Jordan: Petra

Whenever you see Petra in the media you see a picture of the Treasury. I just did a web search and the top three links with pictures all used such an image, often with a camel sat in front.

Let’s not beat around the bush here: Al Khazneh, the “proper” name of the Treasury, is spectacular. It’s a two thousand year old, forty metre high carving straight into the sandstone rock face.

The surprising thing, given that it’s about the only image of the place you’ve seen beforehand, is that there is so much more to Petra than just the Treasury.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. First we have to get to the Treasury. Everyone starts in the visitors centre at the top in the modern town. I was amused to find the “Indiana Jones Snack Shop” here. Later on I passed a gift shop named after the Flintstones. I guess Hollywood borrowed from Jordan so why not the other way around?

The journey to the “old” bit starts down the Siq, a mile long path that narrows the further along you go. At some points it’s only a few metres wide, which wouldn’t be so bad if you didn’t have to share it with camels and horse and carts hurtling around blind corners. At the wide part at the beginning you find caves in the wall, the original use of which has still not been completely determined.

As the path narrows, the cliffs get higher and more spectacular. At some points they are nearly two hundred metres high. If you are there are the right time of day the colours as the sun plays on the sandstone is amazingly beautiful. The textures and colours really are something special.

Further down the Siq, the guide turns around and points at a rock face behind me. Somewhere, he assures me, you can see the shape of an animal. He gathers the rest of the group and we’re all studying it, trying to find it; there’s a prize at stake. We all realise that we’ve been had when a minute later he points in the opposite direction and, through a gap in the cliff, we get our first glance at the Treasury.

In front of the Treasury is a mass of tourists, vendors, camels and their handlers. Everyone is stopping and taking pictures, tour groups huddle together to discuss what they think of it and the camels give their guttural cry. Even this mass of distractions don’t make the site any less impressive.

It turns out that there is a solution to the noise and heaving masses. For the last few years they have been running a tour called “Petra by Night.” You leave the town and head down the Siq by candle-light. They ask you to just take in the atmosphere and try not to talk. Thankfully most people do as requested.

In front of the Treasury are hundred of candles. We sit on the floor in their dancing glow and take in the atmosphere. There’s a murmur of conversation but mainly people are soaking in the sights, the clear desert air, the stars, that forty metre high carving. Once everyone has arrived they hand out a very welcome sage tea and two men sit in the middle and sing traditional songs. It’s quite a magical experience.

But there’s much more to Petra than just this. To the right is a path to further carvings and in the morning I take it and head up to explore dozens more buildings carved into the sheer rock, including other temples and an amphitheatre.

Another hours walk up the path, involving a little scrambling and a lot of climbing, there is another carving that they call the Monastery although they currently believe it to have been a temple. It’s location makes it only slightly less spectacular than the Treasury and it makes you wonder why some sites capture the public imagination so much to the exclusion of others.

In the afternoon I also make it up to the High Place of Sacrifice. Without a guide for this part I nearly miss the actual point of interest. Given the views from near the top I wouldn’t have felt that I completely missed out but a few more signs up there would have been useful!

When I first read the itinerary I thought that nearly two days in Petra was overkill but now that I’ve been I realise that I could easily have spent more time here. I was fascinated by the idea of Little Petra but never made it there.

Still, the tour must go on and the next stop is going to be Wadi Rum.