Is there anyone who grew up in the 80s who managed to miss Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade? This classic adventure romp has to be most people’s introduction to Petra. In the most memorable scene, desperately trying to find the Holy Grail, our eponymous hero rides through a narrow canyon at breakneck speed before bursting out in front of an imposing pillared temple cut into the walls of a cliff.
The eight-year-old me was enchanted by this scene. As soon as I found out that this was a real place and not a set made of painted polystyrene I was desperate to go. Nearly 30 years later, I finally made it, although I’d never imagined I’d be taking two tiny children with me.
Petra deserves its reputation as the best tourist attraction in Jordan, and as a new wonder of the world. It was the highlight of our family trip to Jordan. We loved everything about it, and we went with high expectations.
Petra was built by the mysterious Nabatean people. Little is known about who they were and where they came from as they didn’t write anything down and contemporary accounts of them are rare.
The Nabateans were originally a nomadic tribe but for some unknown reason they settled in Petra in about 312BC. They carved the beautiful facades of their tombs from the soft red sandstone of the mountains. Expert traders, the Nabateans ensured that Petra soon became a thriving commercial centre with links to the Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, and as far east as India and China.
Petra was eventually abandoned in 551AD after a series of earthquakes and gradual decline under the Roman Empire. It was then forgotten by the outside world, only inhabited by the Bedouins, until the Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt discovered it in 1812.
It captured the imagination of the West then, and little has changed since. Today it’s Jordan’s star attraction and draws visitors from around the world.
One of the highlights at Petra is the journey to reach it, through a narrow canyon called the Siq. There is a 15 minute or so walk from the entrance to reach the Siq, past ancient tombs carved into the rocks. I put Bee into our baby carrier and the husband carried the Cub on his shoulders (as of course, she refused to be carried in the toddler carrier that we’d bought especially for the trip).
We hired a guide to take us down the Siq and we were glad as he pointed out lots of little things that we’d have missed by ourselves. The canyon winds through the rose coloured rocks for 1.2km, and every turn adds to the anticipation of finally glimpsing the magical Treasury around the last corner.
The Nabateans clearly intended the walk to Petra to be special. They carved little nooks into the rocks in which travellers could leave representations of their gods. Our guide explained that the Nabatean gods were represented by geometrical shapes (something that I’d never heard of before). “Their beliefs were very primitive,” was our guide’s explanation for this.
If the Nabateans’ beliefs were “primitive” their technology and artistry wasn’t. The channels that took water from the stream at the top of the Siq down to the city can still clearly be seen; using these channels and clay pipes they were able to turn Petra into an oasis. Without their technological nous, Petra would not have flourished.
Arriving at the Treasury is a spine-tingling experience that just can’t be beaten.
Between us the husband and I have seen some pretty amazing places but there is something truly magical about Petra that knocked our previous favourite places (the Pyramids and the Great Wall of China) into a distant second place. We paused for a few minutes trying to get those iconic photos before we stepped out of the Siq and got a better look.
Only one of the main columns of the Treasury needed to be restored; the rest were still intact when the city was discovered. Hopefully you won’t be too disappointed to discover that you can’t go inside, and even if you could there is no booby-trapped labyrinth waiting for you, just a small room that was probably a tomb.
Some of the intricate carvings of the Treasury have been eroded and the urn at the top has been partially destroyed by people who believed that gold had been hidden inside. To try to get the gold out they shot at it. Needless to say, they were disappointed! None of this diminishes the effect of this magnificent building. We could have stared at it, slack-jawed, for ages.
The Cub was also quite taken with the Treasury, although the camels waiting for customers were more interesting to her. After a few minutes to soak up this incredible building, we walked further into the site.
The Street of Facades
I knew that there was more to Petra than the Treasury, but I didn’t really know what to expect as the Treasury takes all the glory. We were surprised to discover that there were so many tombs and homes cut into the rocks – they were everywhere we looked. While you can’t go into the Treasury, you can go into most of the other caves, though there’s not much to see inside and they don’t smell particularly fragrant.
We passed the ancient (Nabatean, not Roman) amphitheatre which was taking on a beautiful pink hue in the morning light. It was fenced off otherwise I think we’d have explored it more. We walked past more tombs and Bedouin people riding donkeys and camels before pausing for a drink in a cafe overlooking the Royal Tombs. These are just as magnificent as the Treasury; while they are not as well preserved they are larger and just as intricate. When we got closer to them later in the day their erosion was more obvious, so I thought they were best viewed at a distance. They must have been such a sight when they were newly carved!
After the kids had had a scamper and a play in the sand we carried on. Our backs to the Royal Tombs, we walked down what was once a paved and pillared street. Colonnade Street was once Petra’s main thoroughfare and leads to the Great Temple.
Not all of Petra’s buildings were carved into rock. The Great Temple was once a freestanding pillared shrine. Climbing up a grand flight of steps, we spent a little while scrambling through the ruins. Cracked tiles give an idea of the grandeur of the paved hall and we found plaster with paint still on it in a sheltered corridor. Toppled columns like stacks of coins littered the hall.
Next to it is the Temple of Duschares, or Qasr al-Bint. Incredibly much of it still stands, unshaken from the earthquakes which devastated many of the other freestanding buildings of the city. It’s thought that sacrifices and offerings were made outside the temple on an alter.
We knew that we didn’t have enough time to see all of Petra in just one day. Two of the main sights, the High Place of Sacrifice and the Monastery, are high up in the mountains. With toddlers in tow, we were sure we’d only have enough time to visit one. Both our guide in Petra and our driver, Nabil, recommended the Monastery.
Arguably as impressive as the Treasury, the Monastery is about an hour’s hike up 800 or so steps. You can hire a donkey to carry you up if you don’t feel like walking. We felt that our kids were too small to ride the donkeys safely so we carried them up ourselves. Luckily Jordan in November isn’t too hot – there’s no way we’d have made it in the summer heat! It’s a scenic route through twisting canyons and the path is in good order. There are plenty of places to stop and rest and many Bedouin families selling drinks and souvenirs as you pass.
The Monastery is worth the effort to reach it. It stands much larger than the Treasury and its carved angles are still sharp, unlike the worn and smoothed facades of the Royal Tombs. Previously you were able to climb to the top of the urn and go inside but today that’s all blocked off.
Nobody really knows what the Monastery was used for (the name has nothing to do with its original use) but the levelled space in front of it was probably for a large audience. You can surmise that it was most likely a temple. You really don’t want to miss this on your visit.
The Royal Tombs
After a much needed rest at lunch we decided to get a closer look at the Royal Tombs. You can go inside the Urn Tomb which has a large chamber with dramatic black and red striped walls. From here we got a great view across Petra.
These tombs were the centrepiece of ancient Petra overlooking the city, and were used as tombs for the kings, as you’d expect from their name. The soft rock has been worn away over the centuries but you can imagine how grand they used to be. The Corinthian Tomb in particular looks a lot like the Treasury.
We started the walk back to the Treasury after looking at the Royal Tombs. All of us were pretty shattered by this point so we paused for a drink and a last look at the Treasury before we trudged back up the Siq, dodging the horse drawn carriages thundering past us, and vowing to return one day.
Know before you go
Is Petra family friendly?
Yes! We had an amazing day, even though our kids were too small to truly appreciate the sights. There was plenty of opportunity for them to run about, camels and donkeys to meet, and places to rest.
If you’re travelling with toddlers it might be best to forgo the buggy. The paths are uneven and scattered with small stones, making it difficult to push most strollers. You won’t be able to take a buggy up to the Royal Tombs, let alone the mountain paths to the Monastery. Take a baby carrier instead.
Getting there and away
We visited Petra as part of a private tour with Jordan Select Tours (we would highly recommend them).
If you’re travelling independently, you can hire a taxi or take a JETT coach from outside Abdali station in Amman (departures 06.30am, return 16.00 from Petra). If you’ve hired a car, it’s an easy 3 hour journey down the Desert Highway from Amman.
Tickets cost from 50 – 60 Jordanian dinars depending on how many days you need (children under 12 are free). If you are arriving in Jordan for one day solely to see Petra it will cost you 90JD.
There are plenty of hotel and guesthouse options in Wadi Musa.
You’d find it hard to pick a hotel with a better location than ours. We stayed at Petra Guest House hotel, literally next to the entrance to Petra. Our room was spacious with a view over the town. This was our favourite hotel (other than the 5 star Intercontinental in Aqaba).
The hotel has a bar called the Cave Bar, which used to be an ancient tomb. If you don’t have two tired, squirming children it’s a nice place to hang out in the evening and enjoy a shisha. All was quiet while the Cub built herself a fort out of the seat cushions; but soon my cocktail was smashed on the floor, the screaming started and we beat a hasty retreat.
We ate at The Basin restaurant after we visited the Monastery as we had a discount voucher from our hotel. It served a typical Jordanian buffet with salads and hot options including mansaf. The desserts were particularly good – seconds all round. There are cafes by the Monastery, the Treasury, and another in front of the Royal Tombs. There are snack stalls dotted all over Petra so you’re not going to go hungry.
In the evening we ate at the Cave Bar at Petra Guest House hotel. Wadi Musa has a plethora of restaurants to suit every budget.
Tips for your visit
Start as early as you can; the Siq will not be as crowded. We left our hotel at around 8am and there were a fair few people ahead of us. Don’t rush down the Siq, there’s plenty to look at.
You could see all of Petra in a long day if you don’t stop long for lunch; we would have liked another day to make the climb up to the High Place of Sacrifice.
There are lots of Bedouins who work in Petra. They sell gifts, offer donkey and camel rides, or horse-drawn carriage rides up the Siq. I had heard stories of persistent selling tactics but we found that a polite “No, thank you” was enough. Of course, everyone will ask you once!