‘Published by TTG Media’
Petra in Jordan is on many people’s bucket list. Second-time visitor Gary Noakes is still enchanted by the archaeological site.
We’ve already spotted the elephant-shaped boulder and the camel sculptures adorning the sandstone corridor leading into Petra, but craning our necks to the skyline, we just can’t make the next one out.
“A bottle of Jordanian wine if you tell me which animal that rock resembles,” our guide Mahmoud promises.
After a stream of wild guesses, we give up. “I’m joking, there’s nothing, but look behind you,” grins Mahmoud. We spin around to see that iconic Petra view, The Treasury, glimpsed through the narrow gap of the mile-long canyon we’d just walked through.
Mahmoud’s trick has cleverly manoeuvred us into position for the big reveal and his ruse produces a collective gasp, including from me, a second-time visitor.
Every Indiana Jones fan knows Petra and The Treasury, but unless you visit, you can’t grasp its grandeur or imagine how important this city must have been. The Treasury (actually a royal tomb) marks the entrance to an ancient trading post as powerful as Mumbai or Dubai is today and is just one huge stone monument among many.
Petra was chiselled from sandstone by the Nabateans, the Arab race that predated the Romans, who built their city from 600BC in the canyons of southern Jordan around a system of dams and water channels. Later, the Romans invaded and extended the city, before it was abandoned following an earthquake. Rubble from this eruption means that 80% of Petra remains three metres below current ground level and archaeologists are making new discoveries every year.
A few things had changed for the better since I first visited more than a decade ago. More buildings have been uncovered, while the horses that carry some visitors to the entrance are now well looked after thanks to a veterinary and education centre on site. Posters that now urge you to discourage children from the village above Petra selling souvenirs are mostly heeded.
Entrance to the site is from 7am and the earlier you go, the better. I started at 8am, and a few small groups were already present. Visitor numbers are way down (from a million in 2008 to below 200,000) but retracing our steps to leave, we encountered the first cruise ship party in three weeks – around 20 coachloads – massing outside The Treasury.
Two days are the minimum to spend here, as some buildings, like The Monastery, are a testing climb. Moreover, entry for adults is about £46 for one day, £52 for two days and £57 for three, so there’s no excuse not to linger. A great way to spend the second or third day is on one of the hiking routes that take you away from the crowds and provide panoramic views.
Whether you go off the main site or not, a good guide is essential, as there is almost as much to see and learn from the trek into the city as from Petra itself. Petra means a lot of walking, but for those unable to make the mile through the canyon to The Treasury, where the magic begins, horse-drawn carriages are available.
Good times to visit are March-May or October onwards, but remember that winter mornings can be freezing. The Treasury is candlelit twice a week, but don’t make this your only sight of Petra, as you will miss out on so much by not seeing it in daylight. Finally, check when the cruise ships are due at Aqaba and avoid these days.