The “Rose City” is a honeycomb of hand-hewn caves, temples, and tombs carved from blushing pink sandstone in the high desert of Jordan some 2,000 years ago. Hidden by time and shifting sand, Petra tells of a lost civilization. Little is known about the Nabateans—a nomadic desert people whose kingdom rose up from these cliffs and peaks, and whose incredible wealth grew from the lucrative incense trade.
Raqmu, or Petra (as the Greeks knew it), grew into the Nabateans’ most prominent city, linking camel caravans between the Mediterranean and Arabian Seas, from Egypt to Syria and beyond to Greece. Control of water sources and an almost magic ability to vanish into the cleft rocks ensured the Nabateans remained unconquered for centuries.
The Romans arrived in 63 B.C., signaling a new era of massive expansion and grandiose construction, like the theater that sat more than 6,000 spectators, as well as some of the city’s most impressive facades. Carved into the rock face, the Treasury and the Monastery both have unmistakable Hellenistic features, with ornate Corinthian columns, bas-relief Amazons, and fanciful acroteria. Knowing that such architectural feats were achieved by carving from the top down makes it even more impressive.
Petra’s engineering phenomena are legion, including the sophisticated water system that supported some 30,000 inhabitants. Carved into the twisted passageway of the Siq, the irrigation channel drops only 12 feet over the course of a mile, while underground cisterns stored runoff to be used in drier times of the year.
And yet it’s the raw beauty of Petra that draws in so many millions of visitors—the entire city of ruins is a work of art, painted on a natural stone backdrop that changes color every hour. The elegant Silk Tomb swirls with streaks of red, blue, and ocher, while vivid mosaics still pave the floors of a Byzantine-era church.
Christianity came to Petra in the third and fourth centuries and flourished, but the city waned after an A.D. 336 earthquake and under the early Islamic dynasties of the seventh century.
Petra was only rediscovered by Swiss explorer Johann Burckhardt in 1812, and it continues to spill its secrets. Even now, archaeologists have explored less than half of the sprawling site, and in 2016, with the help of satellite imagery, a monumental structure was found still buried in the sand. It’s no wonder that Petra remains Jordan’s top tourist attraction and one of the most revered of the World Heritage sites.
How to Get There
Petra is a three-hour drive from Amman and two hours from the Red Sea port of Aqaba. Buses run the route daily, along with organized tours and private taxis. The Jordan Trail passes through Petra, allowing hikers to connect with Dana or Wadi Rum.
How to Visit
Reducing Petra to a single day trip is a common mistake. Remember that Petra spreads out for over a hundred square miles—four times the size of Manhattan. While donkeys, camels, and horse buggies can hasten travel time between highlights, most of Petra’s sites are best reached on foot. Come ready to hike some steep terrain.
Spend at least one night in town, and plan your sightseeing as a series of hikes. Petra’s licensed guides have exceptional knowledge and will add a deeper dimension to your visit by showing you secret tombs and hidden details you would never find on your own. Don’t miss the “Petra by night” show that delivers a haunting and unforgettable visual.
When to Visit
Petra is open year-round, so choose your own adventure: Spring and fall offer the most temperate weather, with fantastic light. Summer is beautiful but can turn unbearably hot. January and February are the coolest months, with the occasional downpour. Remember the high elevation means nights are cold. Sunrise and sunset are when Petra truly glows with changing color, so come early and stay late.
Lead Image: Camels rest in front of the Treasury, a structure carved into the Petra sandstone by ancient Nabataeans in the second century A.D.
PHOTOGRAPH BY JON ARNOLD IMAGES LTD, ALAMY STOCK PHOTO