My original plan to visit Petra was as part of an OAT tour that was primarily in Israel. When war broke out last week, I was in Egypt on another OAT tour. I had to scramble to make alternative plans, and I ended up booking two nights at the Esperanza Hotel in Wadi Musa. Instead of a tour, I’d be visiting Petra on my own. This would give me two days.
I knew nothing about Petra beforehand. I anticipated learning via the tour. Now I had to find a new way to learn about what I was seeing. I did some advance reading, but that was mostly about strategies for visiting Petra in one day or two days or more. I was really starting from scratch. This is not something I usually do when I’m traveling independently. I like to prepare. But I was unprepared for what I was about to experience.
In the end, I think it turned out well. Here’s the full story.
Petra and Wadi Musa
To start off, let’s take care of some geography and historical background.
Petra is an archaeological site. Wadi Musa is a town adjacent to the site.
In Arabic, Wadi Musa means “Valley of Moses.” It is said to be the location of the rock Moses struck to bring forth water.
Take the rod; and you and your brother Aaron assemble the congregation and speak to the rock before their eyes, that it may yield its water. You shall thus bring forth water for them out of the rock and let the congregation and their beasts drink. So Moses took the rod from before the Lord, just as He had commanded him; and Moses and Aaron gathered the assembly before the rock. And he said to them, “Listen now, you rebels; shall we bring forth water for you out of this rock?” Then Moses lifted up his hand and struck the rock twice with his rod; and water came forth abundantly, and the congregation and their beasts drank.Numbers 20:8–11
The Lord punished Moses for his disobedience: he would die in the wilderness after leading his people to the edge of the Promised Land.
This story (not the part about Moses’ punishment, but the part about the water coming forth from the rock) is relevant to the existence of Petra; more on that later.
I’m not sure how long there has been a town at Wadi Musa, but Bedouins have been passing through for centuries, and some undoubtedly settled there. The local residents were aware of the deserted city nearby, but no one else had found the lost city of Petra.
The Nabataeans were an Arab tribe. They settled in the area we know today as Petra possibly as early as the fourth century BCE. The Nebataeans called their city Raqmu or Raqemo. They built it in the first century BCE and the first century CE. By that time, the area was part of the Silk Road, the trade route between the far east and Europe. The Nabataeans prospered significantly from the trading of spices and became an economic power in the region.
Much of the city the Nabataeans built is carved into the sandstone, rather than free-standing structures. These carvings are primarily tombs. The wealthiest and most powerful members of the community built large and elaborate structures to serve as burial sites for themselves and their families.
The Nebataeans built an elaborate water management system. Channels and conduits carried water from the Well of Moses (see, I told you it was relevant) to the city.
Petra got its current name from the Greeks; Petra means “rocks.”
In 106 CE the Roman empire absorbed parts of Arabia, including Petra. The city flourished under Roman rule, though they built no more extravagant tombs.
Gradually, though, sea-based trade routes led to Petra’s gradual decline. In 363 a major earthquake destroyed much of the city and severely damaged the water system. Still, Petra remained a regional capital during the Byzantine period, but when the Arabs conquered the area in the seventh century, Petra lost importance. Gradually, over the centuries, Petra was lost except to local residents.
In 1812 a Swiss explorer, Johannes Burckhardt, visited the area looking for the lost city. He dressed in local garb and was fluent in Arabic. He convinced locals to bring him to Petra. Little by little, information about Petra spread among Europeans. Tourism boomed. And archaeological research boomed as well.
With the growth of interest in Petra came a boom for the town of Wadi Musa. Today the town’s economy is almost entirely in service to tourism. Hotels and restaurants abound.
The name of the main thoroughfare through Wadi Musa is — I kid you not — Tourism Street.
In 2019 tourism peaked at over one million visitors. After two slow years during the pandemic, there were about 900,000 visitors in 2022. That number was on track to be surpassed in 2023, but the war in neighboring Israel is bringing many cancelations.
We’ve all seen photos of Petra. But what we’ve seen (the “Treasury,” in the above photo) is merely one single (albeit impressive) spot in what was a city of maybe as many as 40,000 inhabitants at its peak.
Arriving in Wadi Musa
About eight of us who were staying at the same camp in Wadi Rum all left on Thursday morning. We rode in the same “jeep” that we had our tour in on Wednesday. When we got to Wadi Rum Village, my driver was waiting for me. I got to my hotel by 11am, and, happily, my room was ready.
Before I went up, the owner or manager or desk clerk sat down with me in the lobby and helped me plan through my visit to Petra. He showed me the map and marked all the possible walking trails with estimated hiking times. He told me where there would be people offering rides on horses or donkeys or camels or in electric buggies (like the kind they have at airports) and how much they would cost. I learned which trails have people waiting to insist you take a coffee or tea in order to enjoy the viewpoint, or which off-limits trails have unauthorized guides willing to take you up for a price.
Day One at Petra
At around noon I walked the short distance (about 1/3 mile downhill) to the Petra Visitor Center. There are official guides available to hire at the Visitor Center for various itineraries. I decided to hire one to walk the Main Trail with me and give me some historical context and point out things I might not notice on my own. In retrospect, this was a good decision. Even though Suleiman (my guide’s name) wasn’t the best guide (we passed other guides giving what sounded like far more detailed information), he did help me understand more of what I was seeing than if I’d just walked it on my own.
Suleiman and I walked from the entry gate to the start of the Siq, the narrow gorge that leads to the Treasury.
When we got to the Treasury, he gave me about 15 minutes to hang out on my own and take pictures. Then we walked on the rest of the Main Trail. At the end, he suggested a few options for further exploration on my own.
I started back by walking uphill to the Temple of the Winged Lions and the three churches. Then I continued on a path that’s not shown to the Royal Tombs (the green trail). I took that trail back down to where it meets the Main Trail, getting close-up looks at the monuments, and then I headed out.
The horseback ride
When I got to the end of the Siq (actually the start of the Siq when you’re arriving), I decided to return to the entry gate on horseback. (Actually my sore muscles decided this for me.) The horseback ride is included in the entry price, though a tip is expected. But the first guy who came up to me and invited to to ride said “5 dinar.” (One dinar is about $1.40 USD, so 5 dinar is $7). I told him I knew it was included, and another fellow nearby said, “Included, yes, I’ll take you.” As we were walking to his horse, he reminded me about a tip. I said yes I will give him a tip.
When we arrived back at the entry gate and I dismounted, I offered him 1 dinar. He acted insulted and offended. Another horseman nearby said I should give him 5 dinar. I said, “If you don’t want it, that’s fine.” Of course he accepted it.
I did a pretty good job of captioning all the photos, so rather than recapping it all here, go look and read about it.
Day Two at Petra
There is a free shuttle bus that takes visitors from the Visitor Center to Little Petra. This is another, smaller site built by the Nabataeans quite a ways to the north. On the hotel-guy’s annotated map, you can see the box at the very top, above the heading “PETRA: CAPITAL OF THE NEBATAEANS.” That’s supposed to approximate the location of Little Petra, but I think you’d actually have to go well above the top of the map.
The shuttle starts running at 7:30 am. I made it to the Visitor Center in time to take the first shuttle. It took about 20 minutes to get to Little Petra. I walked around there, and then caught another (not free) shuttle to what they refer to as the back door entrance to Petra. This shuttle also took about 20 minutes, and it dropped us off at the start of a hiking trail. Maybe where the hotel guy’s Little Petra box is on the map, that would be the approximate location of where the shuttle dropped us.
Starting from that point at about 9am, the hike was not easy. The scenery along the way was spectacular. My pace didn’t match any of the others who were riding on the shuttle, so I was on my own most of the way. For the most part the path was easy to follow, but at one point I had the feeling I was lost. (I wasn’t.)
I made it to the Monastery in about an hour. The Monastery is larger and maybe even more impressive than the Treasury, and also far less busy.
From the Monastery it’s a 2.5 km walk, all downhill, to the end of the Main Trail. I didn’t want to walk it uphill, but downhill isn’t easy either. There are a lot of ancient steps that were long ago eroded into slippery, sand-covered rocks. It’s hard to imagine there aren’t a ton of injuries here and in other parts of Petra.
Since I didn’t get to explore on the south side of the Colonnaded Street on Day One, I did that today. The Great Temple is far more impressive close-up than from across the way. You can walk freely through the ruins.
From there I mostly walked back all the way on the Main Trail, but I did take a short detour at the Street of Facades to enjoy some nice views and up-close looks at those facades.
I didn’t make the mistake of accepting a “free” horseback ride this time.
My Day Two photos, again with a lot of captions, are here.
Seeing Petra was an amazing experience. Like Wadi Rum, words can hardly capture the feeling of seeing this truly unique place. To look at the Treasury, the Theatre, the Monastery, and all the other tombs, and to realize that they were not erected but carved into existing stone, it just boggles the imagination. Suleiman told me they created scaffolds in the rock and carved these large monuments from the top down. But it still is hard to conceive of how they did it. And to know that two thousand years went by and these monuments have survived in excellent condition… well, I just can’t come up with words to describe the feeling of being there and seeing it all.
Home too soon
And so my Middle East trip came to an end three weeks too soon.
Given that I first planned a trip to Israel in 2020, postponed it twice because of Covid, and finally rescheduled it for now, only to have my plans scuttled by war, I think I may never try to go to Israel again.
If the world is sending me a message, I think I’ve received it.