Where and when: Petra, Jordan, 3rd Feb 2023
0800: Leave Aqaba and head to Petra, Jordan’s most well known tourist site as well as a UNESCO Heritage site.
1015: On the way we briefly stop at a view point to see Petra from a distance. Here you can see the mountain range where Petra is located, but it is so well hidden, you cannot see there is a city inside. Difficulty of access and being hidden from outsiders was one of the main reasons that Petra flourished for centuries. Our guide points out the entrance to the Petra complex, the start of the Siq.
You can also see Wadi Musa (meaning valley of Moses) village from here. Legend has it that when Moses was wandering in the desert, he passed through here. Searching for water, Moses struck his staff on the ground where fresh water springs opened, which provide water to this day.
1100: Arrive at Little Petra.
This is a Nabatean archaeological site, a little bit north of Petra. It is a smaller version of Petra and is free to visit, but many of the larger groups don’t come here. A small canyon leads to an open vallet, where a large hall with pillars has been carved into the sandstone rock. It is not clear what it was used for. Archaeologists speculate that it may be a receiving hall/meeting point for travelling tradesmen.
Further up the valley there are more rooms carved into the rock – some are blackened with soot, indicating they may have been used for cooking and some have remains of plaster and paintings.
We can also see some gulleys and cisterns carved to rock to catch and conserve rain water. Their ingenuity to catch and preserve water was another reason the Nabatean city and civilisation flourished.
A bit further from little Petra we can see the location of the springs – in a rather unusual sight, there are several fire trucks collecting water – the reasons for which will become apparent later in the day.
1210: Arrive at main Petra and lunch. The restaurant at the entrance to Petra is the most expensive to date on the trip – 12 JD (~15 GBP) for a falafel sandwich and salad.
1315: Start of guided tour of Petra. At the start are the Dijinn blocks. These are square monuments before the Siq, and are believed to have been built as dwellings for spirits or ghosts, although their exact purpose is not known. However, their name derives from the Arabic word for Spirit or ghost- which is linked to the origin of the English word for “genie”.
A bit further on from here is the start of the famous Siq (meaning “Shaft” in Arabic), the narrow canyon that leads to the city of Petra.
As we walk through the Siq, our guide tells us about the history of Petra. Petra is considered to date from 5 to 6th century BC. Nabateans settled here, on the main trade route between Arabia, Egypt and the Mediterranean and built a city.
The 1st known Nabatean King Aretas I ruled from 170 to 160 BC. The Nabateans carved their city into the rose red mountains, with houses, temples and many elaborate tombs. They also brought water from Wadi Musa 5 miles away, through an irrigation network of gulleys and filtering cisterns.
Unfortunately not a lot of detail exist about the history and lifestyle of the Nabateans who built Petra to know exactly what each building was originally used for.
Petra is incidentally the name given to the city by the greeks, meaning ‘stone’. Romans also used this name, so it stuck. The Nabatean name for the city is Raqmu meaning “Coloured Stone”.
The city was annexed by the Roman empire in 106 AD after the death of the last Nabatean King. The city was partially destroyed by an earthquake in 363 AD and destroyed even further in an earthquake it 550 AD. The tombs, carved to the side of the mountains survived, but many of the other structures were destroyed. The city was abandaned at this point. Over time, Bedouin tribes settled in some of the caves, but otherwise, Petra was lost to the world. It was rediscovered for the west by Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt who convinced the Bedouins to show him the fabled city in 1812. It has been a tourist attraction and archaeological site since then. In the 1970s, Bedouin residents of Petra were moved to houses in a new village near by.
Archaeological work is still ongoing at Petra, with much still remaining to be discovered. Our guide showed us a carving of a Man and Camel on the wall of the Siq which had only been unearthed in the last 20 years. Throughout the site you can see places that are partially excavated, still waiting to be discovered.
When we get to the Treasury, it is very busy, with many people wearing lanyards hanging around and a number of emergency vehicles also parked nearby. The reasons for this soon becomes clear.
The is an emergency exercise being conducted today at Petra. They are simulating flash floods and a rescue operation. (Petra had real flash floods in December 2022) Many pools of water have been constructed (hence the reasons for the fire trucks filling up near little Petra). The pools are filled with dummies, and even an upturned vehicle.
1530: We make our way past the Treasury, further into the city, and come to the Amphitheatre. This is very similar to other Roman Amphitheatres around the world except that is it completely carved out of rock, on the side of a mountain.
Beyond the Amphitheatre are the ruins of the great temple, couple of Byzantine Churches, Royal Tombs and the Colonnade. However before we could see these, we hear a whistle and the emergency operation kicks off. Many emergency vehicles whisk past us. Some divers jump into the pools of water, some start search and rescue with dogs and many “casualties” are being rescued, loaded on to the emergency vehicles and taken away.
Although the exercise is hampering the visit today, it is something you will never see again. Plus we also have the whole day at Petra tomorrow. We watch the rescue operation for a while and then decide to head back to the entrance. From the Treasury, it is a 45 minute walk to the entrance, made all the more harder by it being mostly uphill. There are electric golf buggies that will transport you from the Treasury to the entrance (and vice versa) but tickets cost 15JD one way. There are donkeys that can transport you as well, but this is over a much shorter distance from the start of the Siq to the entrance. The donkey ride is included in the ticket price, but you have to tip the handlers.
1630: After slowly making our way back to the entrance, we go to the hotel.
1900: Dinner at local host in Petra. Dinner is chicken Muqluba- the name literally translates to ‘upside down’. It’s a casserole with rice, vegetables and chicken that’s cooked, flipped and served with yoghurt.
2100: Our accommodation for the night is at the Amra Palace Hotel Petra. It is in need of an upgrade – last done up in the 70s it is all a bit shabby. It was the only hotel we stayed that didn’t have European style plugs, some of our group had hot water problems and room temperatures are controlled by reception, so you have to call them. Once plus point about the hotel is the little shop across the road – much like a cornershop in the UK, it is a veritable treasure trove with everything from bottles of water, snacks – both local and internationaland sourvernirs. Prices are a lot cheaper than what you buy in Petra.
Next week – how I got on during our second day at Petra and set a personal best for number of steps in one day.