Petra is one of the 7 Wonders of the World & a celebrated UNESCO World Heritage Site since decades. Due to its repute of an important archeological site in the world, Petra attracts millions of tourists each year. Read our essential list of things to know before visiting Petra, Jordan to plan the perfect trip. You might also like our post on Petra One Day and Beyond: An Itinerary
Petra is among the new Wonders of the World since 2007 and has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1985. It is one of the most famous archeological sites in the world and attracts thousands of tourists every year. It has also been regularly featured in various lists of ‘Things to
Petra has a rich cultural heritage – it tells the story of human settlement and advances in trade made by the lost civilizations of the past – the Nabataeans, the Romans. The excavated monuments and famous sites are protected from human impact and activities as a part of the Petra Archeological Park.
Petra has also been featured in many movies including Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, The Mummy Returns, and Mortal Kombat: Annihilation. Spending a day inside Petra is magical and adventurous; here is our list of essential things to know before you visit the ancient Jordanian city.
Also Read: Petra One Day and Beyond: An Itinerary
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“ The sun rose over the city just as we reached the narrowest part of the gut, Grim leading, and its first rays showed that we were using the bed of a watercourse for a road. Exactly in front of us, glimpsed through a twelve-foot gap between cliffs six hundred feet high, was a sight worth going twice that distance, running twice that risk, to see—a rose-red temple front, carved out of the solid valley wall and glistening in the opalescent hues of the morning. “
– Talbot Mundy in ‘The Lion of Petra‘
Petra is located in Jordan in the Middle East and is completely safe to visit.
The ancient city of Petra is located in Wadi Musa area of Jordan in the Middle-East. After knowing Petra’s location, most visitors are concerned about safety issues. However, Jordan is very safe to visit. It currently has no travel warnings. The country relies heavily on tourism revenue and has vested interest in keeping all tourist sites including Petra safe. The biggest threats you will encounter inside Petra are dehydration from not drinking enough water and annoying Bedouin touts selling animal rides and souvenirs. In short, visiting Petra is probably as safe as visiting the Roman Colosseum or Machu Picchu in Peru.
Also Read: 101 Best Things to do in Jordan
Petra’s original people called it Raqmu. Petra is also known as the Rose Red City.
The ancient city was carved into the cliffside by the Nabataeans, a nomadic Bedouin tribe. Petra’s original Nabataean inhabitants called it Raqmu while its Arabic name was Al-Batra. The Greeks called it by its current name of Petra. The name is derived from the Greek word ‘petros’ which means rocks. John William Burgon, in his poem on Petra, called the Nabataean capital ‘A Rose-Red City, Half as Old as Time’. The name stuck and today, Petra is the famous Rose-Red City. The name can be attributed to the pink-red hued sandstone cliffs faces in which Petra’s monuments were carved. The entire landscape surrounding Petra has a deep reddish tone and looks breathtaking early in the day at dawn and at sunset.
No one really knows how old Petra is. Or why it was built.
In spite of all the advances in carbon dating, the precise age of Petra is not accurately known. The Treasury was probably constructed in the 1st or 2nd century B.C. Archeologists estimate that Petra started prospering and was established as the capital of the Nabateans around 3rd-4th century B.C. Petra has been inhabited since prehistoric times and was an important location on the trade routes passing through Jordan.
Archeologists and historians have long studied and tried to understand the purpose of Petra’s monuments. The Treasury likely began as a temple but it was used as a mausoleum for the Nabataean King Aretas IV. Most other monuments inside Petra were also tombs – and at one time, it was baffling why a vast necropolis (city for the dead) was built. Further research showed that the Nabataeans preferred to lived in tents inside Petra and that’s why no carved dwellings are found inside the ancient city.
The Nabataeans were not good builders but were excellent carvers.
The Ancient City of Petra is a maze of tombs, temples, caves, sacrificial platforms, and even a theatre. They all share the distinct characteristic of being carved in the reddish pink sandstone cliffs. The number of free-standing structures inside Petra is very small and many of them have their origin in the Byzantine period instead of the Nabataean period. All of this ties in perfectly with the hypothesis that while the Bedouin Nabataeans were not great at building freestanding structures but excelled at carving megastructures out of the rocks.
The Nabataeans were also excellent engineers. While visitors mostly focus on the monuments and Hellenistic carvings, the civil engineering facets of Petra are also worthy of note. The Siq (entrance passage) has carved sloping water channels; multiple ancient cisterns are carved inside the city. This ancient water supply system provided sufficient water to Petra’s almost 30,000 inhabitants. Contrast that with Petra’s location in the arid desert and you can appreciate the importance of this water supply system.
The thriving city of Petra was destroyed by an earthquake.
Not much information is known about Petra’s Nabataeans including where they came from. They traded incense with ancient Arabia, silks with China and spices with India and sent these expensive caravans to Egypt, Syria and beyond. The mountains surrounding Petra offered the Nabataeans natural defense. They grew wealthy from the trade and expanded the immense metropolis within the cliffs as they flourished as a symbol of their wealth.
After the fall of the Nabateans, Petra was annexed by the Romans. The Romans expanded Petra’s infrastructure and added colonnaded streets, temples, and arches consistent with the Hellenistic period. Petra’s downfall began in 363 AD when an earthquake of large magnitude destroyed much of the infrastructure. Later changing trade routes led to the abandonment of the city by the 7th century AD.
Petra was once ‘lost’ to the Western World; hence its other name, the ‘Lost City’.
After the fall of the Roman Empire, the ancient city of Petra was lost to the western world. Petra’s unique location between towering sandstone hills of Jebel Al-Madhbah mountain ranges made it very difficult to reach the city. Also, the local Bedouin tribes believed that Western travelers would come to Petra in search of its treasure and hence they zealously guarded the ancient city and its location. Petra and its monumental carvings were eventually forgotten and remained that way for several hundred years.
The Swiss explorer, Johann Burckhardt, ‘rediscovered’ Petra in the year 1812. Burckhardt learned the Arabian language and traveled far and wide in the Levant and Middle-Eastern countries under the guise of an Arab traveller. Suspecting the rumors of the ruins located amidst the narrow mountains in south Jordan to be the Lost City of Petra, he convinced his Bedouin guide to lead him there. While he could not stay inside Petra for long – to not cause suspicion – he wrote about his discovery in his book ‘Travels in Syria and the Holy Land’. Since then Petra has enchanted modern explorers, adventurers, and travelers.
The Treasury is not Petra.
Many visitors make the mistake of equating the Treasury with Petra. That’s like saying, the Empire State Building is New York. The Treasury is actually just one of Petra’s many monuments, albeit one of the most impressive. Petra is a sprawling ancient capital that is spread out over an area of hundred square miles and has as many as 800 carved tombs, many of which are worth a visit. (For comparison’s sake, Manhattan is under 25 square miles!)
If you devote one day to Petra, you are scratching just the tip of the iceberg. Petra has many significant sights including the Street of Facades, the Royal Tombs, The Great Temple, High Place of Sacrifice, the Colonnaded Street, the Byzantine Church, and the Monastery. The Theatre is beautiful and could seat as many as 6000-8000 people. Petra also has many hikes to beautiful viewpoints. Seeing Petra to your heart’s content is easily a two or three day affair.
The walk inside the Siq is one of the most beautiful walks in the world.
The Siq is a natural winding, narrow walkway between two towering cliffs surrounding the ancient city. The Siq is the main entrance to Petra. The mile-long walk through the Siq is an extraordinary blend of beauty and anticipation and hence, is one of the top revered tourist walks.
The Siq is actually a narrow slot canyon inside the pink-red sandstone; those who have traveled to Antelope Canyon in Arizona, USA will be reminded of the same after looking at the Siq’s vibrant colors and patterns. The walk through the Siq affords visitors the famed ‘first glimpse of the Treasury’. The Siq goes on for a mile before dramatically ending just in front of the Treasury facade.
Walking through the Siq is an incredible experience. It made me appreciate the natural defenses and the secrecy of this ancient city’s location. Every turn made me anticipate the moment when I would finally see the Treasury and when I did – it was more beautiful than I could ever imagine.
The urn at the top of the Treasury contains a Pharaoh’s Treasure.
Or so the rumor goes. While it could not be further from reality, the Bedouins certainly believed and zealously guarded it at one time. They even went as far as to kill any outsider who ventured inside Petra looking for the treasure. The urn is actually damaged due to many gunshots fired by local thieves looking to break the giant urn and spill out the treasure. However during excavations, historians confirmed that the urn is actually made of solid stone and contains no treasure. Thankfully, the damage is now contained as the Treasury is protected as part of the petra Archeological Park and the myth now remains as one of the more interesting stories about Petra.
Large parts of Petra still remain undiscovered to this day. In fact, excavation takes place inside Petra every day (almost).
Petra is so vast and so majestic that just about half of it has been explored and excavated. Large parts of the city remain hidden under the sand and/or cliffs. Various excavation projects continue to be carried out in Petra; the most major was the one in the Great temple Complex led by Brown university. Archeologists discovered the existence of a previously hidden sacrificial platform in Petra as recently as 2016.
It is possible to see Petra without the crowds.
Petra draws over thousands of visitors each year and yet when we visited the Treasury there was almost no one else in sight. How did we manage it? By reaching early! We were at the Petra Visitor Center when they opened at 6 am and completed the walk through the Siq in an hour to reach the Treasury at 7 am. There was no one in the Siq save another couple and we had the Treasury to ourselves – it was breathtaking! We sipped on hot Bedouin tea as we marveled the Treasury and then hiked the secret Treasury Overlook Trail. We highly recommend this trail; you can read about it in our Petra Itinerary post.
Another way to avoid the crowds is by staying late. Most people leave Petra tired around 4 pm. We were inside the park till sunset and enjoyed the beautiful dusk views of the Royal Tombs. Other tips include avoiding peak holiday seasons including Ramadan, Christmas, and weekends.
You can even see Petra at Night.
‘Petra by Night’ is a show that takes place inside Petra in front of the Treasury after sunset. The Siq and area in front of the Treasury are lit by thousands of candles at night and visitors are treated to Bedouin tea, dance performance, and music. “We recommend lingering behind others to walk through the Siq alone. The night sky at Petra dazzles with a thousand stars and the silence is breathtaking. The Treasury looks spectacular when illuminated by the light of a thousand candles. The Bedouin music is haunting and the show is great; however, we were too tired to enjoy it after hiking the Treasury overlook trail and the Monastery in one day.” says Carol, who has been to Petra twice. Visitors need to purchase separate event tickets for the show in addition to Petra entry tickets. The show occurs on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays from 8:30 pm to 10:30 pm. Tickets cost 17JD and can be purchased at most shops and hotels in Wadi Musa. Unlimited number of tickets are available for the show.
Petra is deteriorating. And needs your help.
Petra is at risk of deterioration due to human activities, natural erosion, and over tourism. The salt that gets blown into the air and through Petra from the Dead Sea crystallizes on the monuments and weakens their structure. Overtourism puts a stress on Petra’s resources and careless activities by tourists put the archeological site at risk. You can do your part in helping Petra by being responsible tourists. That means leaving the smallest footprint that you can by sticking to approved trails, not climbing or defacing monuments, and leaving no trash.