Jordan abounds in archeological riches, from Neolithic ruins to the Desert Castles of Umayyad Princes. Chief among these national treasures is the soul-stirring, rose-red city of Petra, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In order to preserve the site, all tourists' facilities have been located in the town of Wadi Musa, right next to the entrance of Petra.
Petra is the legacy of the Nabateans, an industrious Arab people who settled in south Jordan more than 2,000 years ago. From a remote staging post, they dominated the trade routes of ancient Arabia, levying tolls and sheltering caravans laden with Indian spices and silks, African ivory and animal hides.
The Nabatean Kingdom endured for centuries, and Petra became widely admired for its refined culture, massive architecture and ingenious complex of dams and water channels. Ultimately, however, the Roman Emperor Trajan annexed the Kingdom and much of Petra's appeal comes from its spectacular setting deep inside a narrow desert gorge. From the main entrance, you walk into the chasm or Siq that ripped through the rock in a prehistoric quake.
Threading your way between the cliff walls as they soar to 80 meters, you pass inscriptions in ancient languages and rock-cut chambers carved into the whorls of sandstone.
Petra's most famous monument, the Treasury, appears dramatically at the end of the Siq. Used in the final sequence of the film Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, this towering façade is only the first of Petra's secrets. Various walks and climbs reveal literally hundreds of rock cut tombs and temple façades, funerary halls and rock relief - enough to keep you here for many days. You find a 3,000-seat theatre from the early 1st century AD, a Palace Tomb in the Roman style, a gigantic 1st century Deir (Monastery). A modest shrine commemorating the death of Aaron, brother of Moses, was built in the 13th century by the Mamluk Sultan, high atop Mount Aaron (Jabal Haroun) in the Sharah range.
These sights are at their best in early morning and late afternoon, when the sun confers warm tones to the multi coloured stone and you can view the majesty of Petra as Burckhardt saw it in 1812. When he made his journey, the road was long and arduous. Now a few hours' drive from Amman brings you to this unforgettable destination.
What to see
The main attraction of Petra is the city itself, of course. A one-day visit is an absolute minimum, and a week will still leave many parts unexplored. Maps and excellent guidebooks are for sale at the entrance to the Petra site, and guides are available to take you through the city.
You can hire a horse to take you to the entrance of the Siq (about 1 km from the main entrance). Horse-drawn carriages can be taken from the main entrance to the end of the Siq. For elderly and handicapped tourists, the Visitors' Centre can issue a special permit for an extra fee, so that the carriages can go inside Petra itself to its main attractions.
After you have passed the Siq, once inside the actual city, hire a donkey or, for the more adventurous, be led on camelback - it is easier than you may think, and surprisingly comfortable! Remember to take it easy, as the Petra site is large and can involve some fairly steep climbs!