Where and what is Petra?
An ancient city in Jordan, Petra was once the capital of the Nabatean people, merchants who came to dominate international trade in the Middle East 2,000 years ago. After a meteoric rise to power, they briefly challenged the might of Rome before succumbing. They then faded from history.
The Nabateans were originally a tribe of Arabian nomads who ventured out of the desert around the 5th century BC and settled in the Shara mountains of southern Jordan, at a crossroads of trade routes. By 350BC they had given up raiding camel caravans in favour of charging merchants for safe passage. Standing at the pivot of trade between Asia, Arabia and the Mediterranean, their power-base Petra (a Greek name meaning rock) grew fabulously wealthy. Frankincense and myrrh arrived from Yemen for onward distribution. Pepper, sugar, ginger and cotton were traded with India. Merchants exchanged Chinese silks for gold and silver. When the Roman general Pompey arrived to attack Petra in 62 BC, the Nabateans simply bought him off.
By the first century AD, Petra was home to perhaps 35,000 people. The Roman author Strabo described it as a cosmopolitan city, full of fine buildings and gardens. In 106AD, the Nabateans ceded power to the Romans, founding an era of prosperity that lasted until after the adoption of Christianity in 324. However, changes in trade patterns led to a decline. By 749, when an earthquake destroyed almost all freestanding buildings, Petra was more or less deserted.
It stayed that way for a millennium, until the Swiss explorer Jean-Louis Burckhardt persuaded the local Bedouin to guide him to the ruins in 1812. The "rediscovery" of the legendary city fuelled a surge of interest among travellers and archaeologists that still persists today.
Why should I go?
Petra is one of the world's most compelling historical sites, up there with the Taj Mahal and the Pyramids for romance and visual drama. A first glimpse of Petra's Treasury – the iconic façade made famous in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade – lives long in the memory.
The Nabateans built the Treasury – and most of Petra's grandest buildings – as sculptures, carving them into the sandstone cliffs. It is this display of human creativity amid such rugged surroundings that makes Petra remarkable. Ornate façades, in a uniquely Nabatean blend of classical design with Egyptian and Assyrian elements, still line the valley, creating a panorama of architectural splendour below the 1,000m-high crags.
To this you can add a lingering, under-the-skin quality of something supernatural. Elements of factual history, Bible stories, legends and local folktales all converge at Petra against a cinematic backdrop of hidden valleys, inaccessible summits and bottomless ravines.
Must I be an Indiana Jones to find it?
Not at all. Petra is easily reached by road, lying roughly 250km south of the Jordanian capital, Amman.
Hotels for all budgets are close at hand, and visiting independently or on a package tour is straightforward.
The most comfortable seasons, weather-wise, are spring (March to May) and autumn (September to November).
At these times, temperatures are pleasantly warm, with highs around 30C. The wildflowers are out and the angled sunshine highlights texture and colour in the desert rocks. Because Petra stands about 1,100m above sea level, the nights here are guaranteed to be cool.
Summer temperatures (between late May and early September) can be blistering, often reaching 40C or more. In winter (from late November to late February) Petra gets very cold, with rain and occasional snow: it's rarely more than 15C, with temperatures often dropping below freezing at night.
How do I get there?
Every tour operator offering package deals to Jordan will give you at least one day at Petra, but you really need to devote more time to the place than tha.
Voyages Jules Verne (0845 166 7003; vjv.co.uk) includes a generous four nights in Petra as part of an eight-day "Rum and Petra" tour, from £578 per person.
Exodus (0845 863 9600; exodus.co.uk) allows for three nights in Petra on its nine-day "Week in Jordan" tour, from £1,049 per person. Cox & Kings (020-7873 5000; coxandkings.co.uk) runs an eight-day "Splendours of Jordan" tour that also includes three nights in Petra, from £1,225 per person. (All prices include flights.)
On The Go (020-7371 1113; onthegotours.com) runs eight-day tours of Jordan including a day with Marguerite van Geldermalsen, a long-time Petra resident and author of Married to a Bedouin (Virago, £12.99).
Marguerite, a New Zealander, visited Jordan on holiday in 1978, fell in love with local souvenir-seller Mohammed Abdallah, and stayed to marry him and raise a family. She gives fascinating insights into Bedouin life. The next such tour departs on 7 March 2009, from £799 per person, excluding flights. u oA weekend break is also possible: The Traveller (020-7436 9343; the-traveller.co.uk) offers package deals flying out on a Thursday evening, returning on a Sunday afternoon, from £725 per person.
Can I travel independently?
Easily. BMI (0870 60 70 555; flybmi.com) and Royal Jordanian (08719 112 112; rj.com) fly daily from Heathrow to Amman. Other options include Gatwick to Amman via Budapest on Malev (0870 909 0577; malev.hu) and from Manchester via Istanbul on Turkish Airlines (0844 800 6666; thy.com).
A taxi from Amman airport direct to Petra will set you back around 80 Jordanian dinars (£76).
Driving yourself can be cheaper. All the global car-hire firms have offices in Amman, but local outfits are often better value: Reliable (00 962 6 592 9676; rentareliablecar.com) charges £111 for four days' rental of a 2008 vehicle, including unlimited mileage, full insurance and collision-damage waiver. Jordanian roads are good, with signage in English. The driving style can be a little cavalier, but it's no hairier than in parts of southern Europe.
Where should I stay?
Petra sits in a valley basin between two lines of jagged peaks. There's only one route in and out, and that passes through the modern town of Wadi Musa, which is the location of all of Petra's services. The Mövenpick hotel (00 962 3 215 7111; movenpick.com) stands below Wadi Musa town, within 100m of the ticket gate into Petra. Its Damascene-style interiors include a fountain and four-storey atrium surrounded by palm trees. Spacious double rooms start from around JD195 (£185), which also includes breakfast.
Up in the town, the eight-room Valley Stars Inn (00 962 3 215 5733; valleystarsinn.com) is the closest Petra gets to a boutique hotel, with stone-tiled floors and stylish interiors. Double rooms cost JD50 (£47.50) including breakfast. The cheerful Mussa Spring backpacker hotel (00 962 3 215 6310) has simple doubles for JD17 (£16), including breakfast.
Petra's most atmospheric accommodation is a campsite run by the Ammarin tribe (00 962 79 975 5551; bedouincamp.net). Located in a quiet side-valley, it offers decent beds in a traditional goat-hair tent, with a separate toilet and shower block, for JD33 (£31) including breakfast – complete with authentic, rough-edged Bedouin hospitality.
Petra in one day: what should I see?
Admission costs a stiff JD21 (£17) for a one-day ticket. Two-day and three-day tickets are better value at JD26/£24.70 and JD31/£29.50 respectively. However, if time is short then take the stony track, which heads down from the ticket gate between eroded rocky domes into the Siq (Arabic for "canyon"), the principal route into the ancient city. The path twists and turns between towering sandstone cliffs for just under a mile, often little more than an arm-stretch wide. With your eye softened to the Siq's flowing, natural curves, encountering the precisely rendered, clean lines of columns and pediments as you emerge to face the Treasury is breathtaking. Carved in the 1st century BC, this is Petra's most celebrated building. It is thought to have been both a temple and the tomb of a Nabatean king. Its harmonious, well-proportioned façade is adorned with carvings of gods and eagles.
The path heads on past more tomb façades into the open valley basin. Caves line the cliffs all around. To one side, carved into the mountainside, is an 8,000-seat theatre – originally Greek, redesigned by the Romans. To the other is a line of Nabatean royal tombs. On a rocky slope nearby, a Byzantine church houses a fine mosaic floor, laid in the 6th century.
Petra's colonnaded main street continues to the stone-flagged Temenos Courtyard, venue for religious ceremonies in antiquity and still dominated by the giant Qasr Al-Bint temple. Behind the cluster of cafés here, a path leads up to Petra's most impressive façade, the Monastery, originally the tomb of a Nabatean god-king. At roughly 50 square metres, it is larger than the west front of Westminster Abbey. Like the Treasury, it was carved directly from the cliff face. The views are stupendous.
Seeing all this, assuming you take some short breaks and have lunch, will amount to a pretty exhausting nine-hour day. Donkeys and camels are on hand to take some of the strain (with very negotiable prices) from your legs. For JD20 (£19) you can also arrange to ride in a horse-drawn trap through the Siq to the Treasury and back.
I've got more time: what else is there?
If you have two or three days in Petra, it allows you to explore at a more leisurely pace – and take in sights off the main path, such as the tomb of Roman governor Sextius Florentinus or the beautiful walk through Wadi Farasa ("Butterfly Valley").
A particular highlight is the walk to the High Place of Sacrifice, up a Nabatean processional stepped way. On this exposed mountain summit stand an altar and ceremonial courtyard offering a mind-bending 360-degree panorama over the whole of Petra.
Enticing long-distance treks include hikes to sites such as Jabal Haroun (Mount Aaron), where Moses' brother died, and "Little Petra", a Nabatean trading outpost with its own mini-Siq. These are detailed in a useful new book: Walking in Jordan: Walks, Treks, Caves, Climbs and Canyons by Di Taylor and Tony Howard (Cicerone, £17).
Make sure you have time for "Petra By Night", a magical candlelit walk through the Siq after dark. It takes place every Monday, Wednesday and Thursday. You can book on the day at any Petra hotel for JD12 (£11.40).
Is there anything interesting nearby?
Lots. Try the birdwatching and nature walks at Dana, 50km north of Petra – with a lovely nine-room guesthouse and wilderness campsite – or explore the remains of the Crusader castles at nearby Shobak and Karak.
The Dead Sea is a couple of hours from Petra, as is the coral-fringed Red Sea coast at Aqaba. A leading attraction is the magnificent desert landscape of Wadi Rum, about 90 minutes' drive from Petra (see box, opposite).
For more information, contact the Jordan Tourism Board (020-7371 6496; visitjordan.com/uk).
Matthew Teller is the author of the 'Rough Guide to Jordan' (£13.99).
Jordan's other jewels
Located at the northern tip of the Red Sea, Aqaba boasts a variety of water-sports and pristine beaches. The area has two main public beach areas. The first is in Aqaba's Marine Park, a 12km drive from the town centre. It caters to the needs of its many visitors with ubiquitous umbrellas for shade, showers and public toilets. Al-Hafayer, on the other hand, offers a more quirky taste of beach life. You are just as likely to stumble across a local's beach-side vegetable patch as a fellow bather's sun-lounger. If you plan to submerge yourself beyond ankle depth, Aqaba's waters host to 100 species of coral and 800 species of fish, remaining at an inviting 21-24C throughout the year. The Royal Diving Centre (00 962 2032709; rdc.jo), located 18km from the town centre, offers a range of PADI courses for all abilities.
Characterised by dramatic desert, enormous sandstone mountains and breath-taking canyons, Wadi Rum stretches over 720 square kilometres of Jordan's south. The area is still inhabited by Bedouin tribes, whose goat-hair tents decorate the landscape. Opposite the Seven Pillars of Wisdom (the mountain named after Lawrence of Arabia's book) is the Wadi Rum Visitor Centre (00 962 3 209 0600; wadirum.jo). This serves as a gateway to the protected desert area, as well as an information centre and the starting point for 4x4 tours, camel rides and organised hiking trails.
Travelling by 4x4 allows you to cover a lot of the area in a short time, but if you hanker for a more traditional mode of transport, a camel ride offers an unforgettable perspective of the desert landscape; overnight expeditions can be arranged on request. Alternatively join a Bedouin-led hiking tour and take advantage of the guides' local knowledge.
This ancient city was conquered by General Pompey in 63 BC and became one of the 10 great Roman cities. As a result, Jerash reflects both Greco-Roman and Arabian influences in religion, languages and architecture, making it a city of great cultural diversity and eclectic beauty. To see the site's ancient history brought to life, visit the restored Jerash hippodrome (also known as the Circus Gerasa), where some 40 foolhardy "gladiators" re-enact ancient battle techniques and a seven-lap chariot race around the hippodrome (00 962 2 634 2471; jerashchariots.com; JD 15/£14). For a slightly less blood-thirsty slice of culture, visit the annual Jerash Festival of Culture and Arts (00 962 6 460 3360; tiny.cc/AelH3), a two-week festival covering the end of July and beginning of August. It showcases centuries of the cities' vibrant arts scene, in the form of ballet, poetry readings, folklore troupes and orchestral performances.