Last Updated on 03/16/21 by quiltripping
Read on to discover all there is to see inside the “Rose City”, one of the 7 New Wonders of the World and a UNESCO World Heritage site. I am sharing all my Petra visit experiences as well as all my best Petra photos to inspire and to help you plan your own trip to this unique historic wonder.
Like many, my first knowledge of Petra came from the movie “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” and ever since, Petra has been at the top of my travel wish list. So, when my husband and I were thinking about a trip to Israel and Jordan, planning our itinerary so that we would have two days in Petra was my most important criteria.
Inside Petra – What makes it special
The city of Petra was the capital of Nabatean culture for about 500 years from 400 BCE to 100 CE. The Nabateans were once a nomadic Arab tribe, but through their ingenuity and engineering skills they learned to control the flow of water which allowed them to settle and prosper in the hot Middle Eastern desert.
Unlike the Romans and Greeks, the Nabateans did not leave much written material so historians know relatively little about their culture. They did develop a cursive form of writing which was a precursor to today’s Arabic script.
The Nabateans became expert traders specializing in frankincense and myrrh which were the must have luxury goods 2000 years ago, much like the newest iPhone is today. They controlled the caravan trade routes in all directions, from India in the east to Egypt in the west and Syria, Greece and Rome along the Mediterranean. It is incredible to think that they moved goods all those distances with nothing but camels.
With all their wealth, they built their showcase capitol at the crossroads of this trade traffic coming from Arabia, Africa, Persia and the Mediterranean. Influenced by their travels, they built their city using Assyrian, Greco-Roman, and Egyptian design elements. At its height, about 30,000 people lived in Petra over an area about the size of Manhattan.
At Petra the Nabateans flaunted their wealth, building dams and developing a large network of channels that allowed them to divert water from as far as 8 miles away. With their sophisticated hydraulic management, they constructed a man made oasis in the desert complete with an Olympic sized ornamental pool, open water canals, fountains and lush gardens. They also created extensive, lush terraces which they watered and farmed. And they built grand tombs chiseled out of the surrounding mountains in honor of their dead.
In the early part of the second century Petra came under Roman rule and influence and still continued to thrive for a little while. But a major earthquake in 363 and a decline in overland trade routes led to the city’s decline as well. There is evidence of Byzantine churches on the site, and the Crusaders built castles nearby, but in the subsequent centuries, Petra became lost to all but the local tribes.
Petra was “rediscovered” by the Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burkhardt in 1812. Disguised as an Arab Muslim, he walked through what is now called the Siq and was the first modern westerner to lay eyes on the Treasury.
In 1985 Petra was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site and in 2007 it became part of the list of the New 7 Wonders of the World.
Day 1 of our 2 day Petra Itinerary
Having learned as much as I could about Petra before our travels, I was very excited to finally see it.
Our driver picked us up early after our overnight glamping stay in Wadi Rum and drove us the two hours to the town of Wadi Musa where Petra is located. On the way we saw more of the desert landscape that makes this part of Jordan so unique. It was hard to imagine that an ancient city once thrived in all this barren sand.
Where to stay in Petra
I had booked us into the Moevenpick Resort Petra which was conveniently located across the street from the Petra Visitors Center. In this case, staying here was all about the location, location, location. It is a beautiful hotel with many nice amenities, but we really didn’t have the time to enjoy them.
I chose to stay at the Movenpick because I knew we would be doing a lot of walking each day in the archeological site, and at the end of the day when we were hot, tired, and achy, I didn’t want to have to waste any time or energy getting back to our room.
I also wanted to be close so that we could be one of the first ones inside Petra when they opened in the morning. It also made it easier to get in line early for the Petra by Night event.
By lunchtime we were at the Petra visitor’s center purchasing our tickets. Our Jordan Explorer Pass gave us two consecutive visit days in Petra, but we still needed to purchase the Petra by Night tickets. Guides were hanging around, offering their services, but we just politely declined and started the long walk toward the famous Treasury building.
It wasn’t long before we encountered our first ancient monuments, a few free standing cube block tombs called Djinn Blocks.
Just a little further ahead we saw our first rock cut structure, the combined Bab el-Siq Triclinium and Obelisk Tomb which had very distinctive Egyptian details.
An informative sign written in both Arabic and English told us that the tomb was in the upper portion that was crowned by the pyramid shapes. The lower Triclinium was a funerary dining hall where banquets were held in honor of the gods or ancestors.
In the Siq
After walking about a mile, we were at the entrance to the Siq, a gorge that mother nature carved out of the sandstone rocks. Here we saw our first example of Nabatean ingenuity: they cut a 300 foot tunnel through the rock to divert water from the flash floods that helped to shape the Siq.
They also cut irrigation channels in the walls of the Siq that held ceramic pipes which transported water from Wadi Musa 5 miles away.
The afternoon light created a beautiful soft glow on the stone walls around us as we walked through this natural corridor. The pathway twisted and turned so we could not see far ahead of us which added to the sense of anticipation and mystery.
It is believed that the Nabateans used the Siq as a formal gateway into their city. They paved the road and some of those original 2000 year old limestone pavers can still be seen in a few sections.
For the Nabateans, walking through the Siq was also an important part of their pilgrimage into their holy city of Petra. Large niches cut into the stone that once held sacred figurines of their gods can still be seen today.
Our walk through the Siq took another 20 minutes. Because it wasn’t busy, the walk was quiet and peaceful and felt almost cathedral like. (If you don’t want to walk all this way, the local Bedouin offer buggy rides that take you from the Visitor’s Center to the Treasury building.)
Around each bend, I kept expecting to see the famous Treasury building. The suspense built as we continued walking. And then, finally, without warning, I got my Indiana Jones moment as a small bit of this ancient monument peeked through an opening in the high walls overhead.
A few more steps, and the view slowly opened up to reveal a little more of the famous façade, until finally, the stone curtain was lifted completely and we could see Jordan’s most famous sight in all of its glorious splendor.
The Nabateans clearly had a flair for the dramatic. The approach through the Siq and then the slow reveal of this commanding structure was designed to impress and displayed a very clear and loud message of the wealth and power that they wielded.
This first view of the Treasury is indeed breathtaking, even today with all of our great technology and architecture. I can only imagine what an impact this would have had on a first time visitor to Petra 2000 years ago.
The Treasury, or Al-Khazneh, is indeed impressive in its scale and detail. Both the façade and the opening within were carved out of the solid rock about 2000 years ago at the height of the Nabatean civilization.
Depending on who you read, it was either used as a tomb or a temple (or both) and was designed with very distinctive Hellenistic (Greek) elements. The name Petra actually comes from the Greek word for rock or stone.
In contrast to its elaborate outside, the rooms inside are much smaller, with simple flat walls and are completely unadorned (we could only peek inside since no one is allowed in). For a different perspective, ZamaniProject.org gives 3D views of all the major locations in Petra, including the Treasury.
With binoculars or a telephoto lens, you can get good close up views of the intricate sculpted details adorning the façade, especially those on the capitals.
Much like Michelangelo releasing his sculptures out of one huge piece of marble, the Nabeteans had only one chance here to get it right as they chiseled away the stone to create their artistic vision. Apparently. they started carving at the top and then worked their way down.
The Treasury holds court all on its own in a box canyon with no hint that there is more to see in a city beyond. A tented gift shop sells trinkets, snacks and drinks and offered a place to take a break with an unforgettable view.
The Street of Facades
As impressive as the Treasury was, it did not provide any clues to the extensive and sprawling remains of the Nabatean capitol beyond. Another short and narrow passage through the rocks led on to the Street of Facades.
The Street of Facades is exactly what the name implies – a series of large, consecutive, less elaborate tombs cut into the side of the rock face.
The Nabateans were influenced by and used design elements from all the cultures that they traded with. Unlike the Greek inspired Treasury, the flat and unadorned surfaces on these tombs with their minimal decorations reflect older Mesopotamian decorative styles.
Moving on, the path slowly widened. and we came to another series of older tombs cut like layer cakes into the side of the mountains on either side. As many tombs as were visible here, this is only a small fraction of the 800+ tombs that exist all throughout the greater Petra world heritage complex.
Petra is not just a city for the dead, though clearly staying connected to those that have passed on played an important role in their culture. At the end of the Street of Facades we encountered our next amazing site: a 6000 seat theater that was also chiseled directly out of the solid stone.
The afternoon was quickly passing so for our last stop of the day we went to see the Royal Tombs. A series of even bigger structures were built one next to another along the whole front of the Jebel Al-Khubtha (Jebel means mountain in Arabic).
The Royal Tombs
The late afternoon sun bathed the walls in a golden glow that accentuated all the amazing details of the Royal Tombs.
A path and a series of stairs took us to the most impressive of these: the Urn tomb. Like the other tombs in the valley, this one was also carved out of the rock, but also includes man made elements. It is believed that the vaulted arches that provide the support for the large courtyard in front of the tomb were also built by the Nabateans.
This tomb also has a unique feature of a columnated portico adjacent to the tomb façade. In the 5th century CE the inside of the tomb was used by the Byzantines as a church and was modified to fit the liturgical needs of the time. Despite the low light in the tomb, it was still possible to see the beautiful striations of the stone from which this tomb was carved.
Nearby, the Corinthian Royal Tomb showed some of the same Greek inspired elements as the Treasury, but was not as well preserved.
The Palace tomb next door is one of the largest tombs in Petra, measuring about 150 feet high. A portion of the top left was actually constructed from stone rather than rock cut so that the symmetry of the design could be maintained.
By now the sun was getting low in the sky and it was time to head back to the hotel. We still had a one hour walk back through the valley, past the Treasury and then the slow uphill slog through the Siq to the Visitor’s Center.
The Petra Museum next to the Visitor’s Center was open late, so we checked out the displays and learned a lot more about what was known of the Nabatean culture and history.
Day 2 of our 2 day Petra Itinerary
On our second day, we wanted to focus on hikes to the less visited spots inside Petra. First on the list was the trail to a viewpoint of the Treasury from above. The best lighting for photographing the Treasury was mid morning so we planned accordingly.
We got an early start and were retracing our steps through the Siq by 8 AM. We continued our walk from the day before (though more quickly this time since I wasn’t taking as many photos) and followed the signs for the Al-Kubtha trail to the Palace tomb, where we started climbing the stairs that marked the beginning of the trail.
As we got higher, we started getting tantalizing views of the valley below.
After about 20 minutes of climbing stairs, we reached the top and the trail leveled out. An enterprising Bedouin had set up a covered sitting area that took in the fantastic views of the theater below and provided a nice place to take a break before we continued on.
The high view of the Treasury
The trail continued for another 15 minutes, at one point going through a small rocky ravine, and then it opened up to the view I was waiting for.
I think that from this high perspective, it was much easier to see and appreciate what an immense accomplishment it was to chisel out this huge façade from the mountain side. It was also easier to see all the three- dimensional details and the depth of the carvings, especially on the capitals.
I do not do well with heights, so getting to the edge to look down on the Treasury and get the photos I wanted was a bit of a challenge for me. But the view from this angle was truly spectacular and the hike up was well worth the effort.
The Byzantine Church
After returning back down to the valley, we followed the hillside trail to the site of the remains of a Byzantine Church. In 363 CE a devastating earthquake destroyed much of the Nabatean city. But a little over 100 years later, a large stone church was built which survived for about 150 years.
Today, the intricate mosaics that still remain are protected and preserved under a tented awning.
From the Byzantine church we continued on the hillside trail toward the end of the valley. On this path we had great views of the Royal Tombs behind us. From this perspective it was easy to see how the Nabateans has carved out the whole front of the mountainside.
We also had extensive views of what is called the Temple Complex before us. This was once the heart of the living city of Petra.
Hiking to the Monastery
We got onto the trail to the Monastery at The Basin restaurant and started making our way up hill. The hike is a little over a mile and has over 800 steps. The trail follows the ancient, winding Nabatean processional path cut into the mountain side.
It was a long and slow climb for me and took me about an hour. Those that are more fit would probably do it in about 40 minutes. The benefit of doing this hike in the afternoon is that the path is mostly shaded and therefore cooler.
At one point on the trail. we passed rock cut caves that had once been used by the Bedouin as homes.
All along the route, local Bedouins have set up booths and colorful displays selling trinkets and souvenirs. There were also a few kiosks selling drinks and snacks if you needed a break.
As we climbed higher and higher, the views across the valley and the Petra Archeological Site were amazing. We could now get a sense for just how big the city had been at one time and how much carving the Nabateans had done throughout the valley and beyond.
Finally, the path reached the top and opened up onto a large open plateau. Rounding a corner, we finally saw the pinnacle of Nabatean architecture – the Monastery or Ad Deir.
Even though it is called a monastery, scholars believe that this was actually used as a temple. The local Bedouins gave it the name Monastery because of the Byzantine inscribed crosses inside the chamber.
The Nabateans also leveled out the open area in front of the Monastery and also created a large water pool nearby to catch any runoff and to protect the building. For reference, the height of the Monastery is about 150 feet high and it is about 150 feet wide.
Though the Monastery looks a lot like the Treasury, it is not as highly decorated and scholars say that this design is totally Nabatean. What we no longer see is the bright white stucco and painted decorations that once adorned and protected all of these monolithic sandstone sculptures.
After all that hiking we took a much needed break at the little teahouse that was set up across from the Monastery. A small snack and a cup of tea with this view was indeed a very memorable treat.
I also took this opportunity to photograph my Jordan inspired quilt. I designed this quilt with Bedouin blankets in mind, so this was definitely a fitting location.
Once we had our energy back, we hiked a little further on for higher up views of the Monastery and also to an overlook into the next valley over, Wadi Araba. I especially liked the view showing the contrast of the ancient temple with the modern town of Uum Sayhoun in the distance.
I would have like to explore more of the tombs and other archeological sites around the area of the Monastery since there are a lot of them, but the sun was getting low in the sky, and we still had a very long walk back to the hotel. What goes up must come down, so it was another 800 steps back to the valley floor.
On our return walk through the valley, we walked on the Colonnaded Street past some of the archeological sites of the city center that we had not yet seen up close. The best preserved freestanding structure in Petra is the Qasr Al-Bint temple. It is believed that this was the main Nabatean temple dedicated to their primary god Dushara.
Passing through the Roman built Temenos Gate, we entered the area that is called the “Great Temple” even though this was not used as a temple, but rather more as a large reception hall or meeting place.
Under both Nabatean and Roman rule there was at one time also a large pool and garden complex here, demonstrating their sophisticated management of water in the middle of the desert.
We continue on the Colonnaded Street, walking along the main artery of what was once a thriving city center. Once again, the setting sun treated us with beautiful glowing views of the Royal Tombs in front of us.
When we reached the Treasury, I indulged in one more long look and a few more daylight photos. We would be back in a few hours again to see it lit by candlelight.
Petra by Night
After walking many miles, I was ready for a rest and a good meal. The buffet dinner at the Movenpick Resort was indeed very good with lots of local fresh salad options, different protein choices and deserts. But tired as my legs were, we only got to relax for a little over an hour. It was Wednesday and we had tickets to see Petra by Night.
Petra By Night is offered Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursday evenings only and requires a separate entry ticket (confirm performance times when you purchase your ticket at the Visitor’s Center). Since our hotel was right across the street from the Petra Visitor’s Center, getting in line early was easy.
When it was time, a guide started leading our large group on the 30 minute walk to the Treasury. I had seen photos of the Siq lit up by candles, and indeed it was. But this was not the quiet experience we had earlier in the day. Hundreds of people were all walking together side by side through the narrow passageway, eager to be the first ones to arrive.
Once we reached the Treasury, the guides had us sit down on mats in rows one behind another. The open space in front of the Treasury was filled with lit candles, which did indeed cast a magical glow on this already mysterious façade.
A Bedouin then started playing Arabic music which was followed by a short narrative and finished with a multi-colored light show. After this, people were allowed to get up and take photos amid the candles in front of the Treasury. After about an hour, everyone was then guided back to the Visitor’s Center.
To be honest, after really looking forward to this, I ended up with mixed feelings about the event, especially the multi-colored light show. Photos give the perception of a peaceful and exclusive experience, but with hundreds of people present, many trying to take photos or talking, that is not possible.
On the walk back through the candle lit Siq, we lingered and were among the last ones out (partly because by this point I was really, really tired and was moving slowly). As a result, we had a much less crowded and more pleasant journey.
While Petra by Night was not what I had envisioned, I am glad I had the chance to experience it. If we had not done it, I would have always felt like I missed out. However, if there is a next time, I think I would try to be one of the last ones in so I could have the walk through the candle lit Siq to myself. I think I would also want to try and find a spot to sit that was not in the middle of the crowd, maybe off to one of the sides.
If I have the opportunity to do Petra by Night again, I will, because seeing the Treasury and the Siq lit up by candles is special, even if you do have to share it with hundreds of strangers.
Tips for visiting Petra on your own
- Start your planning with the information on the official Petra visitors site.
- I did a lot of reading and research about Petra before we went and also watched a lot of documentaries on Netflix and Amazon Prime. As a result, I did not need a guide to tell me what I was seeing and knew exactly what I wanted to see and do.
- Official visiting hours vary by season: summer 6 am to 6 pm ; winter 6 am to 4 pm so make your plans accordingly. Though when we were there in November, we were not chased out at “closing time”.
- Try to plan your itinerary so that you can spend more than one day at Petra. Most tours seem to only spend a day here which I don’t think is enough, especially if you want to do the hike to the Monastery or if you want to focus on photography. There is a lot to see and take in. We were there for most of two days and I could have had another day just to explore more of the nooks and crannies at leisure and to have the time to also visit Little Petra.
- Try to schedule you visit to Petra so that you can also take part in the Petra by Night event which occurs every Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday evening.
- Choose a hotel that is close to the Petra entrance so you can easily walk to and from the site.
- Wear really comfortable shoes and clothing – you will be doing A LOT of walking.
- Know what temperatures to expect throughout the day. We visited in November and had temperatures from the low 50’s at night to low 60’s during the day so we dressed in layers.
- Pack water (though you can buy bottles from vendors inside). Pack snacks if you don’t want to eat at any of the cafes or kiosks on site.
- I like to pack a collapsible hiking stick in my backpack in case I need it for steep sections on a hike.
- Yes, there are good bathroom facilities inside Petra. It is common to leave a small tip for the attendant.
- Start your day early to avoid the tour crowds. Walking through the Siq in silence provides a sense of the awe that travelers would have experienced 2000 years ago as they moved through this fissure and got their first dramatic glimpse of the Treasury. Alternately, go after lunch once all the tour groups have gone in.
- There are informative signs in both Arabic and English throughout Petra that describe the various sights.
- The local Bedouin are friendly and continuously vie for your attention (pester?) to buy something or to ride a donkey or camel. Some people find this annoying. We just politely said no and kept moving on.
- Build in time to just sit and take in the views, especially after a long hike like the one to the Monastery.
- The hike to the Monastery is best done in the afternoon when the path is shaded and the long rays of the afternoon sun turn the Monastery a beautiful golden color.
- If you are thinking about doing Petra by Night, read the Trip Advisor reviews to get a sense of what others think about it. I don’t usually pay much attention to those kinds of reviews, but I think that in this case, it helps with managing the expectations.
I think that by visiting Petra on our own rather than on a tour, we ended up with the type of experience that I was looking for. We were able to set our own schedule and thereby avoid the crowds. We could also take our time at those spots that really interested us and I could focus on getting the photos I wanted.
I hope this guide has inspired you to plan your own visit to Petra soon. And don’t forget to bring home a souvenir.
Learn how to take your most memorable images at Petra with my post 13 Petra Photography Tips For all Skill Levels.
Also check out my web story Magical Petra by Night and Day.
Thanks for visiting.