It’s almost unthinkable to visit Jordan and not set foot inside Petra. This formidable city is one of the best-preserved examples of ancient civilisations. And, as one of the new seven wonders, it’s likely to get your mind and imagination racing contemplating what daily life must have been like in the city. To help you prep for your Petra experience, without too many spoilers, we cover where Petra is, how old the city is and some of the iconic buildings to look out for inside Petra.
Where exactly is Petra?
130km south of the Dead Sea, Petra sprawls over a 60km2 section of Jordan close to the border of Israel. The terrain covers river beds, canyons and mountains, where civilisations prospered in the jaw-dropping city for over 10,000 years.
How old is Petra?
In short? Really old. Petra dates back far more than a century or two. The long answer? It’s hard to say. Archaeologists have narrowed Petra’s origins down to around 1BC, but there’s just one problem there. Only 15% of the city has been excavated in total. With a seriously ancient 85% hidden, who knows what could be discovered under the next layer of sand?
Wondering what you’ll see once you’re inside Petra? Expect buildings, temples, tombs and frescos – most many storeys high, cut into the cliffs. The ancient Nabatean capital was a trading post, metropolis and potentially a place of religious significance. Archaeologists don’t know what some of the lavish structures were used for – but the size, scale and beauty of Petra will spark your imagination. Here are just a handful of the 800+ sites you can wander around.
This is an eye-popping early introduction to the marvels that wait for you in Petra. A 160m canyon that was partially carved out by the Nabateans to give easier access to the city. This narrow route into Petra funneled all explorers into one area – making the city easy to defend. Today, the 80m high walls still show evidence of the elaborate water system the inhabitants relied on, aqueducts follow the flow of rock and flood channels drain off excess rain.
Orbzii tip: Along the walk in, keep your eyes peeled for small shrines, idols and rock carvings nicked into the canyon walls by civilisations that occupied Petra.
Petra’s most impressive building is the first thing you see as you wander through the main route into the city. Despite being 40 metres high and 25 metres wide, this formidable, two storey structure is actually just a facade. There are some modern repairs, to preserve the structure for future generations, but despite spending thousands of years under the glaring Jordanian sun, the details are, in places, almost as crisp as the day they were chiselled.
Orbzii tip: Peek beyond the facade by going into one of the rooms just inside the main opening. There are no frescos or artwork inside, just hollowed out rooms. Experts are still debating how these were used.
Unlike the Treasury, Petra’s Theatre hasn’t aged as well. Carved into the mountain in 1AD, the seating here could have held a 4,000-strong audience in its heyday. Amendments to the open air auditorium have been made over the years, with the Romans rebuilding a wall at the back of the theatre. And, although the theatre closely resembles Roman designs, marks left on the structure by stonemasons date this back to the Nabatean era.
The Royal Tombs
There’s more than a whiff of educated guess from the archaeologists on this one. The location of these tombs – in central Petra, have elevated these to royal status by default. There’s no evidence that puts Nabatean rulers within the stone walls. But the elaborate design, central focal point and intricate decoration suggest people of importance were buried here.
The Pond and Gardens
Before archaeologists dusted off their chisels and got to work, this spot was thought to be nothing more than a trading area. On closer inspection, this was Petra’s pond and gardens. Impressive stuff for a desert city. As you mooch around, it’s worth taking a closer look at the water system. For the era, this was advanced technology that used everything from dams and aqueducts to cisterns, reservoirs and rainwater harvesting to bring a water supply into the city. It’s hard to imagine, but this section of the rose-red city was once a lush, green and verdant spot to relax in.
The Great Temple
This is the building inside Petra EVERYONE has on their wish list. And while it might not be as well preserved as the Street of Facades or the Treasury, it allows your imagination to run wild. A sprawling complex of over 75,000 square feet has archaeologists and historians over the use of this mammoth building. The grand steps, imposing columns and layouts drafted in reconstructions point towards a government building or senate. Though recent surveys have found pools and gardens at the front of the structure. The ruins do hold some clues for you to puzzle together too. Ancient plaster still sticks to the walls, in places. Elephant sculptures stand proud atop columns and floral friezes date the structure back to 1BC.
Orbzii tip: Seeing Petra at night, by candlelight, is a very different experience to seeing the city by day. Quiet and contemplative – the streets are filled with the shuffle of shoes rather than the daily tour traffic, horse-drawn carts and impatient donkeys calling to each other. Petra By Night tickets cost 17 JD for a two hour tour of the city.
What about Little Petra?
If you’re looking to experience the wonders of Nabatean architecture – minus the crowds, Little Petra is a pint sized version of its nearby neighbour. Roughly 8km away, you can hike part of the Jordan Trail to get there – or drive through the Umm Sayhoun to meet the Bedouin villagers that once lived in Little Petra.