I knew virtually nothing about Petra before coming here. My sole reason for wanting to see the place was that scene from Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade when Indy rides through the Valley of the Crescent Moon and finds this:
Unlike many dreams that get built up in my mind only to come crashing down in the cruel presence of reality, this place exceeded my expectations. The journey into the old city is striking and no less breathtaking in person than it was on the big screen.
The canyon (siq) is awe inspiring to walk through. We made the trip twice. Sheer walls of stone tower above, the path narrows and widens, the ground is sometimes new pavement and sometimes the original stone that the founders of Petra, the Nabataeans, traveled on 2,000 years ago.
What’s even more impressive is the rest of Petra. There were once 20,000 people who lived here. The Nabataeans were traders who mostly dealt in frankincense and myrrh. They also traded bitumen, which the Egyptians needed for their mummification process. The trade routes, with Petra as their main hub, made the Nabataeans quite powerful and quite rich.
It’s amazing how much their presence is felt in the sandstone, yet how little is known about them. An earthquake in 363 AD critically damaged the water catchment system and forced the evacuation of the city. It lay empty for centuries, known only to the Bedouins who still used the old caravan routes, until 1812, when a Swiss traveler disguised himself as a Muslim cleric and was led into the old city by a guide. It’s been flooded with tourists ever since.
The tombs and the remains of the water systems are all that’s left of the Nabataeans. As traders, they lived in tents so they could move around more easily. Like most of humanity, they wanted to be remembered even after death. So they carved elaborate tombs for themselves.
And they were very, very skilled at carving the sandstone.
Archaeologists have found evidence of beads and small carved stones from 15,000 BCE in Petra. You can see those artifacts in the Jordan Museum in Amman. What they tell us is that the folks who lived here had tens of thousands of years of practice carving stones. And their source material – huge mountains of sandstone – rendered some of the spaces truly beautiful.
Since so little is known about them, the names for the big monuments are clunky, and often derived from rumors and stories. The tomb that features so prominently in the Indiana Jones movie (and the picture at the beginning of this post) is called “The Treasury,” for example, even though archaeologists are pretty sure it’s a tomb for King Aretas IV.
It’s called The Treasury because of a rumor that an Egyptian pharaoh hid a stash of gold in the center top “urn” while he was chasing the Jews. The story was so tempting that someone shot at it to try to break it open. Alas, the whole structure is solid sandstone. You can see the bullet markings if you look closely at the picture. While you’re there, see the line of notches on the left side there? Those are evidence of where the sculptors set up scaffolding to reach the higher parts of the stone. They’d start at the top and work their way down.
Other key highlights include what is currently known as “The High Place of Sacrifice.” It may not be what the Nabataeans called it, but it’s descriptive.
Probably the most dramatic of all the structures is “The Monastery,” so named because there is a cross carved into an interior wall of the tomb. This led some to believe it was used as a church during the Roman occupation. It is the largest monument in all of Petra, measuring 50 meters (160 ft) wide by approximately 45 meters (148 ft) high. We stared at it for a good hour. There is a Bedouin cafe in the vicinity, which provided us with a refreshing mint lemonade and comfy seats after a very long climb.
There are hundreds of tombs in Petra, plus a few free standing old temples that are now in ruins but that are still amazing to see. It is quite a lot to take in, and it’s worth spending a couple of days in order to give yourself adequate time. If you’re able, it’s a much more rewarding experience to walk into the city through the Siq. There are horses and camels available, but they take a different route and are quite expensive despite the touts telling you it’s free. (Avoid the horse-drawn carriages at all costs; they looked like painful rides on the uneven ground).
If your legs or knees aren’t quite up to the task of the strenuous hikes there are donkey and camel touts that can take you to the higher elevations. I’m not sure it’s worth it, though. The donkeys, and the people riding them, did not look happy.
We were very, very tired after two days of hiking and walking through the massive site. We probably should have paced ourselves a little better, but in all we are so happy we saw this place.