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A legend, a marvel, a Wonder-with-a-capital-W; Petra is one of the world’s truly unique sites. The capital of the Nabatean trading empire, this city must have been one of the ancient world’s richest cities.
Most of us have seen the famous photo of the rose-pink Khazneh (Treasury) façade as glimpsed from the narrow entry passage called the Siq…..if not, please rent Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade! What the film doesn’t tell you is that this is only the first of hundreds of carved facades you will encounter inside the ancient city centre.
The greater part of ancient Petra is still unexcavated, which gives us decades worth of exciting discoveries still in store. What has already been revealed is enough to make you wonder how you will ever describe it to friends and family once you get home.
“Queen of the Caravan Cities,” Petra in its most famous incarnation, was the capital city of a Nabatean Empire which stretched from the Saudi deserts through Damascus. Many of the ancient world’s trade routes included a mandatory stop in Petra. The Nabateans, who probably descended from tribal nomads of Arabia, were hydrology geniuses. Their remarkable skills in locating, trapping and storing water in a desert clime gave them a monopoly over the one item absolutely essential to caravan trade. Laden camels can safely move about three days between drink-stops, so the society that managed to own the franchise on all the water stops in the desert could—and did—set their own terms when it came time to tank up the camels. Some archaeologists hypothesize that the Nabateans may have laid claim to roughly 1/3 of all the caravan’s trade goods in return for providing water, supplies and safe passage for the caravans. If this estimate is even half right, we are really talking about some serious customs fees.
Petra was the crowning glory of these wealthy people. Using the caravan wealth and drawing on artistic influences from throughout the ancient world, the Nabateans literally carved out an impressive home base from the rosy sandstone mountains which surround the ancient city center. Grand facades ornamented burial caves, triclinia and temples. The free-standing buildings which have more recently been excavated show the same sort of multicultural richness in design and execution. On the site of the Great Temple, for instance, archaeologists have discovered a number of large, elegantly carved elephant-head column capitals. A Nabatean home excavated by a Swiss team revealed a very high standard of living—floors completely covered with imported marble, walls covered with intricate frescoes of architectural design, a private family bath complex with cold, warm and hot rooms, and massive private storage wells for water and olive oil.
The sandstone mountains from which and on which Petra was carved are themselves worth a trip. The whorls and bands of colors are a feast for the eyes, sort of like a modernist painting. Some of the local tourist guides claim that there are more than 200 colors in the sandstone, and it’s an easy figure to believe. Local artisans have capitalized on this wealth of raw materials, and will be happy to produce a Petra sand bottle for you complete with your name, an intricate camel caravan or other colorful design. (One of the most interesting experiences when traveling around Jordan is to run into a road construction project—the marvelous colors revealed when the bulldozers go to work is definitely a photo opportunity!)
It is thought that the Nabateans moved into Petra sometime during the 4th Century BC, gradually taking over the Edomite settlements which had occupied hilltops inside Petra and on adjacent mountains. Until the end of the 1st Century AD Petra was the capital of the independent Nabatean Empire, an empire with trade and marriage ties throughout the Mediterranean world. Nabateans don’t figure largely in texts on ancient history because they weren’t particularly keen on warfare, preferring to pay indemnities to retain their independence. In 106 AD, Trajan annexed Petra to the Roman empire as the Province of Arabia, and thereafter a Roman governor was appointed to oversee affairs of the city and the province. In 395 Petra became a Byzantine city with the division of the Roman Empire. Besides carving crosses inside many of the ancient tombs to create instant churches, the Byzantine denizens also built several more elaborate churches and cathedrals. The Petra Cathedral in the city center has a wonderful mosaic floor, and documents found in a workshop adjacent to the cathedral site are giving archaeologists new insights into the daily lives and domestic affairs of the Byzantine Nabateans. But by the middle of the 7th Century, when the Islamic conquest swept out of Arabia, the ancient site of Petra had become a haunted, haunting site occupied by nomadic herders. Shifting trade routes and a greater reliance on maritime trade had led to the site’s abandonment.
Between the 7th and 19th centuries, Petra remained a city of legend “lost” to Western cultures. It was not truly lost, of course. The Bedouin herders and local farmers knew it was there. So too did the Crusaders, who planted a castle and a fortress on two of the peaks surrounding the ancient city center. Determined pilgrims of Judaism, Christianity and Islam all made occasional pilgrimage to the peak of Petra’s tallest mountain, Jabal Harun (Aaron’s Mount, or the Biblical Mount Hor), which was believed to be the burial place of Aaron, brother of Moses. But as histories tended to focus on the ancient civilizations famed for conquests, literary works and philosophical discourses, memories of the peaceable Nabateans, who left few written records, faded to little more than the odd references in Greek, Roman and Egyptian rolls of trade and travel.
In 1812 Johann Burckhardt, an eccentric Swiss explorer, set out to “re-discover” the ruins of Petra. Realizing that the local tribes were suspicious of outsiders seeking to find buried treasure, he invented a pretext of wishing to visit the area to pray at the tomb of Aaron. A local guide was appointed to conduct Burckhardt through the hidden passageway and across the ancient city center to the top of Jabal Harun. Along the way, the guide cheerfully pointed to the dramatic carved facades and crumbling free-standing buildings, giving the folkloric names for different sights along the way. These names survive today. The “Khazneh” (Treasury), because local legend held that the urn atop the façade was filled with the gold Moses brought out of Egypt. (This explains why the urn is pockmarked with bullet holes left by Bedouin hoping to break the urn and release the treasure.) The “Qasr al Bint” temple (Palace of the Princess) because the large building must surely have been the home of Pharaoh’s daughter.
Shortly after Burckhardt’s ‘pilgrimage,’ a steady trickle of 19th century explorers wandered through Petra. Some of them, most famously David Roberts of the Royal Academy, captured their visions of the place in sketches and paintings. The organized touring parties and archaeologists were not far behind, drawn by the majestic facades and colorful local inhabitants. By the first decade of the 20th Century, serious archaeological work had begun on the site.
Agatha Christie and her archaeologist husband Max Mallowan made the journey to Petra in the early 1930’s. Her two-day overland trip from Jerusalem is wonderfully described in the Hercule Poirot mystery Appointment with Death. In those days, visitors could elect to camp in tents or lodge in furnished caves at the center of the ruins, where the Basin Restaurant and an archaeological expedition house now stand.
Petra continued to be a lodestone for the more adventurous traveler, for the archaeologist and for the artist, but until the 1960’s facilities to accommodate visitors were very basic. In 1963 the Jordanian government opened the Petra Rest House, with 12 rooms, to house visitors beside the entrance to the site. Today’s Petra Guest House, managed by the Crowne Plaza chain, has grown up around these original rooms, and the Nabatean tomb at the location is now the Cave Bar, a popular-but-noisy night spot. In 1982 a second hotel, the Petra Forum, was opened beside the Rest House. This brought the available hotel rooms to around 100, and several enterprising citizens opened backpacker hotels in the town of Wadi Musa, the modern city outside the antiquities site. Still, facilities to accommodate overnight visitors were limited and basic. This is probably the reason why many Jordan touring programs—even today—offer only a one-night or two-night stay in Petra or, even worse, a one-day trip from Amman.
Times have changed, though, both inside and outside Petra. Outside the site there are something like 2,000 hotel rooms available—everything from backpacker-budget to first class hotels. Many of the hotels are clustered around the Petra entry gate, and a string of hotels also line the scenic road to the nearby village of Taybet. Within the town of Wadi Musa budget travelers will find many small hotels offering basic accommodations and (usually) basic prices to match.
That’s all good news, because the inside of Petra has changed just as dramatically. Every year excavations proceed. Archaeologists from Jordan, the US, the UK, Finland, Germany, Denmark, Switzerland, Japan, France and probably other countries we’ve forgotten to mention have projects in different parts of Petra and the surrounding countryside. Amazing things are uncovered every year, and still experts estimate that little more than 30% of the site has been properly investigated. So plan on staying awhile….there are marvels around every corner.
A personal testimonial—I (Wendy—see the ‘about us’ page) first arrived in Petra in the summer of 1992. It was tremendous, fascinating, revelatory—the experience that set my life on a new course. But the Petra I saw in 1992 is nothing like the Petra you’ll see today, and most of the difference is on the plus side of the column. Take the Siq, for instance. The level of the Siq floor is now some 3-4 meters lower than it was in those days, because excavators have worked their way down to the Roman paving stones. Along the way, they uncovered wonderful “murals” carved into the walls, niches to hold Nabatean god-symbols, and an amazing complex of water channels and rain-capture channels which helped nourish the gardens and fountains of the Nabatean capital.
Another very noticeable change is in the very centre of the site, the hillsides lying on either side of the Roman Colonnaded Street which ran through the heart of Petra. When I first saw them, these were simply hillsides. Nowadays, you’ll explore temples, the Cathedral, and the extensive Great Temple complex with its temples, garden and pool complex, Odeon and other intriguing features. When planning your stay, you should also remember that the strategic importance of Petra (plenty of water, easily defended, good arable land) was not a Nabatean invention. Petra and the surrounding area have been inhabited for over 9,000 years. A ring of pre-pottery Neolithic sites surrounds Petra, including the famed Baidha site identified as one of the world’s earliest agricultural settlements. You don’t have to be a specialist to appreciate the village. You’ll be surprised to note its many similarities to 17th-18th Century Bedouin villages.
In the Iron Age, Petra was a part of the Edomite Kingdom. An Edomite village (6th Century BC) atop Um al Biyara was excavated in the early 1960s by Crystal Bennett, a British archaeologist. No evidence of an 8th Century BC settlement was found, but the local legend persists in identifying this as the town of Sela, whose inhabitants Moses’ wandering Israelites fought, defeated and tossed off the hilltop when they failed to offer hospitality. (The more probable location for this massacre was the hilltop above the modern village of Boseira, an hour’s drive north of Petra along the King’s Highway.)
As the capital city of a vast trading empire, Petra was surrounded by suburbs, customs points, watering stations, garrisons and other accoutrements of Life in the Big City. There are carved facades, temples, cisterns and other remnants of civilization throughout the town of Wadi Musa and the neighboring countryside. It’s impossible to plant a garden in Wadi Musa without finding coins, beads or shards of the wafer-thin Nabatean pottery.
Several years ago, the public works department engaged in a massive series of projects to lay new pipelines for fresh and waste water throughout the town. The Department of Antiquities appointed Dr. Khairia Amro, an experienced archaeologist, to follow the bulldozers and graders around. As she can tell you, it quickly became apparent that the entire region is riddled with walls, roadways, ancient waterworks, temples and artifacts of every era. The countryside around Petra offers plenty of opportunities for daily voyages of discovery, at least for the traveler who is not on a tight schedule.
No discussion of Petra would be complete without mention of the modern inhabitants of the area. Whether they’re descendants of the Nabateans or not (imagine lively scholarly argument on this subject), they have retained the Nabatean trait of welcoming travelers from around the world. While farming and herding are still commonplace, the residents of Wadi Musa, Um Sehun, Amareen village and Taybet are essentially a company town, devoted to the single industry of tourism.
There are several interesting consequences. The most noticeable is a sort of cosmopolitan laissez-faire atmosphere. These people accept and even understand foreign visitors and their (odd) customs. While firmly living themselves in a very traditional, very tribal society, they nonetheless manage to share with their guests hospitality and a genuine warmth without either being judgmental or abandoning their own beliefs and customs.
A nifty trick, if you can pull it off.
Another is an amazing facility for languages. Inside Petra, you may well fall in love with the charming Bedouin children selling rocks and well-aged forgeries of ancient coins. Watch these kids in action and you’ll hear them chattering away to visitors in English, French, German, Italian, Hebrew, Russian, Spanish…..formidable, or formidable, depending on the group they’re talking to.
In this security-conscious age, it’s also worthwhile to mention a third ramification. People around Petra depend on tourism, and are fiercely determined to see it continue. As a result, you have a watchful and resourceful security force, dedicated to keeping things quiet and safe. When you stack this homegrown “neighborhood watch” guard force atop Jordan’s already admirable public security measures, you have a comfortable wall of protection.
Check out our “Petra in Depth” page in the tours section for a more detailed explanation of all the areas you may want to cover during your visit.