Visiting Petra on a tourist trip? Paul Read discovers there is a lot of treasures and temples to see even without taking a long hike.
Most tourists to Petra start in the adjoining town of Wadi Musa, and so their route into Petra is down the long and narrow winding Siq; a meandering gash that deepens to over 600 hundred feet below the surrounding rock.
The Siq is frequented by dashing horse riders offering to let their horse take the strain. Tourists have to take a more sedate pace (at a walk with the guide leading on foot), unless they travel with horse and trap vendors.
Many visitors decline the initial offer of help as the walk is straightforward, downhill and about a mile or so long. However, if you are not used or able to walk a long distance you should grab a lift on either exit or entry or both. While there is opportunity to take a ride on a horse (or camel) in Petra itself, many routes in Petra are quite hairy. Visitors will spot many a wild eyed overweight tourist clinging onto their animal’s neck for dear life as they totter up a steep climb of steps.
The trip down the winding Siq almost feels overhyped because it is described so often, but there is plenty to admire. I spotted the original irrigation channels snaking along the route (at the bottom and half way up the cliff face), and the old stone flooring emerging from under the sand beneath my feet.
Perhaps it says something for humanity’s lazy nature, but the first monument viewed after the trek down the Siq is the most famous; the Treasury. Note it is in shadow for much of the day; fairly early morning is the best time for photos (about 2 hours after sun up).
For many people the Treasury is Petra, and as it was used in the filming of Indiana Jones, you will hear people humming the theme tune. In fact, the Treasury is only one of perhaps half a dozen equally impressive tombs (and just one of 800 different tombs in Petra).
The Treasury and all the other buildings you see were not built, but hewn and carved out of a solid rock cliff face. I like to think the buildings are constructed in reverse.
Many day trippers manage to take the wander down into the Main Street valley which is just about a half mile walk from the Treasury. There are some good Roman and Byzantine remains (with some earlier Greek origins in view); a later town for the living, built in the centre of the earlier Nebatian tribute to the dead.
The Roman remains are interesting (particularly the Colonnaded Street, and the grand open air Amphitheatre), but if you are visiting the Roman remains at Jeresh (read more on Jeresh) to the north of Jordan, your time is better spent exploring the Petra Tombs.
To one side of the main valley, a route allows the visitor to explore along a whole range of large Tombs hacked out of the rock, some requiring step ladders to enter as they were carved above the height of others in the cliff face. Unlike many western attractions, you are free to wander amongst the tombs, enter the caves and touch the rocks.
Take a Picnic
One good tip is to take a packed lunch with you into Petra as there is only one overpriced and overcrowded “package tour” restaurant in the centre of Petra itself. A meal here is an excellent way to kill the atmosphere of Petra.
We enjoyed taking a short hike to find a quiet spot in the shade of a temple to share our meal with one of the many Petra stray cats. There are a number of local Bedouin tents in the “main drag” offering a shady space for a seat and a soft drink or tea. Some even sell cans of alcohol free lager to those who find it difficult to believe beer isn’t widely on sale. Other stalls on the site sell jewellery, ornate images made from different coloured sand stored in bottles, and fake artefacts.
A Little Petra History
Petra was built around 2,500 years by the Nabatians, a trading Arab tribe. The Nabatians discovered a value to locally found bitumen and copper. Soon, they had more wealth than they knew what to do with. They did what many men do; attempt to buy their way to everlasting life by carving ornate temple caves out of the rock in the Petra valley to please their God and in tribute to their ancestors.
On the peaks above Petra, the Nabatians created a mountain top temple, complete with drainage channels possibly for sacrificial blood to drip down the mountainside to demonstrate very physically just how godly they were.
It appears this show of devotion or wealth didn’t help the Nebatians, as they were slowly battered into history by stronger civilisations, including Alexander the Great and the Romans.
The local town of Wadi Musa is a modern but rather dusty town, built in a “U” shape around the canyon that later becomes the Siq.
Towards the entrance to Petra is a parade of tourist shops, restaurants and a number of hotels. Further up the hill there are more “local” shops and restaurants and fewer hotels. The balance in accommodation is as usual convenience versus value, as many of the better priced hotels are at the far end of town.
While Taxis wait to whisk travellers to more distant hotels, we preferred to walk to and from Petra. Our hotel, the Sun Set on the main street, was basic but clean, but it didn’t break the bank at 45 JD (£40) for a room, and the hotel owner was certainly very friendly and helpful. A nicer room can be found just at the Petra gates at the Crown Plaza, where rooms and bungalows can be obtained from around 120 JD a night. Non guests will enjoy the cave bar, a stylish modern and pricy bar set in an original tomb with a nice outside eating and dining area.
The Sun Set provides an excellent take away lunch, as long as it is ordered the evening before, comprising of a couple of stuffed flat bread sandwiches, a fruit drink, fruit and a couple of snacks. We didn’t eat it all; it was generous in the extreme.
It’s best to get to Petra as early as humanly possible. If you buy a two/three day pass you can pass ticket inspection as early as sunrise, meaning the Siq is pretty much yours. The reasonably energetic can be trekking towards the further treasures of Petra by the time day trippers are tripping over each other in the hunt to capture that elusive deserted photograph at the Treasury.
Many (particularly US visitors) fit in Petra in a flying day-trip visit from Israel. For these folk, the Jordanian government have set a harsh entrance fee of 90 JD (£80). Those staying overnight in Petra pay 50 JD for one day entrance, and it becomes better value for hard core Petra fans at 55 JD for a 2 day pass and 60 JD for a 3 day ticket. The Jordanians reward people who spend money in their country.
All ticket prices includes a single led horse trip down (or up) some of the way from the main entrance gates to Petra to the entrance of the Siq. There is also promise of a free leaflet, but it is literally just a folded sheet of paper, and totally insufficient as a guide for a serious 3 day explorer. If you intend to walk to some of the further Petra attractions take a good guide book with you.