Founded by the Nabataeans sometime in the 4th century BC, the ancient city of Petra was abandoned and forgotten for centuries by all but the local Bedouins, who justifiably wanted to keep this wonder tightly under wraps. It’s now one of the most extensive and best-preserved archaeological sites in the world. Hewn out of the surrounding rock, the site was designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1985 and named as one of the ‘New 7 Wonders of the World’.
Today, Petra is Jordan’s most popular visitor attractions, a proud national symbol and undoubtedly a highlight on our ‘Jordan with Ancient Petra’ tour. Read on for an introduction to this towering sandstone spectacle…
A lavish and wealthy land
Two millennia ago, Petra flourished as one of the ancient Middle East’s most important commercial centres, strategically located at the crossroads of highly lucrative caravan trade routes. Frankincense and myrrh from the wilds of southern Arabia, precious lapis lazuli from the hills of Afghanistan and silks and spices from far-off India and China – Petra was a bustling meeting point of east to west.
Around 20,000-30,000 inhabitants would have flurried around the city’s twisted walkways. We know surprisingly little about the people who called Petra home – they left few written records – but from the collection of complex temples and tombs carved directly from the pink-hued sandstone cliffs, it’s safe to say they were a pretty sophisticated bunch.
Greek geographer Strabo paints a pleasing picture of a wealthy and cosmopolitan society with few slaves, where the natives enjoyed lavish communal meals and never drank more than 11 cups of wine at one sitting.
A secret plan
The location of this impressive ancient city was rediscovered by the intrepid Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt in 1812, who was posing as a Muslim pilgrim searching for the nearby tomb of the prophet Aaron. Burckhardt had enlisted the help of a guide, who was under the impression Burckhardt had promised to sacrifice a goat to the prophet and needed help locating it. Little did he know, he was leading the first outsider for more than 600 years straight into the heart of the ancient city.
Upon entering, the excavated mausoleum came into view for the first time and Burckhardt was barely able to contain himself. Countless tombs. The towering rose-red mausoleum. The sprawling amphitheatre. The temple of Qasr Al Bint. There was no hiding Burckhardt’s excitement at his discovery – and his guide soon realised with horror that he had been tricked.
See Petra for yourself
On day 5 of our ‘Jordan with Ancient Petra’ tour, you’ll have the opportunity to explore the ancient city for yourself. Wind through the narrow and twisting kilometre-long gorge, emerging to lay your eyes on the archaeological wonder for the very first time.
The wider, sun-drenched opening is dominated by the elaborate mausoleum carved out of the sheer rock-face. This is the most famous image of Petra and is known as ‘The Treasury’ – experiencing this iconic wonder for the first time is absolutely thrilling.
But it’s just one part of the vast site. You’ll have plenty of time to explore the hundreds of rock-cut tombs, temples, paved streets and impressive Greek-style theatre – all chiselled straight out of the rock face.
Around five kilometres from the main site, a series of beautiful wall paintings have been uncovered at a cave complex dating back to the 1st century. Despite the sheer amount of treasure that has been uncovered, only around 15 per cent of ancient Petra has been excavated. The rest remains buried beneath the desert, waiting to be discovered…