Oct 11

Ancient Petra: a city beyond compare

by in Blog trip, History, Middle East

The donkey snorted and stamped its hooves. A flag flapped and snapped in the brisk breeze. In the valley below a goat bleated and a large bird cried out as it wheeled away into the distance. Surrounded by craggy mountains, the late afternoon sun glimmered through the heat and the horizon was blanketed in mist.

Donkey at Petra viewpoint Jordan - photo zoedawes

Donkey at Petra viewpoint

I’d climbed up to this mountain top with a group of English friends and after an incredible day exploring, we had emerged from a land of ancient peoples into the wilderness. Far off, hidden in the haze, lay the Dead Sea and the Holy Land; behind us lay the ancient city of Petra.

Monumental Gate and Royal Tombs Petra Jordan - photo zoedawes

Monumental Gate and Royal Tombs

That morning, we’d walked along an old river bed from Wadi Musa (Torrent of Moses) towards Petra, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Our Jordanian guide, Burhan, pointed out significant sights along the way. The influence of Egypt and Greece could be seen in the Tomb of the Obelisks, dating back to reign of Malichos II (AD 40-71), king of the Nabateans, who had settled here thousands of years ago.

Horses ride past the Tomb of the Obelisks Petra Jordan - photo zoedawes

Horses ride past the Tomb of the Obelisks

The path gradually narrowed as horses trotted past carrying excited tourists. The vertiginous walls blocked out the morning sun, providing welcome relief from the heat. The rocks changed colour from white to grey, to cream then gradually to a richer, golden colour, striated with ochre, yellow, orange, brown, mauve, blue and pink. Every so often horse-drawn carriages charged past, swaying and swerving past each other in a race through the gorge.

Horse-drawn carriage in the Siq Petra Jordan - photo zoedawes

Horse-drawn carriage in the Siq

Walking along the Siq (dry river bed), I felt a sense of anticipation and nervousness increasing, as I was to finally get the first sight of Petra, a place I had longed to visit for over 30 years. Would I be disappointed by a lack of grandeur? Would it be overrun with tourists like Ephesus? Would it be hassle-central like the Egyptian Pyramids? Round a corner and there, through a dark, tapered opening, were butter-coloured columns, worn carvings, a shadowy doorway ….

The Treasury from the Siq petra jordan - photo zoedawes

The Treasury from the Siq

Moving into the sun-light was like stepping onto a stage, the most theatrical and awe-inspiring entrance to a site I’ve seen anywhere in the world. Protected from the wind by the surrounding rocks, the Treasury (Al-Kazneh) soars magnificently upwards towards the blue skies.

Facade of The Treasury Petra Jordan - photo zoedawes

Ornate facade of The Treasury (in the morning)

There are six columns on either side of a dark entrance, with a triangular pediment above. The upper part has a circular tholos (temple) with a conical roof and stone urn. It was thought this might contain a king’s fortune in gold, hence the name ‘Treasury’. Nothing was found on the site, though bullet marks identify where Bedouins fired their rifles to try to dislodge the treasure.

The Treasury Petra Jordan - photo zoedawes

The Treasury (at sunset)

Many of the building’s architectural details have been eroded during the two thousand years since it was carved and sculpted from the cliff. The sculptures are thought to be those of various mythological figures associated with the afterlife. On top are figures of four eagles that would carry away the souls. The figures on the upper level are dancing Amazons with double-axes. The entrance is flanked by statues of the twins Castor and Pollux who lived partly on Mount Olympus and partly in the underworld. Wikipedia

Camels and tourists at the Treasury Petra Jordan - photo zoedawes

Camels and Tourists in front of the Treasury

What was wonderful, though not so good for the tourist-related businesses, was that the site was fairly quiet, with only a handful of visitors so we could take our time to absorb it in relative peace. Yes, we were asked if we wanted a ride a camel or buy a souvenir, but a firm No thank you, resulted in a charming smile and often a cheeky reply in English; ‘Have a break, have a Kit-Kat’,  ‘Lovely jubbly,’ ‘Cheap as chips’ – TV influences all over the world!

The Roman Theatre PetraJordan - photo zoedawes

The Roman Theatre

Walking on, we passed the 3,000 seat Amphitheatre and Street of Facades; numerous small tombs carved into the hillside. A ramshackle row of stalls selling the usual souvenirs and drinks was enlivened by a sign saying, THE BEST COFFEE IN THE MIDDLE EAST – RECOMMENDED FROM AUSTRALIA and Free WIFI. An Australian woman married one of the local Bedouins and apparently she gave this resounding testimony.

Coffee stall Petra Jordan - photo zoedawes

Grace at the coffee stall

Further on a row of lovely royal tombs stood out from the rocks above us. The Urn Tomb and the Corinthian Tomb have ornate façades like the Treasury but are more weather-beaten. The Silk Tomb is so-called due to the striations of coloured sandstone that resemble watered silk.

Camels and Royal Tombs Petra Jordan - photo zoedawes

Camels in front of the Royal Tombs

The route opened out into the Roman Lower City. From around 100 AD the paved main street was lined with public buildings, including markets, baths and Nymphaeum. The Monumental Gate still stands, framing the distant mountains. What was really noticeable was just how few tourists there were once we left the magnetic pull of the Treasury.

Lower City Petra Jordan - photo zoedawes

The Lower City

We had an excellent buffet lunch and very welcome ice-cold drinks at The Basin restaurant, near the Museum, which we didn’t have time to visit. Then it was up on a donkey for a bumpy ride up to the Monastery. It was the best JD10 I spent on the trip! My donkey, appropriately called William Shakespeare, was led by Jack Sparrow look-alike Ram and his brother, who walked ahead to watch the path. Ram said they still live in the caves, though it’s officially illegal. He’d had his donkey since he was a 3-month old foal. Sure-footed and steady, William S took his time to get me right to the top of the uneven 1000+ steps, carefully avoiding slipping off the precarious mountain edge, through a stunning rocky landscape.

William Shakespeare and Bedouin guide Ram Petra Jordan - photo zoedawes

Ram and William Shakespeare setting off up the mountain

The Monastery (Ad Deir) comes as a big shock; unlike the dramatic entrance to Treasury, you clamber down a few steps, see an open area in front of you and then suddenly realise there’s an enormous temple looming up behind you. Unlike the Treasury, its width (50m) is greater than its height (45m) with an elegantly curved dome. Originally a temple, it was later used as Church. Most of the elaborate decoration has been worn away but still quite remarkable.

Donkey and Zoe Monastery Petra Jordan - photo zoedawes

Donkey and Zoe Petra

Once I had dismounted, Ram tied up William and took me over to the cafe. One of the young Bedouin lads legged it up the side of the Monastery and onto the very top of the central dome. Having stood up and waved down at us, he then sat down and dangled his feet over the edge. Crazy boy. Definitely not to be recommended and when a tourist tried it, he was immediately told to get down!

On top of Deir, the Monastery Petra Jordan - photo zoedawes

On top of the Monastery

When my fellow explorers arrived we relaxed at the little café on low-slung seats and enjoyed the view. We were all amazed at just how much more there was to see in Petra than we had expected, and how visually impressive it all is.

Relaxing at Petra Jordan - photo zoedawes

Relaxing at Petra

You may be admiring the fancy headgear – Burhan showed us how to tie a Bedouin scarf in a number of different ways. You can see his demo here.


As we were relaxing, a young man and woman posed for photos in front of the Deir. Suddenly he went down on one knee and was clearly asking her to marry him. From her excited response and his smile, I think she said yes. What a fabulously romantic place to propose …

Couple at Deir the Monastery Petra Jordan - photo zoedawes

Couple at Deir

Our final trek took us to the very highest point, egged on by hand-drawn signs enticing us onwards and upwards with the promise of unrivalled views of Little Petra and Wadi Araba (Jordan Rift Valley).

Petra view - signs to Wadi Araba jordan - photo zoedawes

Petra view – signs to Wadi Araba

The area was totally deserted except for two young lads under the canopy, who had bottles of drink to sell and seemed totally unbothered by the lack of trade.  Here, beyond the natural boundaries of the ‘Lost City’ of Petra, we took our time to reflect on all we’d seen and relish the opportunity we had to be in such genuinely awe-inspiring setting.

Viewpoint Petra Jordan - photo zoedawes

Petra Viewpoint

On our return, we were able to see Petra in the late afternoon sunshine. The buildings and rocks had changed colour from the golden hues of the morning to the fabled ‘red-rose’ (well, more pink really) of the evening sunset.  We had to wrench ourselves away from the tranquillity of the deserted Treasury and as we left, I turned back and there were a couple of visotors getting one last photo of this beautiful place, one none of us will ever forget …

The Treasury at Petra Jordan in the evening light - photo zoedawes

The Treasury Petra Jordan eve

As you can see, Petra did not disappoint. It exceeded expectations on every level; there’s nowhere else on earth to compare it with. I do hope you get to visit one day. It is justifiably known as one of the remaining wonders of the Ancient World and hopefully it will last for thousands of years to come. There’s a new Jordan Pass with some great reductions on entry to over 40 sites including Petra.

Camels at Royal Tombs Petra Jordan - photo zoedawes

Petra Royal Tombs and camels

At the time of publication Jordan has the same safety rating as Canada, United States, China and Germany and has fewer tourists at present so it’s a great time to go. Many thanks to our knowledgeable guide Burhan and Visit Jordan for inviting us to experience Jordan, a country beyond expectations.

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15 Responses to “Ancient Petra: a city beyond compare”

  1. From Elizabeth McGillivray:

    I found this write-up of Petra truly inspirational. It may take me a couple of years but I will visit this wonderful, ancient city.

    Posted on October 12, 2015 at 11:18 am #
  2. From Zoe Dawes:

    So glad you enjoyed the article Liz. It truly is an exceptional place and I am sure you will love it!

    Posted on October 12, 2015 at 7:18 pm #
  3. From Zoe Dawes:

    I don’t think I’ll ever forget that first glimpse of the Treasury – worth waiting many years to see, and what was equally special was being able to spend time at the end of the day just gazing at it in its rosy splendour …

    Posted on October 12, 2015 at 7:50 pm #
  4. From John MacBeath:

    Amazing place. Must have been quite a sight to see it for the first time in that way. Nice donkey pic 😉 No camel ride?!

    Posted on October 12, 2015 at 8:48 pm #
  5. From Zoe Dawes:

    Yes, John, it was very special but also amazed at how big the site was – we were there all day and didn’t see it all. Great to have it virtually to ourselves. (I did ride a camel in the desert at Wadi Rum – watch out for next post on Jordan for that!)

    Posted on October 12, 2015 at 9:15 pm #
  6. From Grace Christie:

    What a wonderful day it was. I’ve loved reading this post and reminiscing about our little Petra adventure. Hopefully we will both be back soon!

    Posted on October 14, 2015 at 12:57 pm #
  7. From Zoe Dawes:

    It was great to go to Jordan with you and yes, it would be wonderful to go back and explore more of that impressive country.

    Posted on October 14, 2015 at 2:50 pm #
  8. From Reuben:

    What an amazing place! Those temples look absolutely fantastic, good job on the photos too!

    Posted on October 14, 2015 at 9:53 pm #
  9. From Zoe Dawes:

    Glad youo enjoyed the article Reuben and thanks for the kind words re the photos 🙂 It’s a very photogenic place!

    Posted on October 15, 2015 at 8:36 am #
  10. From Alex Dawes:

    Hope they are kind to the horses and donkeys! Looks like it was a good trip 🙂

    Posted on October 20, 2015 at 9:59 am #
  11. From Zoe Dawes:

    It was a GREAT trip! The animals looked healthy and my guide was very good with William. There’s a special animal sanctuary and hospital near the entrance to Petra, set up by Brits I think. Things have improved hugely and we were told no problems now.

    Posted on October 20, 2015 at 11:02 am #
  12. From Thomas:

    What a wonderful write up and collection of photographs Zoe – as much as I loved seeing your photographs of the archaeology, the donkeys and camels were a hit too 🙂

    Posted on December 12, 2015 at 11:50 am #
  13. From Zoe Dawes:

    The animals and their owners were stars of the place! Bedouins still live in the caves, but mainly in the nearby village built by the government to house them. Camels and donkeys are their livelihoood and it is shame there are not more visitors to ride them.

    Posted on December 14, 2015 at 10:24 am #
  14. From Dana lesinski:

    Dear ZOE… I been traveling all Jordan sides for 15 years but my travel stoped when my Jordanian husband left me.. His cousin was driver for travel agency so I got the full front seat to visit all places and later I met hikers and we got to go hiking from Dana to Wadi Musa to Petra and Wadi Rum and so on…. Many wonderful ppl and nights in tents … Beautiful land … One day Inshallh I’ll be back.. Hey I love Dead Sea and hot springs I think it cure my rheumatism soaking there for many years…
    Thank you for giving me latest glance at my favored places.

    Posted on December 27, 2015 at 12:58 am #
  15. From Zoe Dawes:

    Dear Dana – thank you so much for sharing your experience of Jordan. How lovely to see the country from the front-seat. You must have had some wonderufl experiences. Sorry to hear about your marriage break-up; do hope you get to see this fascinating country again sometime 🙂

    Posted on December 28, 2015 at 1:47 pm #

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