Petra is famous for its tombs, monuments, and houses carved into the rose-red sandstone cliffs. But this unique city was also a cultural center, bringing in wealth and exotic goods from far-flung places like Egypt, China, and India.
To see Petra in all its glory, allow four to five days. Begin your tour with a walk through the Siq, a narrow pathway (think Utah slot canyon) that marks the entrance to the hidden city.
Why is Petra Jordan so famous?
During Petra’s heyday, the Nabateans built impressive tombs and temples directly into the rock cliffs. These are the structures that most people see when they look at photos of Petra.
The builders of these structures chiseled intricate designs into the sandstone cliffs. They showed the influence of the cultures that surrounded them, including ancient Greece and Rome.
The city declined after the Nabateans were absorbed into the Roman empire. Then a major earthquake destroyed many free-standing structures and changing trade routes rendered Petra less important. The site was almost forgotten until it was rediscovered by Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt in 1812.
The Treasury, or Al-Khazneh, is the first sight that reveals itself after entering Petra’s Siq, the mile-long gorge that leads into the city. The carved façade is iconic and was catapulted to fame after appearing in the film Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.
It isn’t known for sure what the building served, but a recessed basin on its threshold with a channel leading outside (for libations or ritual washing) is not seen on any of Petra’s tomb monuments, suggesting it was a temple.
Petra’s cliff-carves contain more than 800 caves, many of them serving as tombs for wealthy Nabataeans and their families. Some are adorned with carved scenes of mythical creatures and animals, including lions and Crusader seals.
The Theatre was carved into the side of a mountain overlooking Petra and could seat thousands. Diaz’s production is a flamboyant and defiant feast of the senses. Romanie Harper’s set is multifaceted, the costumes witty and stylish. Luis Manuel Alvarez is a striking Sidonie, lavish and fabulous while Roberto Romero as Karin balances her lustrous sensuality with a cool and calculating froideur.
The script demands good acting, but the characters’ utterances can sound like they’re being delivered through a telegraph. Only Yanier Palmero’s ebullient Tacha (Petra’s guardian angel) avoids slapstick caricature, as she progressively adopts human vices and passions in her mortal condition.
You can’t visit Petra without walking through the Siq, a narrow canyon that’s been the main entrance to the ancient city for centuries. The dramatic Nabataean/Hellenistic rock-cut temples and tombs carved into the natural rocky cleft are a stunning artistic achievement.
You walk through the Siq (also known as the Shaft) for over a kilometer, flanked by towering cliffs on either side. At the end of this spectacular gorge stands Petra’s most elaborate ruin, the Treasury.
It’s especially impressive to hike through the Siq at night. The interplay between the shadows cast by the canyon walls and a sliver of stars overhead is magical.
The Colonnaded Street
Just past the Theatre, the Siq opens up into a wide central vista of a fine set of tomb facades. Almost opposite, you’ll find the Urn Tomb (converted into a church in the fifth century), which is also worth visiting for its carved decoration.
The Colonnaded Street is the city’s main street and follows the standard Roman east-west decumanus layout without the normal cardo maximus, with columns lining the 6m-wide carriageway. In 1998, consolidation and partial reconstruction were carried out here.
Camel transport is available along Colonnaded Street, but be aware that it’s a common sight to see the mistreatment of animals here; don’t fund this by riding a camel.
The Nabataean Tent Restaurant
Petra was built by industrious Nabataeans who made it their main center for trading frankincense, myrrh, and spices. However, an earthquake and competition from sea-based routes saw the city decline.
The stairways leading to the Royal Tombs are some of the best examples of tomb facade carvings in Petra. If time permits, make sure you climb to the top of the stairs and look back towards the Treasury.
There are two restaurants inside Petra, the Basin Restaurant on the left and the Nabataean Tent Restaurant on the right. It is also possible to buy drinks and snacks at stalls and Bedouin tents around the site.