s totally worth beating the crowd to capture shots with the morning light. Late afternoon light is good too, but some areas are better lit at certain parts of the day.
Entry fees vary quite a bit. I paid the 1-day entry fee of 50 JD. That converts to only $70 to visit this World Heritage Site. Other entry options included a 2-day entry to Petra (55 JD) and 3-day entry to Petra (60 JD). These are incredible prices!
Going the Distance: Keeping Up Morale
I’m not exaggerating when I say I logged something like 15-20 miles on my Apple watch. I still remember the feeling of my throbbing feet–and that was while wearing comfortable Adidas running shoes. I felt regretfully unprepared to hike such strenuous terrain. The distances are long, the climbs are physically demanding, but at least the December sun was more forgiving.
The big take away is this: do not hit the gym before you visit Petra. That could be a fatal mistake.
Archaeologists believe Petra was settled sometime around 9,000 BC. However, I noticed there’s a common thread of unknowns about the nomadic desert people called the Nabateans, who inhabited this stone empire. Many believe the wealthy Nabateans, whose riches came from the incense trade, deemed Petra as their capital city some 2,000 years ago. A lot of this history is backed by what scholars “believe” and “think” about this civilization.
This is my favorite part of the story:
Sadly, the city atrophied after a 336 A.D. earthquake. All knowledge of Petra was lost to the Western world until Swiss explorer, Jean Burckhardt, uncovered this site in 1812 and spilled all its secrets. Scholars believe he tricked the Bedouins, aka native desert Arabs, into showing him Petra. All he had to was disguise himself as a Muslim. (Sounds like a dirty trick to me.)
What I find truly find fascinating is that as recent as 2016, archaeologists are still uncovering large structures buried in the sand.
The Siq (Canyon)
“Siq” in Arabic is pronounced like the English word “sick.” This refers to the narrow, twisted passageway that doubles as a main entrance and irrigation channel. The canyon walls, standing as high as 650 feet, are just the beginning of a long Petra journey. As you can tell by my picture, the Nabateans engineered an irrigation channel by carving into the rock. Building a kingdom in the arid desert forced them to be experts of water conservation: making dams, canals, and reservoirs. This particular irrigation that you see in my picture dropped ever so slightly–I think only 12 feet over the course of a mile– before finally reaching the Treasury (which is Petra’s defining moment). Scholars were confident that this irrigation could support all 30,000 Nabateans living in Petra. That’s sick, right?
Al Kazneh (The Treasury)
Quiet. Serene. Inspirational. Emotional. I rounded the last turn of the Siq with lots of anticipation. I wasn’t disappointed. It took my breath. I peered up at this two-story stone masterpiece just sitting there waiting for me. In all its raw beauty, so masterfully chiseled, there’s no doubt it’s the most famous in Petra. It just draws you in. Not to mention, the Treasury has lots of competition: over 800 tombs occupy Petra, yet the Treasury is everyone’s favorite. Fun fact: it’s not really a treasury at all; it’s a king’s tomb.
Guide or No Guide?
From the Treasury forward, you have 37 square miles to explore. Intimidated? Good, you should be. Petra requires quite a bit of planning. That said, there’s no “right” way of doing it. Our friend, Jack, was our “tour guide.” He’s a more seasoned, fearless traveler than I, so I gladly let him take the lead.
At the same time, I remember trying to pass an annoying mass of tourists crowding around the Treasury. As I was walking around them, I overheard their guide talking:
“Petra, hidden by shifting sand and time, tells the story of a lost city.”-unknown tour guide
I was so mesmerized by that first line that I tried tailing their group. I strolled as closely and nonchalantly as I could to catch the rest of his spiel. It was in that moment when I realized Petra has licensed guides for a reason. Their unparalleled knowledge can add a deeper dimension to any Petra experience. I’m sure that unknown tour guide showed those tourists all the best secret tombs and hidden details that we could have never found on our own. (I’m not sour; you’re sour.)
Petra Has So Much More to Offer than just the Treasury
It’s true. I don’t know many people who hike over a mile through the Siq just to see the Treasury, but I’m sure it happens. And as non-judgingly as I can say it–that’s a flippin shame. It’s worth the painful ache in your feet, back, and neck to see ancient history beyond the Treasury.
After the Treasury, the path broadens into a necropolis where you can find the remains of the marketplace, temples, theater, and even a church. For starters, all along Main Street are ruins sized for giants.
Street of Facades
This was the first part of the empire where I felt as though it was actually built 2000 years ago. The Street of Facades wasn’t as pristine as its counterparts. It looked old, dingy, and worn (compared to the Treasury). It’s basically a cliff face with a cluster of house caves and attics with rectangular entrances.
The Royal Tombs
Here lies the Nabataean royalty. The Urn Tomb is the most popular. It shares some of the same grandeur as the Treasury. In my second photo, I captured a view of the tomb ceiling. The stone had a different color and pattern, almost as though it had been burned or charred. Sadly, I don’t know any details behind why it looked that way. You may also be wondering why I’m wearing a hijab. It wasn’t to enhance the sense of culture; it was simply because it was cold and windy that morning!
Al Deir (The Monastery)
Treasury? Step aside. You have been dethroned by the Monastery–and that’s probably because it took 20-30 minutes to climb over 1000 steps, building your anticipation. It’s an entirely uphill journey; and luckily, it’s just as impressive as the Treasury, if not more. Did I mention it’s the largest tomb facade in Petra? Yeah. Worth it.
It’s this particular climb that I would warn elderly and out-of-shape friends to think long and hard before trekking (though there are donkeys you can ride up the narrow path on the side of a mountain).
High Place of Sacrifice
It’s not over yet, friends. We descended the great heights of the Monastery and found the very long, steep path to the High Place of Sacrifice. By now, we were spent, but we had one last thing to see. Oh, and by this time, it was about 3 in the afternoon. We hadn’t come close to seeing all 37 square miles of monuments, tombs, and what have you. We just chose our top 10, mostly because the site closed at 6 p.m. and we had to give ourselves an hour to walk back through Petra.
Back to the High Place, I can see why some people might consider this a disappointment. You have a too-long hike up even steeper cliffs just to reach the summit. Once I got there, I looked down at two huge rocks carved away from the mountain. Hmmm. Apparently, these were the alters where animal blood was drained. Scholars claim there’s no evidence for human sacrifice, but two of the Nabataean’s pagan gods (Dushara and Al-Uzza) supposedly required a boy’s throat once a year.
If nothing else, the views over Petra were amazing from this summit.
Jordanians Living in Petra
I’ll never forget the encounter we had with two local Bedouin women selling ceramic jewelry from a stall opposite Petra’s High Sacrifice. This was our last major hike of the day, meaning we were probably on mile 17 or 18, cripplingly sore, hungry, and thirsty. My friend and I were slowly making our way down this huge cliff together when she abruptly turned and grabbed my shoulder.
“I’m dizzy,” she said weakly, “I need to sit down.” Her cheeks were turning pale.
I frantically helped lower her down to the sitting position directly in front of the Bedouin women’s stall. They sensed something was wrong and approached us in their dusty, modest abayas.
“No,” I shook my head.
I shuffled through my green backpack for water, snacks, gum–anything. I had used up all my resources by that point (dumb on my part). All I could do was help scoot her back against the bluff to get her out of the sun. I was afraid she’d lose consciousness. Overheated, overexerted, and faint from hunger–I didn’t know how long she’d hold on. My two other friends were still a ways behind us. Before I had time to think, one of the Bedouin ladies reappeared with Arabic bread and cream cheese in hand. The other lady didn’t hesitate to pour some hot Arabic tea from her old thermos canteen.
Their quick response to my friend’s condition was the highlight of my trip to Petra. Sure, the history was marvelous, but the Bedouins of the desert are the unassuming champions of this land. Their unwavering hospitality comes from the heart. I know this for sure.