Yes, that Petra. It featured in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade but was famous long before the movie was made. To give some context, the movie came out when I was ten years old and I’d already heard of it.
Yes, I was a bit of a bookworm. But let’s face it, a lost city in a hidden valley that you have to go through a narrow canyon to get to is exactly the sort of thing that captures the imagination at any age.
Petra is in the south of Jordan, about three hours from the capital, Amman. To go to Petra you actually go to the adjacent town, Wadi Musa.
Wadi Musa translates as “Moses Valley” and both the town and the valley are named for a local spring. In the Bible, Numbers 20:9-11, Moses strikes the ground to force water to appear for the thirsty Israelites. Local tradition has it that the local spring is one and the same.
To actually get there from Amman the options are limited. Public transport isn’t great, though there’s apparently a limited inter-city bus service. Most people go as part of a tour group or rent a car in Amman. I hired a car and driver, which was easy but expensive. It should be said that in 2016 Jordan was cheap compared to the West but expensive for the Middle East.
You could probably visit Petra as a day trip but that would be tiring. I stayed in a hotel in Wadi Musa.
The town itself is built on the sides of the valley it shares its name with. There are quite a few hotels but the best option is to stay in one of the dozen or so that are within easy walking distance of the Petra Visitor Center. In any case, you’ll quickly realise that the town is dependent on the tourist trade.
The most famous feature of Petra is the rock-cut tomb known as “The Treasury.” Everyone knows that when you approach Petra through its narrow canyon, you only see the tomb at the other end at the last minute.
The canyon itself is called “the Siq” and is about a kilometre long. It’s rarely more than about 10 metres wide, is frequently narrower and has many twists and turns. But it’s easy to walk through and is paved. The walk itself is quite something and would be a tourist attraction in its own right almost anywhere else in the world.
While your first glimpse of The Treasury after walking through the canyon is supposed to be something special, it’s actually anticlimactic. By the time you’ve reached Wadi Musa you’ve already seen pictures of it dozens of times in tourist literature.
The other myth is that it comes on unexpectedly. After umpteen twists and turns you go around one last corner and Petra is there. Unfortunately this ignores the fact that the paved section of the canyon runs out. When you find yourself walking on sand it doesn’t take a genius to work out that the famous view will be around the next corner, which it is.
In other words, your first glimpse of Petra is unlikely to be the highlight of your holiday.
This is unfair to Petra of course. The site is genuinely impressive and there’s much more to it than just The Treasury. There are further tombs deeper inside the valley, there’s an entire amphitheatre carved from solid rock and there’s even a Roman street. Petra was built by the Nabateans but the Romans sure knew about it.
There are even a few treks you can do within the site. Sets of stairs carved into and between the cliffs lead you to vantage points with excellent views. One led me to a view of the Treasury from on high. Another, to what is called the “High Place of Sacrifice,” led to an even better view of the entire area. Descending from there I found myself climbing down ancient zigzags of sandstone steps like something out of an Enid Blyton novel. And there were no other tourists in sight.
Speaking of which, I have one more useful piece of advice about Petra: as everyone says, get there early. The site opens from about 6am in summer. As it happens I wasn’t there till at least half an hour later but there were still no other tourists in sight when I walked through the gate at the Visitor Center, and I saw maybe six other people in the Siq on the way in. Being early, quite frankly, means you get to enjoy the site with fewer of your fellow tourists for company. And that’s better.