Petra is one of the most dazzling attractions in all of the Middle East. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that was voted the new 7th Wonder of the World in 2007. Tucked away in the mountains of Southern Jordan, Petra is about 160 miles south of Amman, the capital. Petra can be reached on a day excursion from Eilat, but spending a few nights in the area is worthwhile because there is so much to explore.
Petra is a lost Nabataean city that was once home to 20,000 people. The city was carved out of pink-hued sandstone cliffs in a desert canyon and is comprised of tombs, temples, houses, halls, aqueducts, and a variety of other structures. You can read about Petra and even encounter it in the final scene of the movie, ?Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,? starring Harrison Ford, but nothing will prepare you for the experience of seeing its breathtaking structures with your own eyes.
Petra means “rock” in Greek, so it’s a fitting name for this ancient city. Petra was built by the Nabataeans, a nomadic Semitic tribe from Northern Arabia that settled in the area over 2,000 years ago. The Nabataeans were renowned for their trade, engineering, architectural, and agricultural skills.
Petra is nestled between the Dead Sea and the Gulf of Aqaba. It was a center for commerce and linked lucrative trade routes between China and Rome. The caravans that passed through Petra carried silk, gold, jewels, spices, and slaves from as far away as East Africa. Because of the Nabataeans’ frequent contact with outsiders, the architecture in Petra was heavily influenced by Roman and Hellenistic designs.
From approximately the 6th Century BC, Petra served as the capital of the Nabataen Kingdom because of its strategic location for trade, stable water resources, and proximity to rich agricultural lands. In AD 106, Petra was absorbed into the Roman Empire. Petra’s decline began under Roman rule, particularly after a catastrophic earthquake destroyed its important water management system and many of its buildings. Petra’s location was unknown to the Western world until 1812, when the Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt rediscovered the city.
The Siq is Petra’s dramatic entryway. It consists of a narrow gorge that is almost a mile long and has steep cliffs that are hundreds of feet high on both sides. The walk into Petra through the Siq is an incredible experience in and of itself. Most visitors traverse Petra by foot, but you can also get around in a camel or donkey.
Upon exiting the Siq, visitors reach what is known as the Treasury, a majestic, towering structure that was the tomb of a Nabataean king. Other architectural highlights in Petra include a Roman-style theatre that seats up to 3,000 people; the Colonnade Street, which runs through the center of Petra; the elaborate Royal Tombs, which are carved out of the mountains; and Ad-Deir, a monastery located at the top of a flight of 800 stairs.
One of the greatest archaeological treasures in the world, Petra is an awe-inspiring sight. Its multi-colored mountains, secluded location deep inside of a desert gorge, and sophisticated buildings give it a mythical aura that enchants visitors from all over the world. The best time to visit Petra is in the mid-morning or late afternoon, when the sun highlights and enhances the rocks’ natural colors.
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