The “New 7 Wonders of the World” campaign run by a private foundation at the beginning of this century may have been a popularity contest susceptible to vote manipulation, but only one or two of its final selections would ever be questioned as not entirely worthy of the designation. Petra is definitely among the worthy ones. The capital of the Nabatean Kingdom whose outposts in the Negev desert we encountered earlier is a World Heritage site recognized as cultural crossroads and an archaeological treasure trove.
The half-built, half-carved rock city is spread over a huge site that requires a couple of days for full exploration. My visit lasted just around five hours, which allowed me to hit most of the key highlights without lingering anywhere for too long. I had to leave aside some of the farthest points in Petra, most notably the outlying Monastery. Nonetheless, what I managed to see and explore in that time gave me a clear feeling that Petra is among the most wondrous places that I have ever seen.
Even those people who are aware that Ancient Petra is approached via a narrow gorge, may not realize how long that walk is. From the modern visitor center at the edge of the present-day town, it is over two kilometers before you reach the mind-blowing sight of Al-Khazneh at the end of the gorge. You can make part of it on a horse and another part in a horse-pulled carriage, but walking the distance is the only way to really appreciate its magnificence.
The first few hundred meters are not through the gorge but through a valley outside it, known as Bab al Siq, that used to comprise the outer districts of Ancient Petra. One of the first things that catch the eye here is the Djinn blocks, the squared monuments.
This is the Obelisk Tomb, dating from the 1st century CE.
The upper opening is that of the burial place, while below it is a large banqueting hall.
The mountain sides here allow for occasional elevated places of solitude.
After a while, you reach the entrance to the gorge.
The guards, as you may guess, are not real guards and they bar your way only as a means to entice you to take pictures with them.
The Siq is a natural geological fault split. It is about 1.2 kilometers long and varies in width from a few dozen meters to just over 10 feet in some places. And all along the way, the reddish sandstone walls enclose you on both sides.
Notice the water channels along the walls on both sides of the road. The sophisticated water delivery system along the length of the gorge is among the main factors that allowed Petra to prosper in this arid region.
The ground, as you may expect, is rather uneven, which makes the carriage ride a rather bouncing affair. Nonetheless, people with limited mobility and not only them sometimes choose to ride over walking.
What you will almost certainly miss if you choose the carriage ride are Nabatean votive places that in the past contained sacred stones called baetylus.
And I have not observed a single carriage driver stop and allow his customers to admire this rock, which looks like a fish from the side but more like an elephant when viewed from the front.
Some of the rocks also supposedly resemble camels, but even when our guide pointed them out I could not necessarily discern that. Although an animal foot, hippo-ish in its form, presents itself in this perspective.
The money shot for many – the first glimpse of the Treasury at the end of the Siq.
Here it is in its full glory.
Al Khazneh was constructed in the 1st century BCE, its façade nearly 40 meters high and decorated with clear Hellenistic influence. The funerary urn at the top conceals a pharaoh’s treasure according to the local legend, which is why the place is colloquially known as the Treasury.
The camels are for hire if you want to ride them around the ancient city.
Other façades in town – and there are many of them – are less elaborate than the one at the Treasury. All of these are actually tombs of the cream of society.
The donkeys, by the way, are used as taxis for hire throughout the archaeological site.
I stepped into a few of those carved openings in the tombs, but that may be one of the most visually disappointing sides of Petra. There are no majestic caves of wonders. Each interior space is usually a bare hall with few distinguishing features. Wooden ceilings offer a splash of color in some.
Burials of the less exalted members of the Nabatean society occurred in caves of much lesser grandeur.
There are several additional defined points of interest in the core of ancient Petra. Here is the theatre, the only such venue in the world carved into the rock. It could sit 4,000 spectators.
The Royal Tombs elevated above the central area of Petra, a group of four grand façades that were built around the 1st-2nd centuries CE.
All through Petra, the main function of these tomb structures was blending funerary with banqueting.
The remains of the Great Temple, dating from the 1st century BCE.
Somewhat counter-intuitively to their looks, the main and most important temple in Petra at the height of its prosperity was not the Great Temple, but Qasr al-Bint, seen in the next shot, built about a hundred years later.
This is the Colonnaded Street as seen from near Qasr al-Bint with views towards the Royal Tombs.
I do not have a good caption for this standalone shot – there is something in the combination of the rock formation and a strategically-positioned bench that attracts the eye.
Another view of the Royal Tombs from the western edge of the city core.
And the nearly opposite perspective of Qasr al-Bint, with the camel-like mountain in the background.
A panoramic view of the part of town near the Theatre and the Royal Tombs.
And a few more looks at the rose-tinted Treasury, this time from an elevated viewpoint that is not that hard to climb to.
A rare sight in my photo archives – me in front of a magnificent monument. This was one place where I could not refrain from asking a fellow traveler to take a picture of me.
And a farewell look at the Treasury from the mouth of the Siq.
I visited Petra on a group tour that originated in Tel Aviv. My customized itinerary allowed me to join the group in the morning in Aqaba, a Jordanian city on the Red Sea literally next to Eilat. We reached Petra before noon and spent a couple of hours with a guide walking through the gorge and then around the main central points of the archaeological site. I then had under three hours on my own to explore Petra a bit more (as well as to make it back through the gorge and beyond to the meeting point for the next leg of my tour). As I said above, barely enough time to get a taste. When I make it back here, I will go for a two-day stay to explore this Wonder of the World to a lot more depth.