The discovery of Petra In 1812 was not intentional. Fascinated by antiquity, a Swiss scholar and explorer, John Lewis Burckhardt, set out on an expedition from Cairo through the Sahara desert in Africa to find the source of the Niger River. During his travels he heard about and became interested in the antiquities in what is now known as Wadi Musa, the area around Petra. Although he didn't call it by name, his detailed notes confirm that during that part of his expedition, he discovered the lost city.
Our digital era allows us the opportunity to explore far away places in detail from our living rooms and we have a good idea of what we're going to see before we see it in person. Now having had the privilege of visiting Petra, I can't imagine what Burckhardt's reaction would have been walking through this ancient wonder and seeing it for the first time.
Archaeologists believe that the area in southern Jordan, currently known as Wadi Musa, was inhabited as early as 7,000 BCE. The Nabataeans, an ancient nomadic Bedouin tribe, roamed the area as early as the 2nd century BCE to find pasture and water for their flocks and eventually designated what we now know as Petra to be their capital. They figured out how to store water from flash floods and became wealthy traders. This isn't surprising given the beautiful and impressive buildings carved out of sandstone that grace the area today.
One of the aqueducts that provided water to the ancient city.
Petra remained an important city in the beginning of the first century CE with about 20,000 inhabitants. But like so many other civilizations, Petra lost its independence to the Romans in 106 CE and an earthquake in the 4th century CE toppled many of its buildings. Over the centuries it lay empty except for a few bedouins until its discovery by Bruckhardt. Today it is a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of the New 7 Wonders of the World.
The Visitor Center is a modern structure in the center of Wadi Musa. You buy your ticket here or show your Jordan Pass (more about that later) then begin the walk down to the entrance of the ancient city. When we visited (fall 2022) the site opened at 6:00 am. I strongly encourage arriving then or shortly after to take advantage of the early morning light and fewer visitors. We arrived after 7:00 and while the crowds weren't terrible, there were lots of people.
The walk toward the entrance to the ancient city from the Visitor Center was about 10 minutes and looked like this.
Arriving at the entrance to the ancient city.
As you start to walk through the Siq, the narrow gorge leading to the Treasury, you feel the sandstone cliffs closing in. It's almost a surreal 1.2 km. or 3/4 mile path where the sun peeks through only occasionally. It took us about 30 - 45 minutes to walk through it, stopping to marvel at the rocks and to take pictures.
And then we were treated to this sight which took my breath away.
The building is believed to have been the mausoleum of the Nabatean King Aretas IV in the 1st century CE. Its name "The Treasury" comes from the Bedouins of the early 19th century who believed that it contained treasures. Visitors are not able to enter The Treasury.
The area in front of The Treasury is full of camels, donkeys, men selling souvenirs and tourists.
Turn right at The Treasury and the landscape opens up onto the Street of Facades lined with tombs for the rich and not-so-rich, All of them are empty now, but walking past them gives you an idea of how they paid tribute to their dead.
Farther down the street, our daughter Nan and son-in-law David climbed up to some caves.
The theater that held 8500 people was built at the beginning of the first century CE by the Nabataeans. Although Roman by design, it was carved out of the rock rather than built into the rock as was the Roman technique. Notice the four columns at the entrance.
I turned around just after the theater while Nan and David continued to the Monastery (watch this space for their guest post). By that time we had been in the ancient city for four to five hours. I planned the trip so that we could spend mornings at Petra and afternoons in the pool at the hotel. Even in late September the weather was hot and sunny.
Paul had taken the golf cart to The Treasury (see more about the carts below), so I met up with him on my way back. By then (early afternoon), although not evident from this picture, the area by The Treasury was packed with lots more people than we encountered earlier that morning.
Some miscellaneous photos of Petra. The natural wind-carved designs of the rocks and the colors were stunning.
The Jordan Pass
Buy it. Period. It's a great value and saves money as it pays for your visa when you arrive and gets you into many cultural and other venues including Petra. Read more about it here.
Where to Stay - In Town vs. Out
I did quite a bit of research on where to stay in Wadi Musa. The advantage of staying in town is that you don't need a taxi or other transportation to get to the Visitor Center and Petra itself. The Movenpick is a lovely hotel literally a few steps from the Visitor Center. The disadvantage in my opinion is that it's in a very busy, touristy area and doesn't afford the beautiful views and peacefulness of being in the countryside.
This is the Movenpick in downtown Wadi Musa, across from the Visitor Center.
I chose the Marriott and our daughter Nan generously gave us her Marriott Bonvoy points for rooms there. We couldn't have been happier with the hotel. It's about a five-minute drive into town (they have a free shuttle to the Visitor Center in the morning and back in the afternoon) and it couldn't be more peaceful. And look at the view! There's another Movenpick just up the hill from the Marriott which also has beautiful views.
Bedouins still inhabit this part of the world. This is a bedouin village just below the Marriott.
There are accommodations to suit everyone's budget in Wadi Musa. If you're outside the city you'll have to either depend on a car, taxi or shuttle to get to and from the old city, but you really have the feeling of being in a desert and the views, as shown above, are magnificent. If you're in town you will be able to walk to the Visitor Center, restaurants and shops, but you'll also be fighting the masses.
Getting Around the Ancient City
There are several options for exploring Petra if you can't or don't want to walk the whole distance, ranging from golf carts to donkeys, horses and the ubiquitous camels. Not needing special accommodations, I chose to walk. If you aren't up for the almost mile-long walk through the Siq, take the golf cart. The carts go only to The Treasury then you have to walk or choose another mode of transportation if you want to go farther. If it's a choice of paying for a cart or not seeing Petra at all, pay for the cart. I've read that the donkeys aren't well cared for; I don't know if that's true, but I didn't want to contribute to their possible neglect.
When to Go
As I mentioned above, set your alarm and go early in the day to take advantage of the angle of the sun, the cooler temperatures and fewer people. I've read that Petra topped 1 million visitors in 2019 and since Covid, the numbers are beginning to rise again. And it's certainly a better experience with fewer people. The first shuttle from the Marriott didn't run until 7:00 am (Petra opens at 6:00), but we could easily have asked the hotel to call a taxi to get us there at 6:00 if we had wanted to.
What to Wear
Wear a hat; during most of the year it's hot and the sun is strong. Above all, wear comfortable shoes, especially if you're planning to climb to any of the higher elevations. We saw women in sandals who were having trouble navigating steps and rocks and wishing they had worn more sturdy shoes. I wore Nike Pegasus Trail 3 trail runners and they were perfect. I wore capri pants because I wasn't sure if shorts would be appropriate. Shorts would have been fine, but capris were comfortable, too. If you want that iconic photo looking down on the Treasury you probably want to dress a bit more formally, but you'll be happy you wore sturdy shoes with that flowing dress and scarf!
Petra was an experience of a lifetime and one that I'll never forget. As a Baby Boomer, I didn't do the climbing that many others do, so I'm sure I missed some beautiful views, but what I saw was breathtaking and I feel so fortunate to have had the chance to see it.
➜ (More)Top Tips
Take cash. There are bedouin stands and some places to buy a snack and a drink and most of them don't take credit cards.
Use sunscreen and take plenty of water. This is the desert; it's dry and hot and the sun is very strong.
Be ready to barter. Negotiating in this part of the world is expected. Hone your skills to get the best deals.
Guide vs. no guide. I thought a lot about this and in the end, we didn't hire a guide. I value learning from a knowledgeable guide, but in this case we decided to go at our own pace. We passed many small and large groups who had a guide and I think it boils down to personal preference. Beware of those who just want to take your cash, though, and hire one through the Visitor Center.
Read "Married to a Bedouin" , the true story of a young Australian woman on vacation who fell in love and married a Bedouin in Petra.
This should go without saying, but take a good camera, especially one with a telephoto lens for those dramatic distance shots.
Don't underestimate the time and effort it takes to visit Petra. In planning this trip, I intentionally planned two full days in Wadi Musa. Petra can be seen in a day or on a day trip from Amman, but you'll be sorry you didn't plan for more time.