Petra Jordan – Wonder Of The World, UNESCO World Heritage Site


Petra JordanPetra – that is all I knew about Jordan before I received an invite from Jordan tourism to visit the country. The image of rose tinted pillars called treasury evoked a curiosity that would attract any traveler to Petra Jordan. We were all excited about being in Petra. To an extent that we tried hard to negotiate with our guide to leave early morning. So that we can spend a couple of extra hours admiring the pink sandstone city that remained lost for a long time. Our guide was probably used to enthusiastic travelers like us. And he weaved a story to ensure we leave Amman at his chosen time only. Technically Petra belongs to the city of Ma’an and village of Shobak. And lies in the Southern part of Jordan, about 3-4 hour drive from the capital city of Amman.

First sight of Petra Jordan – the Lost City of Nabataeans

Square rock cut tombs on way to Petra Jordan
Square rock-cut tombs, Petra Jordan

We reached Petra a little before noon, bought our ticket that at JD 90 (1 JD = 100 Rs at the time of writing ) per person. It is probably the highest ticketed UNESCO World heritage site that I have visited so far. All excited to be finally at the door of Petra, we started walking towards what I expected to be a set of monuments. Though all my friends who had visited before warned me about being prepared to walk a lot, turned out to be a sprawling city. We started walking on the rough road with carved hills on both sides. There were square tombs carved out of the hills with omens and signs carved and painted on them. Carvings stayed on while the paintings are left only as a faint version of themselves.

Tonga or Horse Cart carrying the tourist to treasury of Petra Jordan
Tonga or Horse Cart carrying the tourist, Petra Jordan

Colorful Tongas carried people who wanted to avoid walking. It is a good kilometer or so before you reach the Siq, the narrow pathway that leads to Petra – the rose tinted city. We obviously decided to walk as our guide started telling us about the history of Petra. And its mention in the Bible that indicates that it was a living city during those times. Petra is a Greek word that literally means ‘The Rock’. Once you have seen the place you know there is no better name for this city.

Mound of Rocks at Petra Jordan
Mound of Rocks at Petra Jordan

After it was re-discovered in 1812 CE by a Swiss Johann Ludwig, Petra is fondly called ‘the Rose City’ for its rose-tinted color of the rock. Or even ‘The Lost City’ for it was lost to the world for many centuries.

Capital of Nabataean Civilization

Walk through the rocks to reach Petra Jordan
Walk through the rocks to reach Petra Jordan

Petra at its peak was the heart and home of Nabataean civilization. Historians have agreed that history of Petra starts around 312 BCE. This was where the trading tribe of Nabataeans lived. And they traded with both the Arab world in the South, with Egypt along the Dead Sea and even with Romans. Trade routes with India are also documented. Nabataean people came from Arabian roots and worshiped a God named Dushara that is equivalent of Zeus or Jupiter in Greco-Roman mythology. They also had a female goddess equivalent of Aphrodite. Like Zeus, Dushara also lived on a mountain near Petra City. It made me think that even our Gods prefer living in the mountains like Shiva on Kailash.

Tombs and caves carved out of the rocks outside the city of Petra Jordan
Tombs and caves carved out of the rocks, Petra Jordan

Nabataeans lived here till 106 CE when the Roman Empire took over Petra. The excavations inside Petra show the signs of Roman days in their ruins as much as they show the signs of Nabataeans. The presence of churches in the complex indicates the adoption of Christianity by the Nabataeans in the early 1st CE.

The Siq

The Siq at Petra Jordan
The Siq at Petra Jordan

After you have walked about a kilometer on the dirt road, you see the Grand Canyon like a parting in the hill. It almost feels like the hill has torn itself to make way for the guests. In fact, this partition has happened naturally as a result of a massive earthquake. If you look carefully, you would see that the two sides of the Siq could fit into each other like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.

Walk through the Siq at Petra Jordan
Walk through the Siq, Petra Jordan

This partitioned passageway is about 800 meters long. And has a unique characteristic to it. A narrow strip of light comes from the top and illuminates the rocks. While at the ground level you only see the sun and not feel it. Being a natural corridor, it is the coolest part of the Petra city.

Famous fish sculpture at the Siq in Petra Jordan
Famous fish sculpture at the Siq, Petra Jordan

There are many natural formations that are intriguing like the mouth of a fish at one place. There are many man-made sculptures that you can see and admire like altars with images on the walls – that I assume belong to the deities that were worshiped here. I wish I could understand the stories behind them. But given the limited time, we had there it was not possible to dig into each of them. I am surprised with very limited availability of documentation on the internet.

Siq- a natural protection against invasions, Petra Jordan
Siq- a natural protection against invasions, Petra Jordan

It is believed that Nabataeans used this natural walkway to their advantage by using it as an entrance to the city. The narrow path ensured that the city couldn’t be invaded easily.

Water Channels on both sides of the Siq at Petra Jordan
Water Channels on both sides of the Siq, Petra Jordan

Water Management

What you must see and admire while walking through the Siq are the water channels that you can see on both sides of the walls. One of them is made of terracotta and acts like a natural filter for drinking water. And the other is made of limestone. In fact, the reason Petra was inhabited for so long despite being a part of the desert is its water management system. Tour of water management at Petra can be an exploration in itself. It is said that the 6 inches of rainfall that the area received were stored and managed in such a way that residents had enough water for the whole year. This reminded me of all the water management systems in ancient India like Rani Ki Vav or Sahastralinga Talav.

Treasury at Petra Jordan

Treasury - face of Petra Jordan
Treasury – face of Petra Jordan

The Treasury is the face of Petra. It is the first site you see on other side of Siq. Through a narrow corridor, a couple of rose-colored pillars makes the first appearance. And as you get close you find yourself standing in front of that whole façade. It is like a dream come true. Rose-colored soft sandstone structure is carved like a Greco-Roman temple. However, this is just a façade. Local Bedouins thought there must be a treasure hidden behind such nicely carved façade so they started calling it treasury. In reality, it is a tomb of an important Nabataean King. So are most other carved facades in Petra. At treasury, you can go close to it and see the graves below.

Path to tomb beneath treasury at Petra Jordan
Path to tomb beneath treasury, Petra Jordan

Unlike most ancient civilizations that believe in life after death and have rituals to carry the soul to next life, Nabataeans it seems believed in heaven and hell. You can see crow steps carved on top of each of the tombs and they supposedly take you to heaven or hell.

Treasury and other facades like it at Petra have been carved top to bottom just like our Kailash Cave at Ellora was carved top-down. Just like we found the construction methodology of Ajanta Caves from the unfinished caves, archaeologists at Petra discovered that these facades have been carved top down. And that is why a lot of them have a second story but no first story.

Architectural details of Treasury at Petra Jordan

Top-Down carving of Treasury at Petra Jordan
Top-Down carving of Treasury at Petra Jordan

Relief sculptures of façade of Treasury at Petra Jordan carry influences of 5 different civilizations that lived here.

There are 6 tall pillars in front of the first story of the treasury. Between the two extreme pillars on either side, you can see a knight riding a horse. They come from Roman mythology and called Castro and Polix – sons of Zeus and a human girl. Capitals of these pillars are Corinthian and that is a Greek influence. On the second floor, there is an Egyptian goddess Ezes carved.

On top of Corinthian capital, you can see 7 cups and above that 30 roses. 6 pillars on each floor making it 12 pillars in total and then there are teeth like carvings that total to 365. Do you see a calendar carved here?

Till about 10 years ago tourists were allowed to go inside. But since the graves beneath this facade have been discovered, tourists are not allowed to go inside.

A curious fact about treasury is that it is the best-preserved facade in the whole of Petra and there is a simple scientific reason for it. The wind from the Siq hits the walls around treasury but not the facade. That protects the facade from killing climatic conditions.

Caves at Petra Jordan

Caves at Petra Jordan
Caves at Petra Jordan

The irony of Petra is that all the decorated facades are burial sites and celebrate the dead people. While the small holes in the mountains are the caves where the people lived. You just cannot miss the irony – giant ornate decorated sites for the dead. And almost a hole in the hill as the living places of the people.

Facades and Caves co-existing at Petra Jordan
Facades and Caves co-existing at Petra Jordan

Local tribes like Bedouins lived here till as late as 1985. When they were moved out to get Petra a UNESCO World heritage site status. Even today you meet people who claim to live in these caves. Some tour guides offering you a stay in the cave, but then not really officially.

Bedouin Tents at Petra Jordan
Bedouin Tents at Petra Jordan

Bedouins of Petra

Bedouins did a smart thing when they were moved out, they negotiated that they would be the only ones providing services to the tourists inside the city of Petra. So you can see them driving Tongas, offering rides on camels and Ponies. Selling Jordan souvenirs in their tents. There is one good restaurant towards the southern end of the Petra. Small shops here and there but nothing much in the name of tourist’s facilities. In fact, our guide opined that since Bedouins have a monopoly, the quality of services provided is both average and costly.

Imagine paying a hefty amount for the ticket and then paying an equivalent amount for various rides within the city. I also found them very rude. One of the Pony drivers got angry with me for a simple reason that I decided to walk and not hire him. He tried to scare the hell out of me with his friends. This was towards the evening and there were not many tourists around.

Petra Theater

Roman Theatre at Petra Jordan
Roman Theater at Petra Jordan

Commonly known as Roman Theater due to its resemblance with the more popular Roman theaters, this is also a misnomer in Petra. The theater belongs to Nabataean period as well. The most remarkable thing about this theater is that it is a rock cut theater built by chopping off the rock. Do you know of any other theater built like this?

Unfortunately, the theater is in a dilapidated state. And does not really represent the state it would have been when 6000 odd people could sit here to be entertained.

Temple of Dushara at Petra Jordan

Temple of Dushara at Petra Jordan
Temple of Dushara at Petra Jordan

If it were intact, this would be the biggest structure or façade in Petra. Unfortunately what remains are absolute ruins. Archaeologists compare this to the temple of Artemis in Jerash or Temple of Hercules in Amman Citadel but only much larger than them.

Royal Tombs

Royal tombs high up on the hill at Petra Jordan
Royal tombs high up on the hill at Petra Jordan

As you walk inside the Petra city after crossing Al Khazaneh or the Treasury, on the right-hand side, perched on hilltops you would see a series of royal tombs with facades very similar to that of Treasury. You need to climb a few hundred steps to reach the base. I had a choice between climbing these steps and climbing the steps to the monastery and I chose the later. The tombs look impressive in perspective. Inscriptions inside these tombs tell about the timeline of these tombs. And the kings buried here – most of them belong to the Nabataean Kings.

Most buildings in Petra got the name from their color or their shape. For example, a building with a color like silk was called Silk tomb. One with Corinthian pillars was called Corinthian. The one that looked like palace was called Palace. But these names have no bearing on either the original names or the purpose of the building.

A walk to the Monastery

Monastery at Petra Jordan
Monastery at Petra Jordan

The monastery is another carved façade – it may have been a temple at some point. But as it stands today, it has absolutely plain interiors and a nicely carved façade. You need to climb 800+ uneven steps from the base to reach the monastery. On the way, you meet many Bedouins in their tents. Some playing musical instruments, some offering you tea but mostly selling jewelry and red and black garments. I noticed that women managed most tents while men or rather boys ferried the tourists up and down on ponies.

Colors of Rocks at Petra Jordan
Colors of Rocks at Petra Jordan

Besides the intricate rock formations, you notice the colors – bright yellow and pink on some of the rock faces. My initial instinct was that these colors are courtesy some human activity. But then I discovered that the sandstone here has layers of color in it at various places. I looked inside many caves and saw several patterns formed by colors. I wish I had a geologist to explain me this phenomenon.

Top of the Monastery with a Kalash like Pot at Petra Jordan
Top of the Monastery with a Kalash like Pot, Petra Jordan

Bang opposite the monastery is a Bedouin tent café – a perfect place to recharge yourself with some tea/coffee. And admire the symmetric beauty of monastery. We saw a young Bedouin man named Moon jumping from one part of the monastery to another – an act that left most of us in awe of him. He would have remained a hero in my memories had he not harassed me on my way back for not hiring his pony.

Little Petra Jordan

Excavated facade at Little Petra Jordan
Excavated facade at Little Petra Jordan

Little Petra is located about 8 kilometers north of Petra. And looks like a little suburb of Petra. Little Petra as the name suggests is similar in the formation but much smaller in size. To me, little Petra had far more character than Petra. Maybe because there is so much hype around Petra that it can be a bit underwhelming to some, but I was jumping with joy at Little Petra. It has similarly carved façade with graves. It has very Ajanta like caves with stone carved to be like a bed or a table. This looked like a place where the ancient civilized people might have lived. Archeologists guess that this might have been a place for traders to stay as Petra was on the silk route and as we know Nabataeans were traders.

Siq at Little Petra Jordan
Siq at Little Petra Jordan

Little Petra also called Siq al-Barid too has a canyon like rock partition though not as tall and narrow as Siq at Petra. The rocks on both sides are carved and here and there you see a carved façade looking at you. Apparently, there are some painted caves too. But my guide forgot to mention them and I missed the rare frescos from Nabataean period. Little Petra is also a UNESCO World heritage site.

Cave with seating arrangement at little Petra Jordan
Cave with seating arrangement at little Petra Jordan

Entry to Little Petra is free and it is open to the public during the day. You can also approach it from a hiking trail in Petra but not without a guide.

If I ever get to go back to Jordan, I would love to spend some more time at little Petra. My strong recommendation – Do not miss Little Petra when you go to Petra.

Practical Tips for Visiting Petra Jordan

  • Carry a bottle of water.
  • Wear comfortable walking shoes.
  • Use the washroom at the ticket counter; next washroom is quite some distance away.
  • Visit as early in the morning as possible, towards the later half of the day there are not many people and locals can get rough with you. You also get good light for your photographs in the morning.
  • Unless you are traveling solo, stay with your group.
  • Read about the important sites within Petra and decide what you must see, what you can let go and what you will see if you have energy left.
  • Choose a combination of walking, Pony Ride, Horse cart based on your fitness levels.
  • Local Bedouins can push you a lot selling things including rides, ignore them politely.
  • I could not find a reliable source to read about Petra in detail. So hire a guide who can explain you the nuances of the architecture there and tell you stories from its various eras.
Read More

Recommend you to read my other world travels on this Indian Travel Blog.

  1. Bhutan: For the Tourists.
  2. Malgorzata Chodakowska: Sculpting Wine, Germany.
  3. Walking around Prague Castle, Czech Republic.
  4. Pest part of Budapest, Hungary.
  5. Snorkeling in Blue Waters around Redang Island, Malaysia.
  6. Top view of Mount Everest, Nepal.

Read My Travel blogs on Jordan.

  1. Hejaz Railways – Heritage Rail of Jordan.
  2. Visit Jordan – My First Impressions.
  3. Amman Roman Theater – from World of Ancient Theaters.


  1. Truly excellent blog post. Kate visited Petra in 2001 and had a similar experience. Reading your post provided a vivid reminder of that experience. Thank you for writing diwn all the history!

  2. I visited Petra a few months ago with my family and spent 3 days explore ring the ruins and little Petra. I didn’t experience rude guides, but I loved the site and it was far more than I ever imagined.

    • Kevin, I found little Petra far more endearing though my favorite site in Jordan is Jerash – an adorable ancient Greco-Roman city. Petra was nice – its water management feature was the most fascinating for me.

  3. Nice guide to Petra. I enjoyed all the historic details and the great photographs. I just came back from Petra/Jordan last month and actually just wrote two entries on Jordan itself on my own blog. Did you feel like you had enough time to see Petra in one day? I didn’t feel like it was enough time.

    • Nope, I think you need at least 2-3 days to explore the Petra at leisure, to see the hidden corners, to get into those caves where civilization thrived. In a day you just do the touristy circuit. But then this site is so damn costly to enter everyday.

  4. Your photos are beautiful and really capture how smooth and well preserved the facades are. I live in an area well-known for red rock, but we have nothing carved in so intricately. Amazing.

  5. Petra is something I’m looking forward to visit for ages! My only fear now is that some terrorists could destroy that site too, so that no one could ever see it again.


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