‘Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade’ did for Petra what ‘The Sound of Music’ did for Salzburg, but with fewer nuns. The image of Harrison Ford galloping through the narrow canyon to arrive at the Treasury Building is an iconic one. Petra is one of those occasions when a movie set exists in real life. The gorge, properly called ‘The Siq’, is over a kilometre in length and, at times, is only three metres wide. It feels like a secret passage to hidden kingdom; because that’s what it is. At its end, quite by surprise, you emerge into an open space and the Treasury Building towers majestically above you. A wonderful, natural phenomenon gives way to a stunning human masterpiece. The design was intended to impress a traveller entering the city; it still does.
For years, every time I saw a photo of the building, I wondered what was inside it. Let me put your mind at rest; bugger all. It was probably built, i.e. carved from the sandstone cliff, in the first century BC, in the reign of King Aretas III. It may have been a tomb/mausoleum, possibly a temple, maybe both. Nobody is sure because the empty space gives few clues as to its use. Alas, there’s no elderly Knight Templar clutching his Holy Grail.
But I’m jumping ahead. We arrived in Petra following a two-night stay in Wadi Rum to the south. We chose to stay in The Sunset hotel due its proximity to the site. The plan was to be in there early, and this hotel was only about 400 metres away from the entrance. Overall, we were very pleased with the room, not bad for the price of £85 per night given the location. Much of the modern town of Petra is set back up a hill from the entrance of the archaeological site, and it’s a bit of a walk. We arrived in the early evening, dropped our bags off, and went for a look see.
There aren’t many places to get a beer. Two nights in the desert had left us thirsty. We popped into the Movenpick, a posh five-star hotel. It was ‘happy hour’ though the staff were vague on the timing of it. A beer was half price at £5. We went from there to the Cave Bar, which is part of Petra Guest House (another posh joint). £8 for a beer, but it was in a very nice setting as the bar was cut into the rock. We ate out at ‘My Mom’s Recipe’ as it had good ratings on TripAdvisor. My meal was comically poor, don’t have the mixed grill. A few pallid bits of tepid, greasy meat perched on top of a silly tin box. However, fed and watered, we turned in for an early night. The next morning, we were ready to go in at 6.15 am in order to avoid the worst of the day’s heat.
We had the ‘Jordan Pass’, which covered entrance to Patra, Wadi Rum and other places of interest in the country. It costs about £45 per person. It also included a visa for the country and so was a financial saving. The walk to The Siq is pleasant enough, though beware the offer of a horse ride in. It is supposedly free, but the demands for tips can be quite aggressive, apparently.
The Siq serves as a starter prior to the main course. It’s a nice stroll, with little hints of the archaeological riches to come. The first glimpse of the upper half of the Treasury, through a cleft in the top of the gorge, is thrilling. It’s as if King Aretas III took his architects to one side said,
“Look guys, when you’re doing the façade, think ‘Instagrammable’. I don’t care how many denarii it costs! I want those Romans and Greeks stood in front with their iPhones taking selfies.”
They did him proud. In front of the building is a gift shop and café, where, in accordance with Bedouin hospitality, a cup of sweet tea is free. I found this to be a touching custom and universal throughout Jordan. As we were sat there, some folk were delivering goodies to the café one young chap was accompanied by his pet hedgehog. You can stroke them much like you would a kitten; but only in one direction, or you get pricked.
If you visit, prepare to spend about 15 minutes in front of the Treasury Building as it is still ‘selfie-central’. There was a guy there with a camel offering the shortest trip I’ve ever seen; a circle about fifty metres in length, taking about five minutes. I don’t know what he charged, but he is happy to video the trek on your phone for you.
From this point the Siq continues on but broadens out into the centre of ‘Old Petra’. The cliffs become less steep, and the remains of many old dwellings and mausoleums can be seen, hewn out of the yielding sandstone. It’s quite a grand place and reminded me of Goreme in Cappadocia. The biggest and most complete remains in this section are those of the amphitheatre. You can’t go and sit in it, but you can see it all clearly enough. There are some impressive looking buildings on the right-hand side further up the slopes, but we didn’t go up to these as we were keen to get on to the monastery which is at the furthest end of the valley. Petra is more than just one building and there is also a decent temple towards the end of this main section.
The climb up to the monastery is around 900 steps up a steep gorge. It was 10.00 am when we got there and the temperature was about 30C. it feels hotter as the sun shines directly in, there’s very little shade and no breeze. It’s a demanding climb though you can opt to go up via donkey. There’s a plethora of locals offering the unfortunate beasts for hire. I say unfortunate I don’t know if the animals dislike their 9 to 5. I didn’t fancy it, my sympathy was with the animals, some of the riders were a tad portly.
At many points on the way up, there are stalls selling trinkets and cute children begging you to buy, demanding that you promise to stop on the way down. They weren’t too annoying, just poor people trying to make a living. The kids were persistent though. I noted that a shop just outside the site was selling ‘Indiana Jones Whips’. I had assumed they were innocent movie memorabilia. Now I fear they were intended to chastise these infants, or perhaps the donkeys.
I bought a bottle of water from one elderly lady and she was quick to offer my wife and I a free drink of tea, and a seat in the shade. We accepted gratefully and, nicely rested, we continued the weary ascent. Just before the top, we stopped at a decent little café and had a freshly squeezed, chilled, orange juice. Never has it tasted so fine! From there it was a short walk to the final plateau.
At one point, there was a large Church here and associated accommodation for the monks. Little remains beyond the foundations, but the centre piece, hidden just around a corner, is the façade of the monastery proper. It’s about twice the size of the Treasury building at the entrance to Petra and an equally splendid sight. From here you can climb a little higher and get a view of the rift valley leading over to Israel. My knees complained, but I drove them on to loftier heights. It was worth the effort and I was rewarded with a grand vantage point for a few photos.
Once you’ve got this far, you’ve basically ‘done Petra’ and all that remains is to retrace your steps back to the entrance. The climb down is mercifully easier than the climb up, and I took the opportunity to make jocular remarks to the sweating hordes coming the other way. I didn’t get as many laughs as I deserved but, to be fair, these people had done the climb in the heat of the afternoon. I would counsel against this!
Although I was knackered, it was a pleasant walk back to the hotel, partly because I was filled with a slightly smug sense of achievement. After a shower and a nap, I was ready to do ‘Petra on the piss’ again (i.e. have two pints somewhere). We had a beer in an ‘Irish Bar’. It was the bar of the hotel next door and it was about as Irish a Jordanian boozer can be. Which, unsurprisingly, isn’t very Irish at all. Ah well. From here we headed down to the Cave bar and sat outside in the warm evening. It was lovely.
Should you go?
Petra rightly occupies a place on many people’s bucket lists. Just before we turned to depart via The Siq my wife turned to gaze once more at the Treasury Building. I could tell she was struggling to drag herself away. Turning one’s back on it was a wrench. If you get the chance to go, then I reckon you should.
Flights from Malta, Cyprus and Turkey with Ryanair are very reasonably priced (and short) so it’s a nice ‘add-on’ trip from holidays in those places. Get a Jordan Pass as it will probably save you money. Pick a hotel near the entrance to the archaeological site, there are several and Sunset Hotel was fine. Make sure you go early in the morning to avoid the heat of the day. I would advise against going in the height of summer.
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