January 12th. 1 pm. Petra, Jordan.
It flourished as an ancient civilization for over 500 years. Then, forgotten by the outside world, it faded into obscurity and disappeared off the map for centuries. It’s best known for Indiana Jones’ famous ride through its canyon walls on his quest for the long-lost Holy Grail.
Where is this ancient city?
It’s Petra, the lost (and rediscovered) “Rose City” in Jordan.
Our journey to Petra began at the very early hour of 3 am. We were so excited the night before we barely slept anyway, so it was a relief when our alarm went off and we went downstairs to find our driver waiting for us.
In true Amanda Hotel fashion, Ali had prepared a takeaway breakfast for us of bread, boiled eggs, white cheese, and fresh fruit. Seriously, I love that man.
We drove through the darkened streets to the outskirts of Dahab, where we boarded a bus full of Ukranian tourists. Yep. Somehow we ended up being the only English-speakers on a day tour with about 50 Russian-speaking Ukrainians. Luckily, our guide spoke English too so we weren’t completely lost!
We and the 50 Ukrainians traveled 2 hours north up the east coast of the Sinai Peninsula, all the way to the port town of Taba. This tiny town sits right on the border of Israel, and from its port, you can see four countries at once–Egypt, Israel, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia.
As the sun came up, illuminating the barren desert mountains, we cleared Egyptian immigration and boarded our ferry boat, the M/V Petra Wonder. We sped off across the Red Sea, passing the narrow strip of beach that made up Israel’s Red Sea border before docking about an hour later in Aqaba, Jordan.
Needless to say, Aqaba looks slightly different than it did 100 years ago, when Lawrence of Arabia famously captured the port city during WWI through an unexpected land attack. The Port of Aqaba now features dazzling townhomes, luxury yachts, and a whole slew of jetskis.
After clearing Jordanian customs, we boarded another bus and began the two-hour journey north to Petra. Along the way, we passed the city of Aqaba and the barren deserts and canyons of Wadi Rum. The highway hugged the border of Israel almost the entire way up, offering us views into the neighboring country.
Temperatures hovered around 50F (10C), providing a chilly but pleasant backdrop for the day. After winding through a series of switchbacks and the modern-day town of Petra, we arrived at last at the entrance to the historical city. 50 Jordanian dollars (or about $US70) later, we held in our hands two tickets to one of the New Seven Wonders of the World.
Was it worth the whopping admission fee? HECK. YEAH.
What no one tells you about Petra is how HUGE it is. I imagined turning a corner and seeing the canyon Indy rode through, with the Treasury just a few steps away.
In reality, you have to walk half a mile just to reach the entrance to the canyon (Siq). Then it’s another three-quarters-of-a-mile through the Siq’s winding valley before you catch your first glimpse of the famed Treasury. There’s nothing quick about the journey through Petra, especially when you’re sandwiched in with thousands of other starry-eyed tourists.
But, hey. It is what it is. And it’s oh-so-worth-it.
Our tickets included a “free” horse ride from the visitor’s center to the canyon entrance, which I, of course, took advantage of. While everyone else walked, a guide led me and his horse, Rosie, along the soft dirt path towards the canyon entrance.
Along the way, we pass horse-drawn buggies and remnants of the ancient civilization carved into the sandstone walls. When we reach the entrance of the Siq, I say goodbye to Rosie, tip her owner, and rejoin the tour group to begin our official exploration.
Here’s a quick history of Petra:
- Located in the heart of the ancient Silk Road, it was once a thriving trading center and the capital of the Nabataean empire from 400 B.C. to 106 A.D.
- At the height of the Nabateans’ rule, Petra had a population of more than 20,000 inhabitants.
- Once Rome took control of Petra in 106 A.D., its importance in international trade began to wane.
- By 700 A.D., Petra was abandoned and forgotten by all but the local Bedouins.
- In the early 1800s, a Swiss explorer named Johann Ludwig disguised himself in Bedouin costume and infiltrated the “lost city.”
- To date, only 15% of Petra has been uncovered and cataloged. Experts believe another 85% still remains buried and untouched.
With our mouths agape, we follow the crowds through the Siq’s stunning red, orange, and yellow canyons. At some points, it opens wide above your head. At others, it’s so narrow it almost feels like a cave.
You aren’t allowed to ride horses through the Siq (bummer), but those who can’t cover the long distance on foot are able to take horse-drawn carts to the Treasury and back. The sound of clip-clopping hooves echoed off the canyon walls, no different than it was 2,000 years ago.
Remarkably, much of the ancient Roman roads are still intact. You can even see the remains of the aqueducts that once supplied water to the thriving population that lived within these canyon walls.
At last, after giving yourself a neckache from staring up at the massive stone walls, you enter the final part of the Siq that leads to the famous Treasury.
And then–finally–you’re there. Staring at the Treasury of Petra, in all its rose-colored glory.
This is one historical site that is definitely NOT overrated.
So, now for the million-dollar question: What lies inside Petra’s mysterious Treasury?
A maze of underground halls? Buried treasures? A medieval knight guarding the Holy Grail?
Sorry to burst your bubble, but the answer is none of the above. All that lies within the poorly-named Treasury (which never actually held any treasure) is a small hall that once contained a royal tomb.
Still, the facade is stunning. And the great part is that it’s only the beginning of Petra’s wonders. As you venture further, you find more and more evidence of a once-thriving civilization: broad streets, a Roman amphitheater, royal tombs, colonnades, a monastery, and much more.
In the free time that remained, we wandered through some of the ruins to see what else Petra had to offer, besides its famous Treasury. Journey with us!
We could have spent days–weeks, even–exploring the nooks and crannies of Petra. The ruins are half-built, half-carved into the most colorful rocks you’ve ever seen, reminisce of the US southwest, but on a much grander scale.
Indeed, the “Rose City” captivated us, as it’s been doing to visitors for thousands of years. It’s easy to imagine the city during its heyday, when traders along the Silk Road would have passed through in their caravans of camels and Arabian horses. I can easily envision bustling marketplaces, lively performances at the amphitheater, and the scents of tea and spices in the air.
Unfortunately, time was running out, and we still had to return to Egypt. We enjoyed our second journey through the Siq–just as spectacular from the opposite direction–before we reluctantly boarded our bus and prepared for the long trip back to Dahab.
In case you’ve ever wondered, Petra is not overrated. It does not disappoint. It is every bit as awesome as you imagine it to be–and then some.
My only regret? That we didn’t have more time to spend here.
But that’s okay–something tells me we’ll be back again someday!