You could spend a week here and still never see it all, but if time is tight then head for the unmissables, says Matthew Teller
Petra’s largest monument, located in the mountains above the city. It takes almost an hour to reach, along a path of rock-cut steps from the Qasr al-Bint. The Monastery facade is gigantic, almost 50m square: the doorway alone is taller than a house. As with the Treasury, this was almost certainly the tomb of a Nabataean king, built in the first century BC. It got its misleading name because of some crosses scratched inside. The views from the nearby summit out over the whole Petra basin are stupendous.
This majestic paved street marked the centre of Nabataean power. To the south
of the Nymphaeum – a Roman-style public fountain (now ruined) – the rocky slopes shelter a series of public areas, originally theorised as market places. To the north is a fifth-century church, its floor mosaics still dazzlingly bright. Twin lines of columns lead past the palace and two huge temples, through a gateway into the temenos, or sacred precinct. Here stands the Qasr al-Bint, a first-century BC Nabataean temple: an impressive focus for the ancient city.
Petra’s most eye-catching facades, lined up on a prominent cliffside. The best is the soaring Urn Tomb, with a large colonnaded forecourt partially supported on arched vaults. This was probably the last resting place of somebody extremely important, most likely a Nabataean king. It was later converted into Petra’s cathedral. Beside it is the Silk Tomb, named for the brilliant colouring in its eroded sandstone, the ornate Corinthian Tomb and the broad Palace Tomb – all of them also probably royal mausolea.
An exposed mountaintop altar, perched high above the central basin of Petra. Steps lead up from beside the main path, near the Roman theatre. After 30 minutes you emerge beside two tall obelisks onto a hand-levelled platform (roughly 15m by 6m), atop cliffs that drop 170m to the valley below. The sense of exposure is dizzying: the vastness of Petra’s mountain terrain is all around. Dominating the platform is a raised altar, with side channels to drain the blood from the sacrifices which took place up here – animal and, possibly, human.
Petra’s most famous monument, a detailed facade carved into a cliff facing the Siq – designed to impress. It is about 2,000 years old and is thought to be the tomb of a Nabataean king, with carvings of local deities alongside representations of Castor and Pollux, sons of Zeus. The name derives from the Bedouin belief that it was built by a pharaoh to hold his treasure: marksmen tried for years to shatter the stone urn at the top, hoping to be showered with gold – thus the urn looks distinctly worse for wear.
The classic entry into Petra, a narrow, rocky cleft that winds for 1.2km through the mountains. The Siq was formed when tectonic forces split the mountain in two. The waters of the Wadi Musa found their way into the fault, softening the sharp corners into smooth curves, helped by the cool winds. The path twists between bizarrely eroded sandstone walls, up to 200m high but just a couple of metres apart. As you walk, often on original Roman paving, you pass votive niches and carved shrines left by the Nabataeans.
Hike the Main Path
Petra’s classic one-day walking itinerary (nine hours)
It’s a walk of over 3km from the gate through to Petra’s city centre, the gentle gradient of 5% hiding the fact that the drop in altitude is almost 170m, (the height of a 45-storey tower block). It’s barely noticeable on the way down, but murder for tired thighs on the way back up.
From the ticket gate, the path heads down past large, ominous ‘Djinn Blocks’, fashioned by the Nabataeans as representations of, and repositories for, divine energy. Beyond the double-height Obelisk Tomb, you reach a Nabataean dam at the entrance to the Siq.
The Siq walls close in as you pass through the heart of the mountain to reach the Treasury, preferably just as the sun hits the facade around 9am.
The path broadens to reach Petra’s massive theatre. This giant bowl, which could seat 8,500 people, is Greek in design; it dates from the first century BC, just before Petra was taken over by the Romans.
The route continues past several café-tents, behind which steps lead up to the Urn Tomb. You rejoin the main path at the Nymphaeum, where a bridge crosses the riverbed for the short climb to the Petra Church, built in the fifth century, with a wonderful mosaic floor.
The Colonnaded Street brings you past elaborate temple complexes on the slopes to either side, and to the imposing Qasr al-Bint temple, overlooking more café-tents and the Basin restaurant.
This is the starting-point for the climb to the Monastery, best attempted in the shady afternoon. On your return, linger for the spectacular sight of the fiery late-afternoon sun illuminating the west-facing Royal Tombs – this is when Petra’s moniker of ‘the Rose-Red City’ is well earned.
The walk back up to the gate through the Siq takes an hour or more.
Over the High Place of Sacrifice
Petra’s most dramatic sacrificial altar (three hours)
From a point near the theatre, steps – mostly chiselled out of the stone – lead up the rocky slope. After about a half-hour of scenic climbing, on a path once trodden by Nabataean high priests, you reach the summit’s hand-levelled platform, where a sacrificial altar faces west over the magnificent vista.
You can go down the same way but there’s another route, into the Wadi Farasa (Butterfly Valley), easily reached via steps from the summit ridge.
Partway down, the Lion Monument – a Nabataean drinking fountain – presages more spectacular views down into this quiet side-valley, filled with carved facades. Past the columned Garden Triclinium – a ceremonial dining chamber – is the Roman Soldier Tomb, opposite another decorative triclinium.
Below here, near the Renaissance Tomb and Broken Pediment Tomb, Petra is at its most colourful, with the eroded sandstone walls displaying an amazing palette of blues, pinks and crimsons streaking through the rock.
From the wadi floor, the path circles the rounded hill of Zantur, Petra’s rubbish dump, crunching underfoot with fragments of Nabataean pottery. Further on is a temple column – dubbed Zibb Pharaoun (‘Pharaoh’s Phallus’) by the Bedouin – from which paths head on to the Qasr al-Bint.
Wadi Muthlim & Wadi Mataha
A little-known back route into Petra (three hours)
From the Nabataean dam at the entrance to the Siq, scramble down into the wadi bed and head right through an incredible Nabataean tunnel. This is Wadi Muthlim, a beautiful, narrow valley full of oleander bushes. High walls cut out all sound apart from birdsong.
It is easily passable for about one kilometre, as far as the remains of another Nabataean dam. Beyond here, the path gets steadily narrower until you reach a point where a massive boulder all but blocks the way.
Squeeze past, and the path continues to narrow until, with the wadi floor no wider than your foot, you reach a T-junction. Head left into a tiny side-valley, decorated with many Nabataean carved niches.
After a bit of scrambling, you emerge into open country. Continue left, following the Wadi Mataha; you can walk in the wadi bed all the way down to the Nymphaeum (about 2.5km) or stick near the cliffs to walk past various Nabataean rock-cut caves, including the graceful, isolated Sextius Florentinus Tomb, final resting-place of a second-century AD Roman governor of Arabia.