The Ultimate first-timer’s travel guide to Petra, Jordan

Petra is an ancient and archaeological city situated in the mountainous deserts of Jordan. Having been out of the radar of western civilization since the 14th century, the city resurfaced in the early 19th century.

Petra in Jordan
Petra in Jordan

About Petra

It is believed that the city of Petra was first inhabited as early as 9,000 BC and is considered to be constructed in the 4th century BC, to serve as the capital of Nabataean Kingdom. The area was suitable due to its proximity to the key trading routes.


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The earliest record referencing the city of Petra was the 312 BC attack to the city by the Antigonus I, recorded by Greek historians.

Horse carriage near canyon in Petra photo by Spencer Davis via Unsplash
Horse carriage near canyon in Petra photo by Spencer Davis via Unsplash

The Nabataeans (Arab nomads) were competent merchants with skills in agriculture, rainwater harvesting, and stone caving – probably explaining the city architectural acumen.

One of the most magnificent masterpieces of the Nabataeans is the celebrated Khazneh structure, which is thought to be Nabataean King Aretas IV mausoleum. The construction of Khazneh led to the significant growth of Petra during the 1st century AD, with the population peaking at 20,000 people.

Petra and the Nabataean Kingdom operated as a Roman Empire client state since the first century BC and eventually lost its independence to the Romans in 106 AD.

Under the Roman regime, Petra was annexed and changed its name from Nabataea to Petraea. The city’s influence as a sea trade route started to diminish due to the emergence of other trade routes. Also contributing to the city decline was the 363 earthquakes which destroyed several city structures.

Traveling to Petra Jordan
Traveling to Petra Jordan

During the Byzantine Era, many structures were built including several churches, but it was not enough to return the city’s lost glory.

The city’s rapid decline continued and by the era of Islamic, majority of Petra was abandoned, with only a few nomads still living in parts of the city. The city got “lost” to the world until 1812 when it was discovered by Swiss explorer Johan Ludwig Burckhardt.

A Long Time Ago, In a Land Far Away…

This is the place that gave rise to the saying, “old as dirt.”  Petra was established around 312 BC as the capital city of the Nabataeans, who were described in ancient times as a strong tribe of some 10,000 warriors, pre-eminent among the nomads of Arabia, disdaining agriculture, fixed houses, and the use of wine.  In addition to being warriors, the Nabataeans were nomadic shepherds who carried a profitable trade with the seaports in frankincense, myrrh, and spices from today’s Yemen, as well as a trade with Egypt in bitumen from the Dead Sea. Their arid country was their best safeguard, for the bottle-shaped cisterns for rain-water which they excavated in the rocky or clay-rich soil were carefully concealed from invaders.

Petra, Jordan
Petra, Jordan

A Hidden Mystery

Petra eventually became lost in the sands of time until the year 1812, when it was re-introduced to the western world by Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt. At its peak, Petra’s population was about 30,000, an astonishing number made possible in this arid climate by clever engineering.  The ancient inhabitants of Petra carved channels through the solid rock, gathering winter rains into hundreds of vast cisterns for use in the dry summers, many of which are still in use today by the Bedouin people.  Not much is known about Nabataean culture today, except what can be gleaned from ancient examples of what would today be called graffiti—names and dates carved into the swooping rose-colored cliffs into which Petra’s majestic buildings are hewn.

New Seven Wonders of the World

In 1985, the small group of the Petra Bedouin was forcefully relocated from their dwellings in the cave by the Jordan Government to Umm Sayhoun, before UNESCO designation process.

Petra was designated on 6 December 1985 as a World Heritage Site and in a popular poll conducted in 2007, Petra was named among the New Seven Wonders of the World.

Facade of Al Khazneh, Petra, Jordan
Facade of Al Khazneh, Petra, Jordan

How to get to Petra

Visitors flock Jordan to see the fascinating ancient city of Petra, resulting in many tourist facilities to be developed in the vicinity, including hotels, restaurants, horse rentals, and souvenir shops.

A visit to Petra can be conveniently fitted into your Jordan itinerary because as a country, Jordan is small and dissected with smooth highways with English signage.

Petra Jordan Travel Guide photo by Spencer Davis via Unsplash
Petra Jordan Travel Guide photo by Spencer Davis via Unsplash

The best starting point is the Amman the capital city of Jordan, after flying into the city Petra is located south of the country. If you have unlimited time, there are plenty of attractions on your way to Petra such as the Madaba town, which is filled with ancient objects such as the mosaic map of the promised Holy Land. Along the way, you will also come across historical Mount Nebo, Kerak Castle and the baptismal place at Bethany.

But if you don’t have enough time, you can just go to Petra direct from Jordan’s major cities. In case you flew into the Queen Alia International Airport in Amman, reaching Petra is about 3 hours’ drive. If you use public transportation – which is the cheapest option, visit the 7th Circle JETT bus terminal to catch the bust direct to Petra charging a round trip $28. Because currently, only one bus runs the route to Petra you need to be punctual and arrive at the bus terminal before 6.30 AM. If you arrive in Jordan via Aqaba airport, the trip to Petra will only take slightly over an hour by bus at a cost of $28 round trip.

To access this magnificent historical city, you will purchase tickets at the visitor center at the entrance to Petra. A one day ticket cost $70 USD while two-day ticket $77.

Wadi Musa (Valley of Moses) is the gateway to Petra, sitting at the entrance to the historic city. From here, you can either walk into Petra or ride a horse (you can rent a horse at Wadi Musa).

Top Attractions in Petra

The below list of attractions in Petra will help you organize your itinerary and prioritize what to see and do.

Treasury

Petra Treasury, Petra, Jordan photo by Andrea Leopardi via Unsplash
Petra Treasury, Petra, Jordan photo by Andrea Leopardi via Unsplash

Also known as the Al-Khazneh, this towering and well-preserved monument depict just how skillful the Nabateans were in rock curving.

Siq

A channel between two soaring rock walls which also serves as the main route to Petra.

Theater

Located near the Street of Facades, this Hellenic-styled theater has a capacity of 8,500 people and was built in the first century AD.

Colonnaded Street

Petra’s major drag.

Qasr al-Bint

Few of the only free-standing structures in Petra.

Royal Tombs

Collection of large decorative tombs.

Street of Facades

Row of over 40 tombs as well as other buildings lining up the cliff walls of Outer Siq.

Petra Travel Tips

Visitors are drawn to Petra to catch a glimpse of the Al-Khazneh, which was ingeniously caved into a vibrant white, pink, red and limestone cliff faces. Here are a few Petra tips.

Go early

Ensure you arrive at the entrance by 7 Am to beat the crowd and also the soft morning light, which reflects the natural colors of the striking stone monuments. This magic can also be enjoyed during sunset.

Another reason to get to Petra early is to avoid the heat, especially in the summer when the desert heats up during the afternoon.

Dress respectfully

Jordan’s population is Muslim so be keen to avoid dressing inappropriately, like tight clothing, also ensure to cover your legs. Include sunglasses, a wide-brimmed hat, and comfortable, good grip shoes in your packing.

Carry enough cash

You will need cash to for virtually anything, starting with your ticket, tipping tour guides and animal handlers as well as anything else you buy in Petra.

Petra in Jordan photo by Spencer Davis via Unsplash
Petra in Jordan photo by Spencer Davis via Unsplash

Conclusion

Although Petra has endured virtually everything during its time, the current threats its facing comes from unexpected sources: the tourists. The humidity from the huge crowd of tourists visiting can cause destruction to the dry limestone. The Treasury is believed to have receded by about 40mm in less than 10 years as a result of leaning, touching or rubbing on the walls.

Souvenirs from Petra
Souvenirs from Petra

Check out our complete list of recommended Hotels in Amman, Jordan via Agoda or you may also see available Airbnb properties in the city.

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