“The hues of youth upon a brow of woe,
Which Man deemed old two thousand years ago,
Match me such marvel save in Eastern clime,
A rose-red city half as old as time.”
~John William Burgon, Petra
Five-thirty came early as we boarded our tour bus for the two-hour drive to the ancient lost city of Petra. The Regent Voyager was docked in Aqaba, a Jordanian port on the Red Sea’s Gulf of Aqaba, and we were headed out on a long day of extraordinary sightseeing. The morning would find us in Petra, and the afternoon and early evening would be spent in Wadi Rum.
After traveling in Luxor with our fabulous guide Merv, I was hoping we would have a similar experience in Jordan. Our guide this time, however, wasn’t interested in sharing tales about Jordanian life. “I know you want to sleep,” he told us, “so I won’t be talking until we get to Petra.” I fought the urge to tell him that I hadn’t come all that way to sleep, but instead I settled for taking in the views from my window.
The scenery along the highway was an endless stretch of rocky barren desert. It wasn’t until we started winding our way into the hills that the beauty I had imagined about the area came into view. We climbed to a higher elevation before reaching a planned rest stop and then headed back downward toward the valley and Wadi Musa, the town that has sprung up around the archaeological site of Petra.
Beginning Our Walk
The streets of Petra were already crowded when we arrived at the Visitor Center, and I was glad we were getting an early start. The first leg of the walk is on a wide dirt pathway that slowly slopes downward into the ruins. A path for horses and horse-drawn carriages lies to the left, and beautiful rock formations line both sides of the route.
Petra was built between 100 B.C. and 200 A.D. by a nomadic group of Arabs called the Nabataeans. The city flourished as a trading route and at one time had a population of more than 20,000. An earthquake is believed to have destroyed the area in 363 A.D., and it wasn’t until 1812 that Swiss explorer Johann Burckhardt rediscovered the lost city. Bedouins lived in Petra for centuries until 1985, when the government moved them into the nearby village, providing them with housing and preserving the site.
The pathway sharply narrows as the area called the Siq makes its appearance. Known as “the shaft,” this mile-long gorge cuts through the sandstone rocks and spills out into the inner city of Petra. The Siq once housed a sophisticated water system created by the Nabataeans and is a fascinating walk past towering rock formations and remnants of an ancient civilization.
The Petra Treasury
Like the proverbial pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, the Treasury is the prize that rewards visitors after trekking through the Siq. It’s a stunning sight, this rose-colored Greek templed façade tucked so majestically into a mountain of sandstone. Built as a tomb for an important Nabataean king, the Treasury was later used as a temple.
The Treasury’s only flaw is its name. As the story is told, the Bedouins believed that the urn carved above the entrance contained treasures, naming it the Treasury. But when tribesmen tried to loot the urn, riddling it with bullet holes, it turned out to be nothing more than solid rock.
Petra Beyond the Treasury
The crowds at the Treasury began to disperse, and many visitors appeared to head back through the Siq. The Treasury is the main attraction at Petra, to be sure, but it’s only the beginning of the ancient city. With the official portion of our tour finished, Herb and I headed down the Street of Facades and decided to keep going as long as time would allow. We were instructed to meet our group at a designated lunch spot near the Visitor Center, and realizing that the return walk through the Siq would be uphill, we knew it would take longer getting back than arriving.
The walk continues past the Royal Tombs to Petra’s city center called Colonnaded Street and culminates in an 800-step climb to the Monastery, overlooking the city. I would have loved to have kept going, but I knew that if we stayed any longer, we’d literally miss the bus.
We headed back the way we came, past the vendors and the donkeys and the camels, down the Street of Facades, in front of the glorious Treasury, through the darkness of the Siq and out into the sunlight.
Wadi Rum was beckoning, and it was time to move on.