Last Updated on 10/23/23 by Rose Palmer
The “lost” city of Petra in Jordan is no longer lost – in fact it is quite famous. It was rediscovered in 1812 by the intrepid Middle East explorer Johann Ludwig Burkhardt, and since then has become a very popular tourist destination.
Petra was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1983 and chosen as one of the New Seven Wonders of the World in 2007. But it was the 1989 movie Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade that really brought Petra’s Treasury into the forefront of pop culture.
Today, almost one million visitors make it a point to visit the ancient city of Petra each year where they are awed by the 2000 year old structures left behind by the enigmatic Nabatean culture. Fortunately, only a fraction visit the nearby neighbor of Little Petra.
What is Little Petra, Jordan
Most visitors only tour the sites along the main route in Petra taking in the famous Treasury, the Street of Facades, the Palace Tombs and possibly the Monastery. But the greater Petra area is actually a little over 100 square miles in size and holds about 1000 tombs among its valleys and mountain ledges.
On my first visit to Petra, I spent almost two full days exploring all the major sights in the main valley. Yet despite having so much time, I was not able to fit in a visit to nearby Little Petra. However, on my second visit to Jordan, I finally corrected this omission.
As the name implies, Little Petra is a smaller version of the larger archeological site. The UNESCO protected area also includes the location which is commonly referred to as Little Petra, but is officially known as Siq Al-Barid in Arabic, which means the “cold canyon”.
Built in the 1st century ACE, archeologists believe that Little Petra was used as a rest stop for the trading caravans along the Silk Road on their way to the Nabatean capital of Petra. For many centuries, the Nabateans were successful traders, extending their reach from India in the east to Egypt in the west, so having a large, dedicated space for their merchants to rest near Petra makes sense.
Where is Little Petra
During both of my visits to Petra, I stayed at the conveniently located Movenpick Resort which is across the street from the main Petra Visitor’s Center in the town of Wadi Musa.
From the hotel, the 9 kilometers to Little Petra was an easy 15 min drive. If you don’t have your own car, the hotel can set you up with a driver to take you there and back.
When is the best time to visit Little Petra
My first visit to Jordan and Petra was toward the end of November which was a good time of year for me because it wasn’t as hot, and it was not as crowded. My second visit to Petra was in mid October and it was definitely warmer as well as being a much more crowded experience.
I visited Little Petra on my second Jordan itinerary after visiting Petra. I stopped there early in the morning as I left Wadi Musa to drive to Wadi Rum. Our group arrived a little after 9 AM and there were already other tourists there, but it was nowhere near as crowded as Petra had been the day before.
Stopping to see Little Petra on the way to Petra would also work. It would certainly provide a nice introduction to what one would see at the bigger archeological site.
The only problem with going to Little Petra early in the morning was that most of it was in shade because of the high canyon walls, so it was hard to get decent photos. If it’s not too hot, a mid day visit may offer better photographic opportunities.
Entry into Little Petra is free
Unlike its bigger sibling, there was no entrance fee and no need to purchase a separate ticket for my visit to Little Petra. We just parked in the large, open, car park near the entry gate, and walked into the narrow canyon that marks the entrance.
As with big Petra, there were a few vendors here but they were not nearly as pushy as the ones in big Petra. There were also some guides lingering about, offering their services, but I just ignored them.
The sign at the entrance to the canyon indicated that the opening hours for Little Petra were normally 6 AM to 6 PM in the summer and 6 AM to 4:30 PM in the winter. Your hotel or the Petra Visitor’s Center should be able to confirm this.
What to see in Little Petra
Little Petra is about 1/2 kilometer or about 1/3 of a mile long, which is significantly smaller than the main canyon that makes up Petra. In fact, Petra’s Siq is larger than all of Little Petra.
Just like its big sibling, Little Petra is a collection of rock cut tombs, temples, dining halls, caves, and water reservoirs. In fact, the first typical rock cut structure, an unfinished tomb, was easily visible from the parking area.
At the end of the parking area was the gated entrance into a narrow slot canyon, or Siq, though this one was significantly shorter than the famous one at Petra.
The Little Petra Siq opened into an oval courtyard type space which held a large rock cut 2-level temple-like structure along with some cisterns and other smaller chambers. It never ceases to amaze me how the Nabateans were able to carve so much negative space out of the rock and leave perfectly carved columns and facades, all done with simple hand tools.
There were also steep, narrow stairways cut into the side of the hill but I don’t have a good head for heights so did not try to go see where they led (though others did).
As the canyon narrowed again, I passed by more rock cut chambers. It was easy to climb into some of them and take a peek to see how they looked inside. Many had benches or ledges cut out of the stone encircling the perimeter of the chambers.
These openings were labelled as Tricliniums on the map, which means they were dining halls where traders could celebrate their arrival or celebrate religious events. The term Triclinium comes from Latin and means a three sided couch used for reclining while eating.
Walking on, the canyon walls opened up again and the highlight of Little Petra appeared. The Painted Biclinium or Painted House is the only remaining example of wall and ceiling decoration that can be seen inside a Nabatean rock cut chamber.
Not surprising, this was the busiest and most crowded part of the site. A set of narrow stairs lead up the cliff face to the ledge where the entrance to the painted chamber was located.
Again, since I don’t do heights well, and the ledge and the chamber were fairly full of people coming and going, I chose not to go up there.
Just beyond the Painted Biclinium, the canyon ended in another set of steep stairs cut into the rock face. I was told these just led to an overlook into the valley beyond.
How much time do you need for Little Petra
I spent about 1 hour exploring Little Petra at a leisurely pace, and I felt that was enough time without feeling rushed. There is basically only one way in and out of Little Petra, so if it is really crowded, a visit here might need a little longer, just to maneuver around people coming and going at the same time in the narrow sections.
Why visit Little Petra
Was my visit to Little Petra worth it? Yes, I definitely thought so. I felt that the smaller human sized scale of Little Petra made it feel more accessible, more usable, and practical. These were spaces that were meant to be used on a regular basis, unlike the large structures like the Treasury and Monastery, or the Royal tombs at Petra which were designed to impress.
I was also interested in seeing structures as they were used by the living Nabateans. Most of the rock cut chambers in Petra are tombs. The area of Petra where the living city was located showed the architectural influences of the Romans that conquered Petra. Here at Little Petra though, I saw the Tricliniums just as they were when the Nabateans used them.
It was especially nice to explore this section of the UNESCO site without the crush of huge crowds. That may not last though as I have read that more tours are including Little Petra in their Jordan itineraries.
I also enjoyed making friends with the local wildlife.
The Petra Back Door Hike
From the end of the Little Petra valley where the stairs lead to an overlook, it is possible to do a 5.5 mile (9 kilometer) hike to the back entrance of the Monastery at Petra. (Trail map). This hike is part of the greater Jordan Trail and part of the Dana to Petra trail.
I’ve read that this trail is not always well marked and should be attempted only with a knowledgeable local guide. Your hotel in Wadi Musa can help find a guide. Anyone doing this hike will need to purchase an entry ticket for Petra or purchase a Jordan Pass.
If you are planning on visiting Jordan in the near future and want to visit Petra and Little Petra, my travel tips on how to visit Petra are a good starting resource.
And definitely add Little Petra to you list of places to visit in Jordan.
Please note that my visit to Little Petra was part of a 10 day Jordan tour hosted by the Jordanian Tourism Board. All content and opinions are my own.
Other Jordan stories you may find helpful:
My guide on how to see Petra after my two visits there: Inside Petra By NIght and Day – How to Spend 1 or 2 Days in Petra
How to swim in the Dead Sea in style: Swimming in the Dead Sea in Style – Tips for a Dead SEa Visit
Thanks for visiting.