Jordan’s incomparable city in stone is a mute monument to the powerful civilization that blossomed 2,000 years ago in this remote desert locale surrounded by rocky mountains, gorges, and cliffs.
Petra earned fame as an exotic backdrop in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, but its real history is as incredible as anything Hollywood could create for the silver screen. And many new stories are still waiting to be told—archaeologists have explored only about 15 percent of the sprawling site.
Petra (“rock” in Greek) was a bustling caravan hub situated between the Red Sea and the Dead Sea. The Nabataeans thrived here for about a thousand years, and their metropolis peaked in the centuries just before and after A.D. 1, when caravan routes from the Levant (Syria-Phoenicia), Arabia, and Egypt found their way to Petra’s gates.
Historical information on the Nabataeans themselves is sparse, but these Arab peoples excelled at trading. It was by commercial acumen, not force of arms, that they became a wealthy and formidable regional power. The Nabataeans controlled lands stretching from today’s Israel and Jordan into the northern Arabian Peninsula; later they became a part of the Roman Empire.
Petra’s past wealth is lavishly displayed in its arts and architecture, nowhere more dramatically than in elaborate buildings, such as the Treasury, which were carved directly into the soft sandstone cliffs.
The Nabataean capital was also a remarkable feat of urban planning. Some 30,000 people once lived in this dry desert location, quenching their thirsts by a channel-and-cistern system that harvested and stored winter rains for future use. The scheme worked well enough to accommodate many gardens.
Petra’s decline began when trade routes shifted and moved seaward, and it accelerated after a devastating A.D. 363 earthquake. The city survived into the seventh century A.D.—even constructing a fifth-century Christian basilica—then lapsed into obscurity and remained largely unknown to the world at large until the 19th century. Today Petra is Jordan’s top tourist attraction, one of 2007’s New Seven Wonders of the World, and a must-see standout even among its World Heritage List peers.
How to Get There
Petra is a three-hour drive from Amman on the Desert Highway. Public and private buses run the route daily. Taxis may also be hired for the return trip.
How to Visit
Petra is a sprawling site, and hitting even the highlights can easily take more than a single day. Consider lodging in the area so you’ll have more time to explore. Long walks and steep climbs around the ancient city prompt some visitors to avail themselves of beasts of burden—like donkeys and camels—available for hire on site. Petra’s guides are licensed by the Jordanian government and their knowledge adds immense value to any visit.
When to Visit
Petra is worth a trip at any time of year but each season offers a different experience. Summer is subject to scorching heat while winter can be cold and rainy. The spring and autumn seasons feature fewer temperature extremes and can be excellent times to enjoy Petra. Because Petra is at elevation, cooler nights are typically the norm.
For many Petra visitors the time of day may be more important than the time of year. Light early and late in the day creates the most colorful effects on Petra’s ubiquitous stone.