Two days exploring the ancient city of Petra | Jordan

It was a simple 4 hour minibus ride from Amman to Wadi Musa, the town built on the outskirts of Petra, but after 10 minutes there was a loud bang and something hit my foot. I was sitting above the wheel arch and the tire had just blown underneath me. The driver slowed down as the worn tire relentlessly slapped the body work. It must be a common thing as within 50 meters we’d rolled into a garage with plenty of spare tires. It appeared they didn’t have the one we needed so we drove another kilometre to the next one. We ended up waiting an hour for the tire to be changed due to one bolt refusing to come off. One local onboard spent most of this time combing his moustache and saying hello on his phone – then I realised he wasn’t using his phone and had been saying hello to me for about five minutes before I realised. The driver tried to charge us 7JD instead of 5JD (£5) like our guidebook suggested. He was getting a passenger to translate to us saying bizarre things like “petrol…change driver”. We’d just seen a local pay 4JD close to our exit so we knew he was trying to scam us and we just said no and he finally gave up. Our friend had this happen to him and after the local realised he wasn’t backing down he said “welcome to Jordan!” in a very jolly way, hoping to leave a good impression on tourists. They really need to give us a break though – it costs locals 1JD £1 to visit Petra, but it costs tourists 55JD £60!

Anyway, we checked into our room, the most expensive in Jordan for us at $44 a night. For that price we still had to share a bathroom and the inside of the toilet was totally black. Talk about value for money.

We opted for the two day ticket to Petra and woke up at 5:30am on our first day to beat the crowds. It was about 6:15am by the time we arrived at the entrance where we followed the path towards the Siq. The Siq is a tall canyon-style formation but instead of being formed by water it was actually split into two from tectonic forces. The sandstone walls rose 200m above us and it narrowed to just a few meters wide, twisting and curving like the path of a snake.

Suddenly, the Treasury was visible between a gap in the canyon and we could imagine what it felt like for the first explorers setting eyes of this marvel. The Treasury is the main highlight of Petra, the most elaborately carved tomb of them all. It was carved for the Nabataean King and rumour has it an Egyptian pharaoh hid his treasure in an urn at the very top of the structure. At some point the locals took it very seriously and tried shooting the 3.5m urn down. What amazed us the most was the neatness of the carving, it was all symmetrical and just so perfect that it seemed impossible for humans to make it without the help of modern machines. They actually built it from the top down, using scaffolding and if you look carefully at the photos you can see little holes on each side of the structure which were used to climb up the wall.

It was built in a sort of second canyon running diagonally to the Siq with orange sandstone walls rising straight up towards the sky. There were a few people around but it was possible to capture it without anyone in the way. Two camels decorated in multicoloured straps and pom-poms were laying down and being very photogenic models. We ventured up a rocky mound to get a view of The Treasury from eye level and appreciate the impressive location it was set in. You might recognise it from Indiana Jones!

The Nabataeans were the desert nomads who created Petra and it is thought that the Treasury was built around 2000 years ago. They actually lived in tents, much like some of the Bedouin today and not in the beautiful tomb buildings like I’d presumed. Except for the Bedouins who eventually made Petra their home, the ancient city remained unknown for centuries and it wasn’t rediscovered until a Swiss explorer happened upon it in 1812. Most of the structures are actually tombs with elaborately decorated facades. There was usually space for a banquet inside them where the funeral and annual remembrance would take place. Being on the trade route the carvers used a lot of different designs influenced by neighbouring countries and cultures.

We left the Treasury and headed towards The Street Of Facades with the sun slowly piercing through the canyon behind us. This area had more than 40 tombs and houses built into the sandstone walls. I found these structures to be just as beautiful as The Treasury. They weren’t as neat, infact over the years entire pillars and doorways had collapsed, but the colours in the walls were outstanding. They were like rainbow coloured houses with stripes and swirls in the rock walls.

The strange thing was that after walking inside many of them it became evident that they were just empty rooms. Occasionally a second room would branch off or the wall would have frames carved into it, as if designed for windows, but they never carved the window holes. The ceilings were tall and the rooms dark. Some of them had strange grooves in the walls and ceilings and it reminded me of the old fashioned plastering technique in England where they had those ridged swirls on the ceiling.

Behind The Street Of Facades were steps leading up a rocky mountain. We followed them up until the trail plateaued and we were treated to a view of The Treasury way below us. All the best views in Petra are blocked off by Bedouin tents where they charge you for the view in exchange for a thimble sized cup of tea. The tent was packed with tourists so we just found a rocky outcrop instead and watched the sun slowly make it’s way down the structure. I’d read that this was the most beautiful time to photograph The Treasury but I found it to be very un-photogenic with harsh shadows and glaring light off the rocks. We much preferred the warm pink hues in the early morning and late afternoon when the sun wasn’t touching it.

There were a few sad sights up at this viewpoint though. For starters there was rubbish alongside the trail, including an entire Coca Cola fridge dumped on the side. Old Bedouin camps were abandoned, leaving the frame work along with tatty rugs and half burnt fire pits filled with plastic. This site is a 7th wonder of the world…how can it be treated in this way?! Then we met a very sad donkey who had two large wounds on its face. The stray dogs weren’t coexisting with the donkeys, basically barking the poor animals towards a cliff edge. It was all a bit distressing really and sadly just the start of things to come as we explored the area.

So we headed back down the trail and noticed a cave beside some impressive tombs, but it was used for rubbish and a toilet. Loo roll was scattered across the floor and in front of the cave were Bedouins selling souvenirs…I can’t imagine many tourists crawling into that creepy cave for a wee when there are public toilets just a five minute walk away. Many young kids were selling rocks that they’d found, one of which was a little boy who we watched throw his trainers into the canyon. So now he has no shoes and while the locals chip away Mother Nature’s rocks to sell to tourists they replace them with manmade junk.

To the left of the main trail was the Theatre which had space for 3000 spectators, however when the Romans arrived they expanded it to seat 8500 which was about 30% of Petra’s population at the time. Further along was the Great Temple which was badly damaged by an earthquake not long after being built. It was made by the Nabataeans but had a very Roman style with circular pillars made of numerous round rocks piled atop one another. From here we left the crowds and took a side trip up some hills and had the area mostly to ourselves. We passed a cave with some fencing around a couple of trees and chickens, and outside were two dogs tied up. They were wagging their tails like mad when they saw us, desperate for affection but on closer inspection we saw they both had collars around their necks made of 2” nails. Sort of like an English bull terrier might wear those jokey blunt studded collars but this wasn’t fashion or a joke, this was cruel and the nails had the sharp ends poking out so the dogs couldn’t curl up into cozy balls without being jabbed. We didn’t know why the owner had done this, maybe to make them look intimidating, but their wagging tails proved they were friendly. We saw another dog with the same style collar later on, it was really sad.

We managed to find a lovely spot for lunch, beside one of my favourite tombs which had a kaleidoscope of colours swirling through the rock. It was so colourful that the house almost looked like it was on fire. Our lunch however lacked the pizazz of our setting and the dry pitta with cheese triangles was rather bland so we became Santa and threw pieces to dogs in need. One was a very skinny mum with a little puppy, she was extremely scared of us so we left the food on the side and hope she managed to get some once we left.

Enjoying the route less travelled we headed up a valley where many Bedouins still lived and farmed their goats and chickens. The further we walked away from the main trail the more rubbish appeared. We were so disappointed, how could a group of people that live in nature care so little about the conditions they live in? You could tell they walked this trail and dropped anything they didn’t need, sweet wrappers, water bottles, plastic packaging, you name it they dropped it. We came across some sort of large carved tomb which seemed to have slipped sideways from earthquakes. Below the sheer rock walls was a little oasis. It was filled with olive trees and tomato plants and when we noticed the gate wasn’t locked we decided to head in. A family immediately greeted us and the old chap spoke good English, asking us where we were from and how long we had in the area. Two ladies were harvesting olives and he explained that they would take them to a machine to make olive oil. The man sent the kids away who dashed off into the olive grove and came back a few minutes later handing us a bunch of fresh tangerines they’d just picked. It was so sweet! Then the man said “ok, I am a busy man so I must get back to work”, his honesty made us giggle and we managed to get a quick snap of the moment with the adorable kids and their humongous smiles. They were the real people we wanted to meet in Jordan, they weren’t involved in tourism, they were just genuine and so so friendly.

The tangerines gave us a good boost of energy to continue exploring and we made our way to The Monastery. It was a tough, uphill slog over 800+ steps. But we passed some very old people doing the trail too which was sweet and it emphasised how ridiculous it was for the people that were our age paying for donkey rides up. Honestly if your too lazy to walk, how can you expect a helpless animal to do it for you instead? The local kids rode the donkeys like they were toy cars, joking around and hitting them unnecessarily.

Some people say they find The Monastery more impressive than the Treasury as it’s even bigger but we wouldn’t agree. Yes it was much grander and you could see it from far away; such a neat structure amongst the rough rocks, but it lacked the intricate details and statues that The Treasury had. A large tea shop overlooked The Monastery and it would of been a nice atmospheric spot to enjoy a tea had they not been playing modern music out the speakers – hardly setting the scene for us. We continued to some back trails where we got a vast view across the desert hills. Each viewpoint had a tea shop, but we opted to sit below one which was closed. A little ginger cat joined us and sat on my lap which was cute but also scary because cats are so psycho and unpredictable. Below us was a canyon and it was FILLED with rubbish. You could tell the tea shop just dumped everything over the edge ‘out of mind, out of sight’. It was shocking, not only plastic rubbish but also large furniture and fridges. UNESCO really should come and check out these places and enforce a change of mindset. Obviously Petra deserves to be a 7th wonder of the world as it’s an incredible place, but the locals are destroying it and have no respect for the sight, it seems they are more focused on tourists money.

The price to enter Petra is 50 – 60JD for 1 to 3 day visit, which is roughly £60 or $75. It’s slightly cheaper if you purchase the Jordan Pass though. But regardless, let’s have a look at some basic figures; We were told on the day we visited there were about 4000 visitors. 4000 x 75 = $300,000 USD per day!!!! We saw just one worker while walking around, he was only there to stop tourists walking a certain route and we saw two people sweeping the main path, but it seemed like any rubbish beside the path was left. That’s a lot of profit and not a lot of maintenance or investment if you ask me.

By the time we headed back down, the main trail was packed. We were exhausted after walking over 20km from 6am until 5:30pm. There were plenty of old people riding camels that looked like giant dinosaurs looming above us (the camels, not the wrinkled folks). It was actually quite funny as the people struggled to sit straight and half of them were clinging on sideways like they’d fallen asleep and were moments away from slipping off. Then we saw an obese couple, proud Americans with USA flags slathered across their T-shirt’s and they were sat on tiny donkeys about half their size. Steam was coming out of my ears by this point. I wanted to stop them and say “excuse me, we’ve just found two injured donkeys, they need help but I can’t really be bothered so I wondered if you would mind carrying them on your back for free? There’s only 800 slippery steps to get up though. Obviously you could say no but I’ll just hit you if you do…” Not so nice when the tables have turned.

The Treasury was now full of people and the atmosphere that we experienced in the morning had vanished. I stepped into the Siq without Craig briefly and a kid asked if I wanted to buy a postcard. I said no and then he pointed to the floor behind me and said “you dropped something”. This is a classic technique people use to pickpocket you so I stared into the kids eyes and said “no I didn’t” (while really hoping I was right). He tried it again and I replied no I didn’t and then he walked off in a huff. I looked back when he was gone and of course I hadn’t dropped anything. It happened again with a different kid, also while I was walking a little away from Craig and after two tries the kid said “you smell” and walked off. These kids were between 5 and 10 years old. Did they want to pickpocket me? I don’t know, but it certainly wasn’t done in an innocent ‘haha made you look’ way so be warned if someone tries this trick on you.

Horse and carts also added to the congestion and many people were very happy to pay for a ride. They traveled through the Siq at lightning speed and tourists were practically having to jump out of their way. They were even faster on the way down, the donkeys struggling to grip their hooves on the stone floor while the passengers held tightly onto the handlebars as if it was the scariest rollercoaster of their lives.

So yeah, day one in Petra was full of ups and downs. We’d actually managed to see most of the sights on our first day but we still headed back the following day for a bit more exploring. We had a slightly later start and decided to head up to the High Place Of Sacrifice, atop a mountain with drains to channel the blood from sacrificed animals. The desert scenery was beautiful from the top and it continued to be so as we ventured around some trails to The Great Temple.

On our way back we stopped at Umm Raami’s souvenir stall, owned by a New Zealand lady who is known for marrying a Bedouin man after meeting him in Petra in the 70’s. They had a son together who we were chatting to, he looked like a local but sounded like an ozzy and had the banter and charisma of one too. His mum wrote a book about her experiences living in a cave which her son was selling along with handmade pieces of jewellery. I can’t imagine how different her experiences of Petra were before it became such a tourist hub.

After a picnic lunch we were ready to say goodbye to Petra. It was a wonderful sight, the fact that these buildings were hand carved 2000 years ago and set in a beautiful sand stone desert filled with canyons and rock formations was incredible and I loved it….but, you know what the ‘but’ is…the rubbish and animal abuse left a bad taste in our mouths and I really hope things change in the future.

8 Comments Add yours

  1. ourcrossings says:

    Ahhh Petra, such a beautiful and iconic place to visit! I’ve seen so many photos of it over the years, yet never tire of the famous archaeological site in Jordan’s desert. I’m glad you had a great time exploring it. 🙂

    1. Thank you, it was just as impressive in person as I’d expected. Just a big shame about all the neglect we witnessed.

  2. This looks incredible! Definitely adding it to my list!

    1. Thanks so much. Petra is definitely a great place to visit. Hopefully the locals will get better with caring for the land and animals though.

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