Hidden amidst the nearly impenetrable Petra mountains in south-west Jordan looms the ancient city of Petra. One of the world’s most visually arresting archaeological sites, Petra (‘the rock’ in Greek) is an abandoned necropolis of temples and tombs carved into the towering red, white and pink sandstone walls of the Petra mountains.
Petra was once a key trading center and stood as the capital of the Nabataean empire between 400 BC and 106 AD, but due to earthquakes and politics it fell into disrepair and lay abandoned and virtually forgotten until a European, Johann Ludwig Burckhardt, disguised himself as a Bedouin and managed to gain access to this mind-blowing city.
Petra by Night
Our first glimpse of Petra came on a Monday night. We had been traveling the King’s Highway through the day and arrived at Wadi Musa in the early evening. We were tired after a long day on the road, but when we found out that Petra by Night was taking place that evening, we fed the kids some sandwiches at the hotel and made our way down to the Petra visitors center while our awesome guide Qais Bader of Jordan Select Tours helpfully picked up our tickets.
Candles tucked into paper bags lined the route towards the siq, offering the only light along the way apart from the spectacular canopy of stars. The route towards the Treasury during Petra by Night is peaceful, giving a chance for thought and contemplation. This was only slightly marred by the two-year-old boy in my backpack. He enjoyed sticking his fingers in my ears and blowing raspberries on his arm.
Halfway down the path, we reached the siq, a lighting shaped canyon that leads to the Treasury. The darkness hid the beautiful features of the canyon, but the soft candlelight cast an intimate ambiance to the journey, leaving even our children to peer in wonder into the many dark crevasses that lined the path.
As we reached the end of the siq C called out “whooooaaaah!” as the walls of the canyon opened up to a view of over 1,500 candles lighting the walls of the Treasury. We were ushered in by the Bedouin organizers and found our seats amongst the crowd of about 100 visitors.
Shortly after being seated and getting D settled down, we were treated to a mix of songs sung (Please note that this was not recorded by us) by the Bedouin tribesmen as well as some instrumentals done on a flute and a rababah, a two-stringed ancestor of the violin made with wood and goatskin. The music was hypnotic and beautiful and made for a wonderful end to the night.
When the music finished we took a few moments to capture some photos before heading back up the siq for the two-kilometer walk to the visitors center. To thank the little ones for their incredible patience and resilience, we made sure to stop at the small shop at the start of the siq for a celebratory ice cream cone.
Entrance to Petra
We returned to Petra the next morning to begin our first of two full days exploring the huge ancient city. Our guide for the day was kind enough to pick us up after an early breakfast so we could begin our day before the desert sun became too intense. As we began our hike towards the Treasury we regularly had to pass on the invitations for the horse ride down the siq.
If you decide to avail of one of the horse rides that are included in the price of admission please remember that you will be expected to tip at the end of the ride. When we were there, the expected amount ranged between 2 and 5 dinars per rider.
The wonders began before we even entered the siq. On our walk, we could see the cave tombs lining each side of the walkway, including Bab Al Siq (Gateway to the siq) where you can see three massive squared monuments, two of which still retain a great deal of their original detail. Just past these, we saw the Obelisk Tomb, a unique structure carved with both Roman and Egyptian styles during the 1st century AD. Above the tomb are four pyramids and a niche with a statue symbolizing the five people who were buried within the monument. The large area on the main floor was the banquet hall.
As we arrived at the siq we were recognized immediately by the shop owners at its entrance who welcomed us in typical warm Jordanian fashion back to the site. As we entered the siq we looked up to see the remains of an arch that once spanned the entrance to this amazing canyon and before we knew it we were swallowed by the colorful cliff walls that isolated us from the outside world.
We wandered through the canyon, each twist and bend offering spectacular new sites and wonders including the remnants of statues and carvings to the various gods of the time. About halfway through we saw the once beautiful carvings of traders leading herds of camels. These would have been spectacular to behold in their day, but now all that remains after millennia of erosion are the feet.
In the widest part of the siq our guide pointed us to an amazing natural formation and his favorite rock. From the side, C quickly pointed out that it looked like a fish, but when the guide took him by the hand and moved him towards the front C shouted: “Now it’s an elephant!” and C proudly named it “The Elefish”!
As we reached the end and the siq began to open in front of us, I couldn’t help but giggle in anticipation with memories of Indiana Jones running through my head. The daytime view as we came upon the Treasury was just as amazing as it was under candlelight. We were ready to explore!
After taking some time to take in the wonder of the Treasury and for C and D to accept just how many camels there were, we began walking towards the main area of the city. The walls on either side are full of bas-reliefs in Roman style carved deep into the cliff walls. As we wandered through the widening walls we saw the immense amphitheater sitting across from what we were told was the largest house in all of Petra. C loved climbing through the cave rooms and poking around the corners to see what he could find next while D enjoyed his time using the Petra roads as a sandbox.
As we continued through the street we explored the caves and tombs while wandering up to the Byzantine church located a few hundred meters from the Colonnaded Street that we planned to explore the next day. The church was built around 450 AD and lasted until about 600 AD when it was destroyed by fires and earthquakes. It was currently undergoing massive renovations. You can still clearly see the beautiful floor mosaics hidden under a tent that covers the excavation location. The tent also offered a break from the unforgiving Jordan sun. Just outside of the church is a small restaurant with washrooms and makes for a nice spot to take a break.
After visiting the church, we swung back around to visit the Royal Tombs. Sitting high up on the mountainside, visiting the tombs meant walking up some steep paths and stairs. The courtyard offers a line of columns and although the doors are quite eroded, they still conjure majestic images of Petra in its heyday.
About this time, D decided to drop off for a nap in our kid carrier so we decided to wander within the cooler caves for a bit before heading down to the main street to track down a local for our adventure up to the High Place of Sacrifice.
The High Place of Sacrifice
At the bottom of the path from the Royal tombs, we met up with Mohammed with the Gold Tooth, who had offered to take us up to the High Place of Sacrifice on his mules and donkeys. We had spoken to our guide earlier in the day and he told us that 10 dinars would be a reasonable price for an excursion to the top of the mountain. He also mentioned that Mohammed was known for taking excellent care of his animals, an important point in a place where animal welfare is often on the back burner. Having the children with us, this seemed like a no-brainer, Christina and C each mounted their trusty steeds while I chose to walk as D was still napping and I felt that the weight of a big guy like me along with a heavy backpack and a baby would be more than I should ask of any animal. The freedom of being on foot also allowed me the chance to get some great shots of the ride up the mountain. Do keep in mind that even when riding the mules, there are points where you will need to walk, as they are too steep for the animals to maneuver with a heavy load.
An added bonus of taking the mules up the mountain is that while most people who head up by foot do so by using some stairs which leads to a rocky slope, the animals take the long but very scenic route up. I highly recommend that even if you walk, you take the long route either on the way up or on the way down. You will not only see far more of the site this way, but the views are absolutely stunning.
We took a break along the way to see the Tomb of the Roman Soldier where a headless figure sits in bas relief in typical Roman military garb. The tomb is so large that even with all of us and the animals inside, it still felt empty.
Further up the mountain, after dismounting and climbing some steep stairs, we came across a relief of a lion on the wall. It was easily missed due to it being badly eroded, but when D saw it, he let out a loud lion “Roooaaaar!”
Further up the mountain, we reached a clearing with a small shop where a local woman was selling some much-needed water. Here, Christina and the boys dismounted their trusty steeds and we took a small break. Then, we made our way up the stairs towards the peak of the mountain on foot. As we emerged at the top we stood on a level platform overlooking the surrounding mountains and were blown away by the view. We took some time to explore the area. It had previously been used for celebration and animal sacrifice. We then proceeded to follow the arrows placed on the ground which led us to the view over central Petra.
Walking through this area can be trying for those with a fear of heights. Steep cliffs on all sides are rarely more than a few steps away. For those traveling with young children, make sure to keep them within arms reach to avoid heart-stopping experiences.
The viewpoint itself is quite stunning, giving an excellent idea of the vastness of the city of Petra. We could easily see the Royal Tombs, the Byzantine Church, the Colonnaded Street, and the vast Roman Temple. As we descended from the viewpoint we stuck to the left of the cliff, which offered a much shorter and easier hike back to Mohammed and the mules.
We took the normal stair route down from the High Place, which is a much shorter route filled with Bedouin shops offering tea and trinkets, but nowhere near the view of the long route. Mohammed dropped us off near the Treasury (It seems only certain guides or licenses allow operators to be near the front of the Treasury, which is certainly appreciated to reduce crowds and make for better photos.) and we began our walk back through the siq to the entrance where we treated ourselves to some much-deserved ice cream at the Mövenpick hotel just down the road.
The next day we would be coming back to Petra to explore the famed Monastery, Petra’s largest building.