Petra: Jordan’s Cave City

Like Egypt, this is the perfect time to visit Jordan.  Because of the Arab Spring uprisings across the Middle East tourists are staying away in droves but Jordan is not like most Middle Eastern countries and hasn’t been for many years.  It is safe, sophisticated and clean and it has been spared any of the violence that has plagued many of its neighbours.  Normally during peak season 10-15 thousand people will pass through Petra on any given day, maybe only half or a third that during low season, on the day we went only 20 tickets had been sold in the first half hour of the ticket office opening – unheard of and devastating for the hundreds who depend on this UNESCO Heritage site to make a living.  Eventually a few bus tours arrived but still the total was far below what they are used to.  As you walk down the path to the wall of rocks you are given a choice of riding a horse or in a horse drawn carriage… or you can walk it.  As I walked through the Siq, a passageway through the walls of giant rocks, I was amazed at the natural beauty.  They are all sandstone layered with different elements to create ribbons of colour and abstract designs; yellow from sulphur, red from iron, white from limestone, black from basalt.  Then you begin to see the caves bored into the rocks of this ancient Nabataean city and our guide Mahmoud explained there were 3 classes;  small caves for the worker class, sometimes stacked on top of each other like a prehistoric apartment complex, medium sized for the middle class and large caves ornamented with carved decoration surrounding the entrances for the wealthy traders and royalty.  The caves served as homes for the inhabitants of the city, dating back to the 6th century BC (although there is evidence that Neolithic civilisations lived in the area as far back as 7000BC!)and when they died the caves became their tombs, their bodies buried under the floors while their families continued to inhabit the homes.  35 thousand graves have been uncovered but it’s believed 100 thousand residents inhabited the city that served as a major stopping off point on the camel caravan route.  Traders would pass through the community on their way to Arabia, Egypt and beyond. Descendants of the Nabataeans actually lived in the caves until the late 1980’s when it was closed off and turned into a heritage site for tourists. Unlike others evicted from their communities, Jordanian King Hussein developed a new city for them just to the west with new homes, schools and medical centres.  While the history and architecture of Petra are fascinating it is not until you step through the open courtyard before the Treasury that you are awestruck.  You see it through a small opening in the rocks that gets wider as you get closer.  It is a magnificent and elaborately decorated structure carved right into the face of a mountain.  Tourists scramble around in front of it snapping photos, riding camels or just sitting back at the on-site restaurant for some much needed refreshment in the desert heat, all gazing up at this massive monument to prehistoric ingenuity.  Some people end their tour there but there is still so much more to see and experience. The Street Of Facades is just beyond the treasury, considered Petra’s downtown with dozens of caves cut into both sides of the road, some simply holes bored into the rocks, others elaborately carved structures built for royalty.  It’s even more amazing when you are told you are walking on top of the rest of the city, there is still much to be discovered just a few meters below with excavation work continuing today.  If you want to experience one of the other magnificent structures you head to the Monastery, the largest in Petra.  But just a warning it’s not an easy climb.  It’s near the end of the pathway and is all uphill, you climb thousands of steps while keeping an eye out for donkeys and mules clipping past you carrying tourists who assume a ride up
would be easier, though some of the screams and yelps from a Japanese tourist bouncing past us, echoing up the mountain, made us realize even a ride up is not without its’ negative side.  When you reach the Monastery there is a rest stop, with brightly covered couches separated by camel saddles, where you can buy something cold to drink or a snack to help you climb the last couple hundred meters to the summit for a spectacular view of the valley below and for the long climb back down.  I had heard of Petra before I planned my trip, I had seen documentaries talking about it but I didn’t really grasp its’
beauty or its’ magnitude until I saw it first-hand.

While Petra by day is spectacular, Petra by night is magical.  Everyone gathers at the front gate at 8:30pm when the guide arrives to escort everyone inside.  The pathway through the Siq is lined with hundreds of candle lanterns marking our way to the Treasury.  At first everyone is talking all at once, the din growing louder as people try to carry on a conversation.  I stayed up front with the guide who was getting more and more frustrated by the noise.  He told them to ‘shush’ a couple of times but it was pretty much ignored, especially among the over excited kids.  He whispered to me that he wanted us to enjoy the experience and not miss it by talking the whole way.  Finally a guard emerged from one of the passageways and told everyone to be quiet and keep the camera flashes to a minimum… just enjoy the moment.  That certainly helped as we began moving from the open sky visible through the rocks, the sky almost covered by the slope of the canyon creating an echo chamber.  As you look up you can see a million stars through the slivers of sky visible where the rocks almost meet.  It’s easy to get lost in your own thoughts, it’s almost zen like except for the crunching of hundreds of feet over the sand and the fact you have to pay attention to your steps so you don’t slip on one of the stones used to pave the ancient road.  Just as you turn a curve, there before you is the Treasury, silhouetted by a field of hundreds of candle lanterns on the ground.  Workers had set out rows of carpets along the ground in front of the lights and we all took our places to wait for what would happen next.  It was almost quiet except for the hum of hundreds of whispered conversations, still we were able to gaze into the lights or stare up at the ghost like silhouette of the treasury or sit back and scan the sky for the constellations overhead.  One of the workers came by with a small plastic cup of tea just as one of the entertainers took a seat in the centre of the lights and began to play. He performed a haunting and  mournful song played on an ancient stringed instrument that sounds much like a violin, singing along, his voice echoing off the cliff walls to create perfect acoustics. The folksong lasts several minutes and is mesmerizing.  When he finished another performer began to play a small flute like instrument that resembles a piccolo, beginning slowly the tempo picking up as he moved into a wedding celebration tune.


It was an emotional experience that must be seen by every visitor to Petra.  Just remember it is supposed to be a romantic, almost religious experience.  Behave as you would in a church with respect, reverence for the natural beauty and above all silence to truly appreciate Petra By Night.


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2 Responses to “Petra: Jordan’s Cave City”

  1. Ruben Wind
    July 18 at 5:24 pm #

    Hey Darren, This is Ruben and Cynthia. We met first on the ride to Goreme in the shuttle from the airport and then we were at the same hotel, Kelebek.
    We’ve just come back from our trip. After Turkey we went to Israel.
    I can’t agree more with you about Petra. It was amazing, an unique place and we did not go to the Monastery.
    We did enjoy Israel a lot. We remembered you told us that you loved Tel Aviv and I have to admit, you were right. Nice city, with a beautiful beach, lot of cafes and restaurants, all good.

    Where are you now?


    • Darren
      July 19 at 3:05 am #

      Of course I remember you and am so happy you have reconnected with me. I am glad you loved Petra…. but yes the climb to the Monastery can be a tough one. And relieved too that you agree with me about Tel Aviv… it really is a fabulous city and I will be going back in a couple of weeks. I am in Rome today and head to Croatia tomorrow. Please stay in touch.

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