X Never Ever Marks the Spot—A Visit to Petra

by Nancy Bestor

Here are the woefully few things I knew about Petra before our visit to Jordan. I knew that Petra was an archaeological site. I knew about the Treasury (Al Khazneh), but only because it houses the Holy Grail in the movie Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. One of the final scenes of the movie shows Indy escaping the Treasury as it is collapsing. I also knew Petra would be something like Ephesus in Turkey. And that, sadly, was about the extent of my knowledge.

Thus when we rode our bikes into Wadi Musa, the nearest town to Petra (just a few minutes walk away), I can safely say I didn’t have any preconceived notions of what we would be seeing. But here’s the thing. Had I known more about Petra, I still would not have been prepared for its grandeur and beauty. Nothing can prepare a person for Petra.

Our first glimpse of this 2000-year-old Nabataean wonder was at night. Twice a week (at least in the month of November), Petra opens from 8:30-10:00pm for an evening visit. For 17 Jordanian dinars (about $24 USD), visitors can walk the Siq—a dark, narrow gorge formed by earthquakes that have split the sand- stone—via thousands of candles, to the Treasury, which is lit up by even more candles and lights. Here visitors can sit, drink tea, and gaze at the ruin, which is carved into the sandstone cliff, while listening to live flute and rababa music. While I believe this tour is overpriced, I also believe if you’re visiting Petra when a night tour is taking place, you can’t miss it. Bob, our dear friend Dave and I were a little late in entering the tour, and that proved beneficial to us, as when we walked the candlelit Siq we were virtually the only ones in it. The rest of our group entered earlier, and had to share their walk with at least 100 other babbling tourists.

We returned to Petra the next morning with a local guide who grew up in Wadi Musa, and who remembers riding into Petra on a donkey before it became a recognized historical site. Adin taught us so much about this site, and I was reminded again that local guides are truly worth travelers’ time and money. The stories and information Adin provided gave us great insight into this international treasure.

Even though we had seen the Treasury the night before, lit up by beautiful candles and colored lights, my heartbeat still quickened when we turned the last corner in the Siq and could see the Treasury peeking through. The elaborate ruin is even more stunning in the daytime, although by the time we reached it, about 11:00am, the area in front of it was awash in tourists, camels, donkeys, locals trying to sell their wares and services, and more.

I learned that day that Petra is so much more than the Treasury and the Siq though. It carries on for miles, with stunning tombs and ruins throughout the canyon. After a delicious buffet lunch at the Al-Anbat Tent Restaurant, we began the hike up to the Monastery, which is at the back end of Petra, a full five miles from the entrance. Yes, Petra is at least five miles long. And there are more fabulous sites all along the way. The hike to the Monastery ruin includes over 900 steps carved into the rocks. As we climbed farther and higher, we saw fewer and fewer people. There are a handful of tents and tables with items for sale along the way, including one station that advertises that they accept Visa and Mastercard. Sellers ask hikers to stop and take a look, but there’s no pushiness involved. It’s almost like they’re asking by rote.

The Monastery is well worth the climb, as it is another extraordinary ruin carved into a cliff. Similar in design to the Treasury, the Monastery is much larger yet not as ornately decorated. And the people visiting it were few and far between. There are two great viewpoints near the Monastery as well, just a little higher up the mountain.

We went back to Petra for a third time early the next morning. And a sunrise visit is definitely the best time to see Petra. We arrived just after 7am and were delighted to have the place almost to ourselves. In addition to getting a closer look at the Treasury, with no one around, Bob and I got up close to the Royal Tombs, a collection of four hugely impressive tombs that are thought to have been burial chambers for kings and queens. You can walk right into these fabulous ruins. Mind blown.

Purely by accident, we also ended up hiking behind the Royal Tombs up another steep climb of rock carved staircases, to an overlook of the Treasury. This was a poorly marked trail that we only discovered would lead to a fabulous view of the Treasury from above thanks to the only other people we saw on the hike, a young French couple who were in the know. An entrepreneurial Jordanian has put up a tent right at the best view of the Treasury, and although you can walk into his tent for free, to take pictures of the Treasury, he does sell tea and water, and we felt obligated to buy water from him.

We spent almost two full days in Petra, and only scratched its surface. It truly is impossible to capture its magnificence in words, but I can say unequivocally that Petra is the nest ancient wonder I have ever seen.

Notes:

  • Although our Petra tickets were included in the price of our Jordan bike tour, a two-day Petra ticket is currently listed at 55 Jordanian dinar (about $77 USD).
  • We stayed at the Edom Hotel (www.edomhotelpetra.com), a very short walk to Petra, and while not fancy, it certainly met our needs. This hotel stay was part of our package, but a double room currently lists for about $50 USD.
  • We ate a delicious dinner of Mansaf, a traditional Jordanian dish of lamb and rice, with a goat yogurt sauce poured over it that you eat with your hands, at Deretna Petra Restaurant. The owner was delightful, and I highly recommend Mansaf.