Ancient Petra

courtesy Craig Duff
The majestic sandstone ruins of Petra

The majestic sandstone ruins of Petra were one of the world's best-kept secrets until the early 19th century. It's no longer off the beaten path, and you don't have to be Indiana Jones to wander through the hallowed valley.

In 1812, Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt was on the ultimate dream trip, crossing Arabia disguised as a trader in search of the fabled "lost city of stone." The ancient city built by the Nabataean tribe of Arab nomads had been the source of many tales, but no Westerner had ever seen it. Burckhardt convinced a guide to take him there, saying he wanted to make an offering, and was astonished by the beauty of the ruins, now known as Petra ("rock" in Greek). Ever since, the buildings--carved into the towering pink sandstone cliffs more than 2,000 years ago--have been a must-see destination.

Petra is in the mountains of southwestern Jordan, where it can be blazingly hot in the summer and frigid in the winter--even snow is possible. The best months to go are April and May, when the weather is mild and dry.

Visitors typically fly to Amman, the capital, and then drive about three hours south to Wadi Musa, the town next to Petra. Rental cars cost about $45 a day, and the roads are excellent. The ruins are another 15 minutes by car from Wadi Musa. Try to arrive when Petra opens at 6 a.m. to avoid the mid-morning crush of tour groups--for several hours, you'll have the site largely to yourself.

Wadi Musa has seen a boom in hotel construction in recent years. One of the most interesting options is the Taybet Zaman (011-962/3-215-0111,, from $96 per night), built in the stone houses of a century-old Ottoman village and decorated with traditional Bedouin rugs, blankets, and art.

Tickets for Petra are available at the main gate for $28 for one day, $37 for two days, or $44 for three days. While you can see most of the major sites in a day, two or three days will give you ample time to explore the side trails and less-visited tombs. Maps are available at the visitors center; to get a better sense of the history, hire one of the English-speaking guides ($28 for a half day, $70 for a full day including one of the major hikes, such as the High Place of Sacrifice or the Monastery).

The sun can be relentless, so bring a hat, sunscreen, and plenty of water. The ruins stay open until sunset, and there also are night tours three days a week.

The Siq
To reach Petra, you first pass through the Siq, the sliver of a canyon that protected the city from invaders for hundreds of years. The half-mile-long path, its cobblestones rutted by carts and chariots, is so narrow that it's almost completely cut off from the sun, making the air feel chilly. The gorge is lined with ancient water channels and has beautiful bas-reliefs on the steep rock walls.

The Treasury
The 140-foot-high Treasury has greeted visitors to Petra since it was built in the 1st century A.D. As with many of the ruins, its name is misleading: The structure was actually built as a tomb. But according to local folklore, Bedouins believed an Egyptian pharaoh had hidden his treasure inside the urn on top of the building, and they shot at it a number of times to try to break it open. The façade endured the assaults well, and it's been naturally protected from erosion by the canyon walls, preserving it in far greater detail than many other sites at Petra.

Street of Façades
To the right of the Treasury, the ancient city opens up into the Street of Façades, where more than 40 tombs have been carved into the mountainside. One intricate tomb on the end of a cliff has a regal row of crowns on the top. Near the amphitheater are dozens of unadorned gravesites, most likely for commoners.

Royal Tombs
Built on the eastern cliffs of Petra, the Royal Tombs give off a dazzling array of reds, purples, pinks, and browns in the sunlight. The Urn Tomb, the largest one, was chiseled out of the rock high on the mountainside, with dozens of steps leading up from the valley. Historians believe the tomb was built around 70 A.D. and is the gravesite of either King Malchus II or King Aretas IV. Farther along the mountainside, the Tomb of Sextus Florentius was constructed to honor the Roman governor of Arabia after the Romans conquered Petra in the 2nd century A.D. It's one of few ruins to have been inscribed with a date; historians don't know for certain when the rest of the city was built.

The Monastery
The giant tomb known as the Monastery (Al-Deir in Arabic) lies at the end of a 2.5-mile mountain path. The Monastery rivals the Treasury in terms of grandness--the façade is 170 feet wide, and the main doorway is two stories high. The structure was built as a tomb in the 1st century A.D. During the Byzantine era, however, it was used as a Christian church, and crosses were painted inside--which may be why it's called the Monastery.

High Place of Sacrifice
The path from the valley to the High Place of Sacrifice passes a pair of obelisks dedicated to the Nabataean gods Dushara and Al'Uzza, then rises steeply to Al-Madbah, the flat, stone area where animal sacrifices were performed. The circular stone is surrounded by carved pools, which some historians claim were meant to catch the animals' blood. Don't miss the excellent valley views just past the altar.

Petra at night
On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays, the Siq and the Treasury are lit with 1,800 candles and open to tourists for an hour and a half after dark. If you let most of the other visitors go through the passageway first, you can enjoy a contemplative walk and still have time to catch the Bedouin music concert inside the Treasury courtyard. The tour begins at 8:30 p.m. You can buy tickets ($17) at Petra's main gate or ahead of time at a tour agency.

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