Jordan - The Rose City of Petra

Location of Petra in Jordan (Credit: The Treasury - Petra (my own photo)

During my trip to Israel in May, 2023 I also decided to visit Jordan.

Unlike most of the middle eastern countries, Jordan has no oil, instead it’s rich in cultural heritage, and with this their welcoming nature tourism is flourishing. There are thousands of Roman sites but one of the most famous is not Roman at all - the ancient Nabatean capital of Petra.

In the heart of the Middle East, Jordan was a trading route between Asia, Africa, and Europe. From the 1st century BCE to 4th CE the Nabataeans grew rich offering a safe haven, food, water and shelter - for a price - on which they built their capital Petra. Camel caravans traded in frankincense, myrrh and spices, travelling from Oman and Yemen through Arabia then Petra to the port of Gaza.

Frankincense was worth more than gold. A camel could carry 450kgs - with at least 100 camels in convoy - you can imagine them trekking through the desert carrying their precious loads - several million $ worth.

Petra is mentioned numerous times in the Hebrew Bible. The ancient city sits inside Wadi Musa (Valley of Moses in Arabic). It is said Moses passed through the valley and struck water from the rock for his followers at the site of Ain Musa (Moses Spring or Well).

The Nabateans built canals that carried water from this spring to the city of Petra, carving a hidden system of channels and dams into the sandstone mountains, routing water for kilometers to reservoirs and cisterns. Petra became one of the most famous water stops in the Middle East, with more than 20,000 inhabitants in its heyday.

Other than local Bedouins, The Rose City, known for the red sandstone, was a mystery to the world for centuries, until 1812, that is, when Swiss explorer Johannes Burckhardt, dressed up as an Arab, convincing his Bedouin guide to reveal its location. It just adds to the exotic appeal of Petra, doesn’t it? Now named one of the 7 New Wonders of the World, even today many of its mysteries have yet to be discovered.

I had goose bumps as our group wound our way through The Siq - a magical 1km corridor snaking through a sheer sided chasm up to 200 metres in height and often only 3 metres wide, following the sacred way of pilgrims from ancient times and Harrison Ford too in Raiders of the Lost Ark!

It took us an hour, admiring the rock formations and ever changing colours; our guide explaining some of those Nabataean engineering feats - including the remains of carvings, original channels cut into the walls and in some places the 2000 year old terracotta pipes still in place.

Anticipation grew as finally we glimpsed a sliver of a carved edifice, then around the last bend… The Treasury… magnificent in all its glory: a mighty 40m facade carved into the sandstone rock face at the entrance to the city. With only a few people around, camels resting in the forecourt, it was a sight to behold.

Known as Khanzeh (Treasury) by the local Bedouin tribes, they believed the urn on top of the front entrance contained the treasure of a pharaoh. In fact it serves as a shrine to King Aretas III (circa 100BCE-200CE). Graves have been found under it and we learned about some of these findings at a lecture given by one of the archaeologists involved in the digs.

We continued passing intricate tombs, the remains of temples, a theater, and from Roman times, a colonnaded street and churches. Petra is huge, covering around 60 sq kms through canyons, up mountains and along river beds. It boasts around 600 tombs (there’s only 60 or so in Luxor!).

We had entered Petra when it opened at 6am, enjoying the mystic and quietness when we first arrived at The Treasury. Later in the day when I retraced my steps slowly admiring and absorbing this incredible city, the Treasury was abuzz with people - another thrill being caught up in the shouts of joy and amazement.

It is hard to capture the size and magnificence of Petra - this excellent BBC video give you a taste of what was for me, a day filled with wonder.