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When I thought of Petra, it was always the famous picture of Al Khazneh, the treasury, that came to mind. I wasn’t aware, that the famous building is actually only a small part of what is a gigantic ancient city, which at one point had up to 40’000 inhabitants. Petra is enclosed by rock and can only be reached through a steep mountain pass on one side, and the Siq – a narrow canyon of beautifully shaped pink, white, orange and red sandstone – on the other end. The fact that we entered Petra around 10am, left around 5pm and spent the whole seven hours in between walking, without even seeing it all, proves, just how big this site actually is.
Although about 1000 buildings have been uncovered in an area covering 20 square kilometers, experts believe, that only about 20% of Petra has been found so far. The rest is still hidden somewhere beneath sand and stone.
As I learned from our guide, Petra used to be the center of the caravan trade in the region and the capital of the Nabataeans. One can see why: it is a natural fortress, only reachable through the narrow and winding Siq and easily defendable. It was located at the center of trade routes connecting such cities and regions as Damascus to the north and Aqaba on the Red Sea, as well as Gaza and the Persian Gulf. The dry valley was and is prone to flash floods, but the Nabataeans invented a clever water distribution system, that protected the city from the floods through dams and channels and stored the water in cisterns for the long droughts ahead.
While walking through the Siq, I also learned that after around 100AD, the Romans controlled Petra for a few hundred years, and left behind their cobblestone roads, part of which can still be seen today. The western world was then only (re)introduced to Petra in 1812, when the Swiss traveller Johann Ludwig Burckhardt, disguised as a Muslim merchant, heard about the ruins from some locals and then used the excuse that he wanted to sacrifice a goat at Haroun’s (Aaron’s) Tomb, to convince his guide to enter the region. He then rediscovered Petra and wrote about it in a letter to his employers back in England.
The walk from the entrance down through the Siq took us about an hour, counting in the numerous times we stopped to take pictures. If you want to get there faster, the Bedouins offer horse carriages, which race through the canyon in much less time, and make the people on foot jump out of the way quickly, in order not to get run over.
After the long walk through the winding gorge, the Siq suddenly ends and a magnificent building is hewed out of the rock: Al Khazneh, the famous Treasury. Although there are a lot of visitors in Petra, the huge distances and long walks make the people spread out and sometimes, one is basically alone in the canyon or at a tomb. There was a big congregation of people by the Treasury, which obviously is the most popular spot and is fairly crowded with tour groups as well as the Bedouins and their camels. The Treasury is therefore best photographed early in the morning, late in the afternoon, when most visitors have returned to their busses or hotels – or at night.
From the Treasury – which by the way never held any treasure, it’s thought to be a tomb or a crypt – it’s another hour walk through a more open landscape to the Great Temple and the Colonnaded Street, which are part of the old city center. Tombs are carved into the sandstone everywhere, ranging from small holes in the rock, to gigantic structures even bigger than the Treasury.
Another 30-45 minute hike straight up the hill leads to Ad Deir, the Monastery, which I found to be grossly underrated. The Monastery looks very similar to the famous Treasury, but since it’s a bit out of the way, is a lot less crowded, more serene and offers a beautiful view over the surrounding rugged landscape. There are Bedouins selling coffee and tea and it’s a beautiful place to hang out for a bit and catch your breath. It’s definitely worth the extra effort to walk up there. And yes, if you’re that lazy, you can hire a donkey.
Enjoy the rest of the photos from beautiful Petra: