It is a sad fact that not every travel destination lives up to the hype. Some are more touristy than you might expect, with pesky locals trying to sell you cheap tchotkes at every turn. Others are less well maintained or smaller than you had imagined, ruining the mental image you had before your arrival. Some places are simply the victim of their own over inflated reputations, failing to live up to the incredibly high standards that we set for them before we actually visit the place. I can tell you unequivocally that Petra is not one of those places, which is why it was with so much dismay that I read earlier this week that the ancient site has seen a sudden – and dramatic – downturn in visitors following unrest in the region.
Known as the "Rose-Red City" because of the way it glows in the morning light, Petra is a famous archaeological site found in southern Jordan. Built at the end of a narrow, twisting slot canyon, the city was originally founded sometime around 300 BC to be the capital of the Nabataeans, a formerly-nomadic Arab people who were establishing a kingdom of their own at the time. Its unique location made Petra easy to defend from invading armies, and over the years it grew into a large, thriving metropolis that became a center for trade in the region.
Later, the Romans would absorb much of the Middle East into their empire, bringing Petra along with it. Under Roman rule long-established trade routes changed dramatically, and the city fell into decline. Earthquakes further weakened Petra's infrastructure, and by 665 AD it was all but abandoned. It did remain a curiosity for Arab travelers for centuries afterwards however, but it wouldn't become widely known to the rest of the world until it was discovered by Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt in 1812.
Since that time, Petra has intrigued and enchanted visitors from across the globe, easily becoming Jordan's most popular tourist site in the process. It has also served as the backdrop to some famous films, including Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and Transformers 2. Images of the impressive stone structures carved out of the walls of the canyons have become iconic, making it one of the most recognizable places on the planet. And in in 1985 Petra was declared a UNESCO Heritage Site due to its significant cultural and historical value, enhancing its stature even further.
For visitors traveling to Jordan, Petra is one of those places that you absolutely do not want to miss. Just wandering down the long, slender canyon – known as the Siq – that leads to the main entrance is an experience that will leave the most jaded of adventure travelers in awe. And when that canyon opens up to reveal the striking presence of the famous Treasury, the wonder of Petra truly starts to set in.
The Treasury is the iconic symbol of Petra. An ancient tomb that belonged to a wealthy family that once lived in the city. It features towering pillars and intricately carved statues and frescoes that blend influences from a number of civilizations, including the Egyptians, Syrians, and Greeks. It is an awe inspiring sight to behold, and one wonders what it must have been like for Burckhardt when he stumbled across the place more than 200 years ago.
For a lot of visitors, the Treasury is Petra. But as famous and impressive as that structure is, it is but one building in the massive compound that makes up the entire city. Many are surprised to discover that the Treasury merely marks the entrance to the ancient site, where they'll also find numerous tombs, houses, and religious structures. There are open air theaters, the remains of a library, and countless other buildings to explore as well. And those with strong legs can even climb up a flight of 800+ stairs, roughly hewn out of the sandstone rock, to reach the Monastery, another famous building that rivals the Treasury in terms of grandeur.
Visiting Petra requires at least a full day, if not more. Travelers can purchase passes for both one or two days, and while it is possible to see much of the site in a single go, having extra time allows you to do so at a more leisurely pace. Having a two-day pass can also grant you access to Petra in the early morning hours, allowing you to enter even before the sun comes up. At dawn, as the first rays of light begin to flit across the Treasury, you'll come to understand why it is dubbed the Rose-Red City.
As daylight arrives in the canyon, the sandstone walls and ancient structures take on a warm red glow that is magnificent to behold.
As mentioned earlier, Petra is one of those rare destinations that lives up to the hype. It is a place that combines history and culture in a spectacular natural setting, delivering a travel experience that will stay with you for a lifetime. For me, it is on par with just about anything I've seen in Egypt, a country that is well known for its ancient wonders.
If visiting Petra is not on your bucket list, it should be. It is an incredible place that will dazzle you with what it has to offer. You'll also be welcomed by the incredibly warm and inviting people of Jordan, which will only enhance the experience further.