Petra: inside Jordan's wonder of the world

It's 200 years since an intrepid Swiss explorer retrieved the ancient city of Petra from centuries lost in the desert - the ideal time to discover Jordan's number one tourist attraction for yourself

Petra: inside Jordan's wonder of the world The Monastery at Petra, as seen in the 1st century BC (and 'Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade')
By Ellie Bramley

Things to do in Jordan in 2013 | Swim in the Dead Sea | Wadi Rum and the desert

 
Unearthed by tomb raiders, made famous by Indiana Jones - on the 200th anniversary of the ruined city Petra's rediscovery, Time Out visited the ancient site to see how it feels to stand inside a bona fide wonder of the world...

Join the Last Crusade

Petra is a sprawling desert daddy long legs of tombs, temples, obelisks, and monuments, well worth the necessary few days leg-stretching to really make the most of this unique and charmed place.

Re-discovering this astounding complex of cliff-carved façades as Swiss explorer, Johann Ludwig Burckhardt, did exactly 200 years ago must surely have been well worth writing home about. Now well known to the world - in no small part due to its on-screen role in 'Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade' - and in company with the likes of Cambodia's Angkor Wat, Peru's Machu Picchu, and the Great Wall of China on the list of 'New 7 Wonders of the World', it is thrilling to imagine what this intrepid explorer must have felt on first seeing Petra.

It is believed that in around 1200 BCE, the Petra area (but not necessarily the site itself) was populated by Edomites and the area was known as Edom ("red"). It did not really come into prominence until 312 BC through the success of the spice trade and the migration of the Nabataeans - ancient, caravan-trading Arab tribes who came from the Arabian Peninsula to settle in Southern Jordan. The city became their capital. Petra was awarded UNESCO World Heritage Site status in 1985.

Tomb raider: the approach to Petra

The site is not only beautiful, but also secure - the winding, narrow gorge, or As-Siq, at its eastern entrance would have lent itself to defending the city from invaders. Getting trapped in this bottle-neck as a tourist is unpleasant, but nothing to what invading armies must have felt in a similar spot, with 80m-high cliffs on either side.

If you are lucky enough to have a guide as knowledgeable, not to mention as infectiously enthusiastic as Faisal, our guide, your initial impatience to see the famed Treasury will soon be forgotten as you wind your way towards it via many other interesting spots, allowing your first peek of the sublimely striated rocks to come as a surprise. The walk through the gorge to the treasury is substantial in itself, especially in baking summer sun. The clippety clop of horse's hooves reverberates off the cliff walls, as you cling to the sides in a bid to keep your feet from under the wheels of the carriages they are pulling and your eyes away from the dust they kick up. A water conduit carved into the rock accompanies you down, demonstrating the Nabataeans admirable ability to control the water supply of this desert city.

Under the guide of a faux narrative of health and safety, Faisal had us walk to one side of the gorge. Instructed suddenly to take six steps to our left, we had our first sight of the Treasury peeping through the cliff's gap, like a blushing teenager with its rose-tinged rocks.

Step into history: inside Petra's ruined city

The Treasury, or Al Khazneh, is every bit as awe-inspiring as you might expect. Colossal, it has been carved out of the sandstone rock, intricate details and all.

But the Petra experience does not end there. There are various tracks you can walk to unearth the rest of what is on offer, most of them steep and worth bringing a sturdy pair of shoes for. Further inside the site is the Urn Tomb, the largest of the Royal Tombs, and one that merits a diversion from the main track.

The walk up to the Place of High Sacrifice is a bit of a trudge, but a fruitful one. The views at the top merit the effort of carting a wide-angle camera lens up there too. You can walk back down a different way via the Lion Monument, Garden Temple and a series of other unfinished tombs, but save some energy to scramble your way up to the Monastery, or Ad Deir, or if your legs are kaput you can borrow a sturdy little donkey to take you up there for just a couple of DH. Be warned, though, they know the way like the back of their hoof, so do tend to wander lackadaisically close to cliff edges. Stop to catch your breath - or steady your nerves - at any of the stalls selling Berber jewellery and ornaments that punctuate the way up.

The Monastery looms at about 45 metres high. Bolder and less ornate than the Treasury, it pays your effort back in dividends. From up here wander just a little further to see the incredible, apocalyptically named view of 'the end of the world' out over the gargantuan Rift Valley.
 

 
 

Petra-fied: food, photos and facilities at Petra

Eat At the end of a long day filled with wonder and inevitable weariness, head to traditional, cavernous restaurant, Al Qantarah (+962 32155535) for traditional Middle Eastern cuisine at its heartiest.

Avoid It's hard to feel like Indiana Jones on your last crusade when tourists in fanny packs and novelty T-shirts are atop camels posing for photos in front of the Treasury. This is not Petra's fault, but it is an incentive to get there early.

Stay locally and beat the rush. La Maison (+962 32156401) is a good choice. Recently renovated, it has rooms in a variety of sizes, a robust breakfast and free wi-fi.
 
 

Getting there

Intrepid Travel offers an eight-day Explore Jordan small group tour from £820 which visits Amman, Wadi Rum, Petra, Dana Nature Reserve, the Dead Sea and Madaba. The price includes accommodation, transport, some meals and activities, and services of a local tour leader. It excludes international flights. Book at www.intrepidtravel.com.
 
 

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