Petra: Beyond The Treasury

Without a doubt the most famous destination in the entire country of Jordan is Petra. Designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1985, Petra is well known for its impressively detailed structures that are carved directly into the sandstone rock faces that are so prevalent throughout the area. The most famous of those structures is a building known as the Treasury, which has become very well known to travelers across the globe. Photos of the Treasury have become so iconic in fact that many people now mistakenly believe that it is Petra. But in reality the site is a vast complex of tombs, temples and other structures that make up an ancient city, of which the Treasury simply marks the entrance.

The origins of Petra can be traced back to the 6th century B.C., when a formerly nomadic tribe known as the Nabataeans decided to occupy the site and make it their capital. The narrow canyons that lead into the place made it easy to defend and its relatively central location was important to their plans of establishing a trade-empire. Several large and important caravan routes passed through the region and over the centuries the Nabataeans managed to leverage their geographical position into becoming major players in the silk and spice trade. As their wealth grew, so too did Petra.

Visitors to the site today must still navigate a long and twisting canyon, known as the Siq, just to arrive at the entrance to Petra. Walking that narrow gorge offers few clues to what awaits ahead, although several basic structures can still be spotted carved into the rock. Perhaps most noticeable are the two stone channels that run along portions of the canyon walls. Those channels were originally used to collect fresh water and deliver it to the city, helping to provide a steady supply for its citizens.Running about a kilometer in length, the Siq unexpectedly ends in dramatic fashion. The narrow gorge suddenly gives way to a much larger canyon with the Treasury prominently on display in the middle. Visitors are immediately struck by that structure’s impressive features, which include a massive open doorway, multiple columns and intricate stonework. Those carvings reveal the influence of a number of cultures, including the Romans, Greeks and Egyptians, each of which were important trading partners of the Nabataeans.

As you can imagine, this is indeed an amazing and humbling sight that seldom fails to leave visitors in awe of what the Nabataeans have built. If those visitors were to linger in that spot for a time and then simply turn around and hike back through the Siq, I have no doubt that they would leave Petra completely satisfied with their visit. If they were to do that, however, they would also miss out on dozens of other wonders that are contained within the city, most of which are unknown to travelers before they arrive.

Just to the right of the Treasury lies another passage that turns downward into a widening valley below. Broader than the Siq, this canyon was a more prominent road that was once used by the citizens of Petra as they went about their daily lives. Walking that road gradually reveals the true breadth of the place, with dozens of tombs, residences, a Roman temple and amphitheater and numerous other structures being revealed. Those buildings are all carved out of sandstone and vary widely in their condition. None are nearly as well preserved as the Treasury, but most have the added benefit of allowing visitors to actually enter the buildings and explore the interiors as well.

Surprisingly enough, most of Petra is open for visitors to walk through, with ancient staircases providing access to structures that were carved out of rock on some of the higher plateaus. On busy days you’ll find that those areas are teeming with visitors who meander in and out of the buildings as they admire the architecture and engineering that has allowed most of them to stand for more than 2000 years. For history buffs in particular, it is a real treat to be able to get so close to these monuments.

Exploring those places is definitely interesting and can absorb the better part of your day, but the two most impressive locations are not found amongst those ruins and require a bit more effort to reach. The first of these sites is known as the High Place of Sacrifice and as the name implies, you’ll have to do a bit of climbing (not to mention sacrificing!) just to get to it. Accessing the sacred place requires a hike up the more than 700 steps but those who make the effort are rewarded with a fantastic view of the entire city. From the High Place of Sacrifice visitors will get a true sense of the size and scope of Petra and gain an even deeper appreciation of what the Nabataeans accomplished there.

Even more impressive, however, is the Monastery, a building that more than rivals the Treasury in size and grandeur. Built upon a high plateau, visitors to this wonder must first negotiate a climb of more than 900 steps. Those that survive the hike will be treated not only to an amazingly large and well-preserved structure, but some of the most spectacular views in all of Jordan. There are several scenic overlooks near the Monastery itself and they are worth the effort alone. The fact that Petra has saved its most impressive secret for last is simply icing on the cake.

Petra is one of those destinations that many people feel they know long before they ever arrive. It has served as the backdrop for countless films, television shows and books, and has even been named one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. But even knowing all of that I was unprepared for what I found when I visited the place. It was far larger, and grander, than I had ever imagined and it is one of those rare places that exceeds expectations.

If you plan to visit Jordan, then without question Petra has to be on your itinerary. If you have the time and flexibility in your schedule, then I would recommend purchasing the two-day pass. It costs just $5 more and allows you to explore at a more leisurely pace. I’d also recommend that you plan on arriving to the site as soon as it opens at 6 a.m. The solitude that it provides makes for an even more magical experience.