May 18, 2009

An Overview of Petra
Umm Sayhun, Jordan

There's more to Petra than her Treasury

Heaps of people share their photos of Petra (and other archaeological heritage sites around the world) with others, and from having experienced that particular place in person the context of these snapshots makes perfect sense in their minds. But what of the friends, family and travelogue readers who have never been to these locations?

For most that have never been there, mentioning the ancient rose-red city conjures up that memorable moment from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and nothing more. I too was in that camp until just a few days ago; but there's a lot more to Petra than that, and giving you a general overview of the site is the first step for framing that information.

With the power of medium-resolution satellite imagery and the use of Google Maps' route creation tool, I present to you the typical tourist trail through Petra:

An overview of Petra's tourist trail. This map can be viewed in detail on Google Maps.

Petra is made up of a few different primary sections and a handful of heavily-photographed sites, which I've noted in the map above.

Currently, visitors enter into the site from the east and proceed west, then turn around and exit by returning along the same route. Varying light conditions and the ebb and flow of tourist groups generally offers up a different experience in each direction for the visitor.

  1. To reach the start of the Siq, visitors must first walk about a half-mile along the wide valley known as the Bab as-Siq. Horses can be hired to ferry you along this stretch. (Update: This service was incorporated into the increased ticket prices in 2010, though tourists are still hassled for a tip.)
  2. The entrance to Petra is a long, winding sandstone canyon known as the Siq. The Siq is not technically a gorge, as it was formed not by erosion but tectonic forces. Carriages are available to ride the length of the Siq (commonly used on the return), with most coughing up a laughably absurd US$25 for the short trip.
  3. Emerging from the Siq reveals the big 'wow' moment for most tourists, as Al Khazneh (the Treasury) stands prominently before them.
  4. Visitors continue along a wide, well-worn path that stimulates the senses with new tombs carved into the sandstone cliffs and encourages self-exploration on the marked and unmarked trail offshoots.
  5. The straight colonnaded street, the main street running through the ancient city center, is host to the Great Temple (a two-level structure dating from the 1st century BC discovered in 1992 by Brown University archaeologists).
  6. Finally, al-Deir (the Monastery—seen most recently in Transformers 2) is at least an hour's climb northwest of the city center on an ancient rock-cut path of about 300 steps. The path begins behind the Nabatean Museum and overpriced restaurants. The best time to climb to the monastery is in the afternoon, when the path is mostly in shade and the sun is shining on the structure's facade. Like at the Grand Canyon, donkeys can be hired to haul you to the top/bottom.

Topographically, visiting Petra is a downhill experience from the town of Wadi Musa and the visitor center, then gentle grades during the return. Not everyone makes the hike to the Monastery, particularly if you're like us (on a single-day pass and had been carrying a 16-month-old child around on our backs since early morning).

Steps Marking the Start of the Path to Al-Deir - The Monastery


The United States


April 6th, 2013

Don't forget a visit to Little Petra, about 10 minutes north of the main site. It's a small slot canyon with only a few "buildings", but it's virtually deserted and you can climb inside some of them and see fantastic frescoes.

The United States


October 13th, 2016

Thank you for sharing your photos and research. You provide more depth than most travel blogs I've read; I like the context provided for the various shots. Petra has been on my wish list for a while!

I read about the cameras you used and agree about the issues of carrying SLRs/DSLRs while traveling. My first trip to Paris in 2001, I shot with a now-obsolete APS. Color is great, but the small negative size is frustrating. The form size was selling point - I could hide it in the palm of my hand. This year for England and Wales, I took my DSLR and 3 lenses; only used 1 lens the whole trip.

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