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Travel: nature and human artistry combined in Petra

27 January 2023

Tours of Israel often include a quick visit to Petra in Jordan. Diana Bentley argues that it is worth a longer look


The magnificence of the Treasury in full view

The magnificence of the Treasury in full view

WE MOVE quietly through the narrow Siq gorge, picking our way over the rocky path beneath our feet. Sheer walls of stone loom above us; occasional shafts of light penetrating the gloom. Suddenly, the pass ends, and we emerge into brilliant sunlight greeted by one of the most spellbinding gems of antiquity: the Treasury of Petra, carved into the red sandstone rockface before us, the most illustrious attraction of a city that was home to the Nabataeans some two millennia ago.

We’ve travelled more than 230 km south of the Jordanian capital of Amman to reach this unique desert outpost, through territory well celebrated in biblical lore (and have just passed the spot where Moses famously struck the rock to unlock a spring of rushing water). No journey would be more worth the effort. Rising two storeys high, with perfect architectural symmetry, the Treasury is a glorious medley of columns and pediments, crowned by an urn which, according to legend, contained a Pharaoh’s treasure. Only its façade is carved into the rock, though, and when we venture inside we discover a small, dark chamber whose purpose remains mysterious.

Outside in the sunlight again, with fans of this ancient city milling around us, we’re surrounded by a vast site, set in a remote valley basin encircled by cliffs that glow in hues of red and pink, gold and mauve.

We set off down the Street of Façades, which leads from the Treasury to the centre of Petra, and clamber up a mountainside to investigate what is believed to be several royal tombs. Hewn into the stone, they’re eroded but still magnificent. Fronted by vast arches, the Urn Tomb was later recycled by the resourceful locals and became a church, in about 446 AD. Standing on the terrace of this, the highest tomb, we have a captivating view of the sprawling array of temples, tombs, and monuments below, which make Petra such an astonishing feat of nature and human artistry combined.

Once, this area was home to the Edomites, who famously refused the Israelites safe passage on their flight from Egypt to the Promised Land. But later, in the fourth century BC, the formerly nomadic Nabataeans made Petra the capital of their kingdom. Lying near the King’s Highway — the caravan route that stretched from Arabia to Syria — Petra thrived on traffic in luxury goods and spices, and was almost certainly the last staging post of the magi on their journey to Bethlehem. When the last Nabataean king died, in 106 AD, the Romans occupied Petra and refashioned much of it. Later, Christianity took hold, and, by the fourth century, Petra had its own bishop.

Leaving the tombs, we cross the street and find a splendidly intact survivor of Petra’s social life: carved into the red rock in the first century BC, Petra’s theatre soars up in 40 magnificent tiers, and once held an impressive 8000 spectators.

A short stroll from the theatre takes us to the Cardo Maximus, Petra’s main colonnaded street, which ran about 240 metres through the city centre. Wandering down this still stately boulevard, we admire the columns and original marble paving that remain here and there, and the well-preserved remains of the triple arched Roman monumental gateway. Flanked by shops and temples, this street was once the beating heart of Petra, and we pause for a while to let ourselves imagine the cacophony of this once cosmopolitan and bustling metropolis.

istockCamels take a rest at Qasr Al-Bint

Beyond the colonnaded street, we mount an elegant staircase that leads to the Qasr al-Bint, or Palace of the Pharaoh’s Daughter, which was probably Petra’s main temple. Doric friezes decorate its massive walls, and a vast arched doorway leads inside. Built in the first century BC, it’s uncertain who was worshipped here, but ruins of a sizeable altar remain. Over on the other side of the street, and beyond the grand Temple of the Winged Lions, stands the remains of a Byzantine church: more evidence of the life of the early Christians of Petra.

If you want to explore some of the outlying parts of Petra, you can follow several routes that lead northwards from here. One leads up to the Ad-Deir Plateau, where the deir, or monastery, a massive rock-cut monument like the Treasury, stands. This used to be a place of pilgrimage for the Nabataeans, but later it is thought to have been a church; the Hermitage, also used by early Christians, lies nearby.

Back, past the theatre, we take another side route and scramble up some steep steps that lead to the High Place of Sacrifice, which the Nabataeans used for religious ceremonies, and stop there to admire a spectacular view. From the High Place, the trail has an excellent line-up of imposing sights, such as the Lion Monument, with its wonderful, headless beast.

But Petra is awash with tremendous tombs, and you’ll find several of the very best on this route, including the elegant, classical Garden Tomb, and the Tomb of the Roman Soldier, with its massive columns and sculptures.

The trail takes you back to the Qasr Al-Bint. There, it’s time for a well-earned rest. Camels and donkeys owned by the local Bedouins amble around Petra, and their braying adds to the atmosphere. If you’re going to ride one, or both, at any time, do it here. I opt for a docile donkey, and sway back towards the Treasury with my friend perched on a camel beside me.

You wonder how such an extraordinary city could have been abandoned, but it was. As trade moved to Palmyra, and earthquakes struck the area, Petra languished. The Crusaders came and built two castles here, but, by the 14th century, Petra was deserted, then largely forgotten for 500 years. We have the Swiss explorer Johannes Burckhardt to thank for rediscovering it, in 1812, but it was not until the 20th century that Petra really became accessible. In 2022, Petra was included (again) in the list of the new Seven Wonders of the World.

By nightfall, we’re sated with amazing sights. Petra is easily worth a visit of several days if you want to really pace yourself, but whatever time you spend here will be utterly memorable. That night, a parade of temples and tombs, camels and traders float through my dreams. But Petra — unique and mysterious and monumental — isn’t a dream; it’s real, and totally unforgettable.


Travel details

Explore Worldwide offers several tours of Jordan, including the nine-day Treasures of Jordan tour, which takes in Amman, Mount Nebo, Petra, Jerash, and other sights. From £1380pp without flights. Phone: 01252 883 761, or visit explore.co.uk. Responsible Travel also offers a range of tours of Jordan, including the nine-day Jordan Holiday, which visits Amman, Jerash, Petra, Aqaba, and the Dead Sea. From £1949 with flights. Phone 01273 823 700, or visit responsibletravel.com. For general visitor information, visit visitjordan.com.

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