Petra – The Lost City – Jordan’s Most Spectacular Must-Visit-City

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Petra is just simply amazing. It is an ancient city in present-day Jordan and dates back to the fourth century B.C. The ruins of the once-great metropolis and trading center now serve as an important archeological site and tourist attraction.

Petra’s History – What’s the story behind Petra?.

Much of what is now known about Nabatean culture comes from the writings of the Roman scholar Strabo. He recorded that their community was governed by a royal family, although a strong spirit of democracy prevailed. According to him, there were no slaves in Nabatean society, and all members shared work duties. The Nabateans worshiped a pantheon of deities, chief among which was the sun god Dushara and the goddess Allat.

The city of Petra was established as a trading post by the Nabateans, an Arab Bedouin tribe indigenous to the region in what is now southwestern Jordan. Building an empire in the arid desert forced the Nabateans to excel in water conservation. They were highly skilled water engineers and irrigated their land with dams, canals, and reservoirs. 

Petra was once a thriving trading center and the capital of the Nabataean empire. Petra flourished in the 1st century AD when its Al-Khazneh structure (The Treasury) was built; it is believed to be the mausoleum of the Nabatean King Aretas IV; at that time, its population peaked at an estimated 20,000 inhabitants. The Nabatean empire expanded with their trade, and various architecture and art were repurposed in Petra and became the foundation for all the carvings, tombs, churches, and art in Petra today. The money taken in through trade was used to create these unbelievable carvings.

The Nabateans were exceptionally skilled traders, facilitating commerce between China, India, the Far East, Egypt, Syria, Greece, and Rome. They dealt in such goods as spices, incense, gold, animals, iron, copper, sugar, medicines, ivory, perfumes, and fabrics, just to name a few. From its origins as a fortress city, Petra became a wealthy commercial crossroads, and controlling this crucial trade route between the upland areas of Jordan, the Red Sea, Damascus, and southern Arabia was the lifeblood of the Nabatean Empire and generated significant wealth that later made them a target for conquering. They were conquered by the Romans in 106 AD.

The city had not been visited by the outside world since the crusades and was a well-kept secret with its few inhabitants, becoming known as The Lost City when discovered in 1812 by Johann Ludwig Burckhardt a 28-year-old explorer. Many had heard about a city in the area, so he undertook the several-day excursion to Petra under the pretext that he was Muslim and had taken a vow to sacrifice a goat at Aaron’s grave. This is located about four kilometers west of Petra. He could not remain long at the ruins or take detailed notes due to his fears of being unmasked as a treasure-seeking infidel. Seeing no evidence of the name of the ruins, he could only speculate that they were the ruins of Petra, which he had been informed about on a previous journey to Syria.

The first severe archeological excavations took place in 1929, and in the 1950s, the British School of Archaeology started excavating the city center.

The entrance to the city is through a 1.2-kilometer-long (3⁄4  mi) narrow gorge called the Siq, which leads directly to the Treasury. It is famous for its rock cuttings throughout the Siq and the water conduit system.

Meeting our guide and our walk from the Visitors Center to the Siq

Umm Sihon – Mariams Community

We were introduced to our guide, Mariam,   a 45-year-old native of Petra. She was born in a cave on the south side of Petra and lived there until she was eight years old, starting her education in the cave. Mariam spent her youth playing around the ruins before they became a major tourist site, and her goal was to become a tour guide. She worked hard in school and graduated from college, a requirement to be a guide. She became the first female guide in Petra, making her the first Bedouin woman to become a guide.

Mariam is a member of the Bedouin Tribe, a nomadic tribe that has populated the southwestern portion of Jordan since the 14th century believing they are the descendants of the Nabateans.  

When Petra became a big tourist destination, the Jordanian government moved 250 families, including Mariam’s, from the caves to housing at Umm Sihon overlooking the Petra site. 

Mariam told us many stories about her family. Her older brother met a woman, a nurse from New Zealand, Marguerite van Geldermalsen — also known as Umm Rami.  She married and lived with him in his cave for seven years until, like Mariam, they moved to Umm Sihon. She learned to cook on wood planks, bake Shirak bread, and transport water from the valleys using a donkey to the caves. She tells the story of their life together in a beautiful book, Married to a Bedouin. Her Website!

We began our walk from the visitors center to the entrance to the Siq. There is much to see outside the Siq, where many tombs and carvings exist. On the right below is the Obelisk Tomb. The Obelisk Tomb was carved by the Nabataeans in the 1st century AD; it is an example of a two-story tomb.

Bab Al Siq’ is Arabic for a gateway to the ‘Siq.’ “The Shaft

Our long walk through the valley bed (Siq) was exciting. It is one of the unique geological landscapes in the world.

The Siq starts at the dam and begins at the old city gate.  On both sides of the Siq, there are channels to draw water from Wadi Musa (the Valley of Moses), from outside the city to the inside. We took our time walking down the Siq. The main part of the Siq is created by natural rock formation, and the rest is carved by the Nabataeans. 

The water systems can be seen in many places along the way. It was quite amazing to see the dams and cisterns as we moved through the Siq. Along the sides of the path were the pipes and aqueducts that carried the water to the valley. From the right, it is evident that the water flowed through pottery pipes, but the left channel is carved from the rock and covered with panels of stone, and there are spaces in place to filter water. The dams that were created are amazing. The original Nabataean dams are visible, preventing flooding in the Siq and collecting water for use.

Some carvings and rock formations were incredible and decorated with Nabataean sculptures, primarily representing gods, and many tombs in the Siq. It is believed that the statues of gods and their sculptures were situated very close and even adjacent to the channels due to the Nabataean belief that water was sacred.

Sometime between the 4th and 5th century AD, the city was met with catastrophic floods that destroyed much of the city and its inhabitants. Miriam said that those that lived high in the caves survived, but there is no proof.
The beautiful rock formations created by the wind and water are the same rock formations with different angles!

There are carvings done by the Nabateans in the Siq, particularly the Caravan Relief. It celebrates the caravan trade that formed the basis of Nabataean wealth and influence. When the floods occurred in the mid-5th century, they buried the Siq in more than 6 feet of silt. These carvings were not found until they scraped the floors of silt and discovered this beautiful carving. Only the protected section showing the men’s feet and the legs of the camels was preserved all these centuries.

As you come to the end of the Siq, a tiny view from within the canyon of Al-Khaznch, The Treasury, is awe-inspiring!

Peek of the Treasury at the end of the Siq

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Many people’s first view of Petra!

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade was filmed three decades ago and was the first introduction to Petra for many of us. Friends that knew about our trip plans asked if we would see the “movie scene” from the film.

George Lucas decided to use the monumental Treasury, the centerpiece of Jordan’s ancient Nabataean city of Petra, as the exterior of The Temple of the Sun.   The whole cast and crew were flown to Petra for one day of filming; all the time needed to make those scenes work. They were given access to the main chamber for filming, which is unavailable for tourists. However, it is the outside that is the most spectacular! 

Much more of Petra Walking down the Colonnade below the Treasury

The Collonade runs through the center of Petra, and much of it on either side is in ruins from the years of floods. Today dams protect the city of Petra from flooding, well, most of the time, there have been recent floods), and it is possible to see the ancient flagstone again and walk where the Nabateans once walked.

An amazing fact is that archeologists believe that they have uncovered only about 5 percent of Petra. Several excavations are going on, but there is much more to come. After the Treasury, you follow the Street of Facades(Colonnade); tombs are up in the rocks until you reach the theater. The Roman Theater could seat over 10000 visitors and even contained a modern drainage system back then.

When we looked up, we could see the Royal tombs, spectacular carving into the rocks.

The Royal Tomb

Some stairs can be taken to go up, but we choose not to take the hill up and instead just walk to the end where the Qasar Al-Bint Temple stood. It is the main and most important temple of Petra. dedicated to Dushara, considered the god of the king. The temple was built in the first century AD.

We walked the Collonade, the main trail where all other trails begin to the Temple, where the Petra gate is located. There are trails to the Church(with beautiful mosaic floors), the royal tombs, the High Place of Sacrifice, and much more. If you want to see all of Petra that has been found, you need 2 to 3 days and be in great physical shape (probably not over 70!).

Time to head back. The walk of over 5 miles to the end of the “basic trail” was enough for us. We opted to ride back out of the valley from the treasury to the visitor center. First, we needed to walk back up the Treasury to catch a golf cart to take us up through the Siq. It was also uphill back to the treasury, not as steep as the Siq but more than an hour’s walk. After trying to negotiate a ride in a horse cart, we rode donkeys up the hill. Janice rode a lot when she was younger, so it was like riding a bicycle, but it took John about 10 minutes to get the hang of riding again, especially on a donkey! It only took about 20 minutes, and we were back at the Treasury. By this time of day, the area was packed with tourists. We were happy we had been there early in the morning and had an easier time walking around and viewing the magnificent area.

John and Janice riding the Jack-Asses

UNBELIEVABLE!!!!!!!!!!!! Off to Wadi Rum, our next stop!


  1. Ric Simeone

    Wow ! What a great trip, stay safe and keep us posted.

    1. Thanks, it is fun and very memorable!Trying to stay safe!

  2. Kathy & Paul

    Sounds like an amazing trip – taking in a lot of places – way to go!!!!
    We’re wondering if you miss playing golf? (smile)… ENJOY!
    Happy Thanksgiving to you Both!

    1. We wonder if staying away from golf for a month is good!

  3. Mark ouellette

    Wow what a historic, beautiful area you got to see, have fun guys.

    1. It is really interesting getting to talk to so many local people. We have so many questions to ask, and they are so kind to answer them. They ask many questions about our country, and they thirst for knowledge and warm feelings for the American people!

  4. Fraznz

    Wow! Thanks for the tour.

    1. Thank you dear friend for sharing your thoughts.

      John and Janice

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