Petra — A Drive By of The Rose City

Military recruiters sometimes use a concept called TEAMS to understand individual motivations for joining the service. TEAMS is an acronym for training, education, adventure, money, and service (to country). What does this have to do with travel in general and Petra specifically? Well, the ability to travel is actually something of an adventure. Travel is one of the main reasons I chose a career as an Army officer. I wanted to see the world (jump out of perfectly good airplanes and other adventurous things), and I definitely got what I asked for. Petra was just one of the many amazing places I have been fortunate enough to see while deployed for official military duties. In this case, training special operations and counter-terrorism forces from across the Middle East. But that’s a story for another time.

Petra, sometimes called the Rose City owing to the fantastic structures carved from the pink sandstone hills in the area, is located in southern Jordan. By the way, Petra is derived from the Greek word for “rock,” so the name is fitting. The area around Petra was inhabited as early as about 9,000 years ago. It became the capital of the Nabatean civilization around 200 BCE. The Nabateans were largely nomadic Arabs who took great advantage of Petra’s location to establish a major trading hub.

Initially successful at resisting invasion due to their skills in harvesting rainwater and developing agriculture in such a barren area, the Nabateans fell under Roman control in 106 CE. Petra’s importance declined with the growing influence of sea trading routes. By the time of Islam’s rise in the area, Petra had been largely abandoned. In fact, Petra was largely forgotten until it’s rediscovery in 1812 by the Swiss geographer Johan Ludwig Burckhardt.

The “siq” leading into Petra. Channels carved into the side are for water collection.

The initial approach into Petra is through the siq, or a naturally occurring, very narrow canyon. At times the siq is as tight as about 12 feet wide. Accessing Petra this way only adds to the mystique and grandeur. Once the canyon opens up, you are greeted by one of the most amazing structures antiquity has to offer. In fact, Petra has been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1985 and seeing it in person, it is easy to understand why. The siq is so narrow, and approximately one kilometer long, the effect once it opens up is especially striking. When you are greeted by the amazing architecture within the sight, it is far more breathtaking that you might be able to see it from afar. It is almost as if Petra were gift wrapped by the surrounding landscape.

An engineering marvel you see early on but is actually very easy to overlook, are the water channels carved into the walls of the siq. As mentioned already, the Nabateans were skilled at harvesting rainwater, and these channels were the first step in that process. Petra sits in an arid desert region with infrequent rainfalls. When it does rain in this area, flash floods are frequent. These channels carved into the canyon walls direct the water to huge cisterns where it is stored until needed.

I was personally so fascinated with and focused on these channels while walking along the siq that I was caught off guard when the canyon opened up. The first of the truly amazing, and most famous, of Petra’s architectural wonders came into view. The Al-Khazneh, also known as the Treasury, is so named because the Bedouins in this area long believed the structure to contain treasure. Unfortunately, this belief has led to much of the damage we see there today. Attempting to free the supposed treasure from the large urn, many of the locals have fired guns at it. In actuality, this structure was never a real treasury. It was most likely constructed initially as a mausoleum for a Nabatean king around 2,000 years ago.

If the Treasury looks familiar, even if you’ve never been there, it’s no surprise. In addition to being one of the most photographed tourist attractions in the Middle East, it has made several appearances in popular culture. Not least among these appearances was as the site of the Holy Grail in the 1989 movie Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Many may not realize that the interior scenes of this site in the movie were filmed somewhere else as the inside portions of the Treasury are quite small.

While the Treasury is the most famous of Petra’s archaeological offerings, perhaps partially because it is the closest to the entrance and easiest to get to, it was not my favorite. The Treasury is impressive to be sure, but the crown jewel of Petra, in my opinion, is the Monastery, or El Deir. Not least among my reasons for favoring the Monastery is because it is the largest monument in Petra. It was also the furthers and hardest to get to from the initial entry through the siq.

From siq to Treasury and finally, to the Monastery, many other sites worth seeing are on offer. A collection of tombs in Petra’s south, to the theater, the Great Temple, and many others. This is definitely a destination that should be on everyone’s bucket list.

Getting there

Getting around Jordan wasn’t terribly challenging. Oh, helpful hint and fun fact — in Jordan, when someone gives you the “thumbs up” sign, it doesn’t mean what it means in the U.S., and it is not a friendly gesture. Try to avoid that. I offer this advice because I have a habit of doing that when someone lets me over in traffic or some other courtesy. More than once, I did this while someone was kindly allowing me to enter a traffic circle.

You have several options for getting to Petra. Using the JETT bus it is easy to get there from Amman or Aqaba, though I must admit I’ve not given this a try. I had a car, and the drive from Amman to Petra took around 3 hours along the Desert Highway. From Aqaba, it is about 2 hours. Parking near Petra is not a problem and a short walk to the siq from Wadi Musa.

Where to stay

Wadi Musa has grown up around Petra and offers options to suit most tastes and budgets. Even if you prefer to base most of your trip from Amman (like I did), it is well worth your time to spend the night before visiting Petra in Wadi Musa. For the photographers out there, you know the importance of the “golden hour”, or the time immediately after sunrise or before sunset. This is usually the best time for capturing the best photos, with the softer sunlight and move vivid colors. By the way, this is the one thing I wish I had done differently on my visit. Most of my photos were captured mid-day while the sun was higher in the sky and washing out much of the dramatic colors that can be captured earlier or later in the day.

When to go

While I didn’t visit at the best time of the day, I did visit at the right time of year. Petra can be oppressively hot during the summer. Spring or Autumn are better times to visit. Even though I was hiking over the entire area of Petra, in mid-day, the temperatures were not as bad as it was in early Spring.

Make the most of the trip

While Petra is easy to get to, if you are already in Jordan, few of us just happen to find ourselves in Jordan as I did. This is a rather long trip for most. Make the most of it. Also, see Bethany Beyond the Jordan, where many believe Jesus was baptized. Even as an atheist, I found this site interesting and worth seeing. The Dead Sea is a must-see. And outside of Jordan, but not too far away, make your way over to Egypt to see the Pyramids, Valley of the Kings, and other sites.

Tony Davis is a professional writer, adventure travel junkie, and author of God Loves You: Some Restrictions May Apply (and Many Other Christian Dilemmas)

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