Just to clarify – there is no clear rank order among the 7 wonders of the world. Petra was the third of the wonders that I saw and it remains the last. Though I have been to the Taj Mahal a few times since I have not added a new man-made wonder to my photo collection in the last decade. Petra though was so mind-blowing that it remains firmly enshrined in my mind.
The entrance to Petra was just a short walk away from the hotel though that location is just the ticket window. Once you pass that, there is still a bit of a walk to get to the Siq, the official entrance to Petra. It is about a 15-minute walk to the point where the Siq begins. The Siq is a stunning 1.2 km long gorge that ends in the most famous site of Petra, the Treasury. Before you get there you can choose to walk the length of the Siq or take a camel ride, a horse cart ride, or even go on top of a donkey. Needless to say, walking will give you the most time to enjoy the beautiful sites and color contrasts of the red sandstone all around you. A donkey ride on the other hand can give you a true Indian Jones experience while the horse cart is obviously the fastest.
As you walk in, you see the sunlight bounce off the high sandstone walls around you and create the magical colors. The textures of the sandstone itself shine in different hues of purples, reds, browns, and blacks. The Siq narrows to just about three meters at some points while it may be over twice that width at others. You can clearly see aqueducts cut into the sandstone all the way along the Siq – the historic way for the city to get water. mechanical engineers of the time were damn good! The Siq feels longer than the 1.2 km they claim it is. This could be due to the intense daytime sun, the immense beauty of the structure, or the fact that curves its way around, at every juncture revealing only a small part of the Siq.
The end of the Siq is spectacular – the rock faces on either side of the walkway open out to the structure that has become the symbol of Petra – the Treasury. Also known as Al Khazneh, this 40-meter tall rock cut mausoleum was built at the beginning of the first century. Imagining something so massive and so precisely carved out of a mountain face 2000 years ago is just mind-blowing. The workmanship is immaculate and the size and glow of the red sandstone make this a breath-taking structure. You could spend a few hours just sitting and appreciating this masterpiece.
The Treasury is only the beginning. Petra then opens out into more open spaces surrounded by the sandstone hills, each carved with many structures, caves, and temples. In the years before my trip, you could get permission and spend the night in some of those caves. This was discontinued as the overnight stays were slowly starting to damage the well-preserved structures. There are other massive structures that didn’t survive time as well as the Treasury did. There is a massive temple that you can walk to where the roof has disappeared but hundreds of pillars remain. Some stone mosaic work is still being excavated and is well preserved. Some of these discoveries have given us a very good view of life 2000 years ago, one without electricity and mobile phones. The systems and were well established and engineering had enabled a lot of conveniences to the city dwellers. Petra was on a prosperous trade route and a number of trade caravans passed through this glorious city. The size of the temples and just the extravagance in their construction is a sure sign of that prosperity.
There were two major hikes to choose from in Petra: The Monastery and the High Place of Sacrifice. These days I hear the hike to get a bird’s eye view of the Treasury is also quite popular. I had to choose between the former two. The Monastery is essentially a more glorious version of the treasury – bigger, harder to access, and with a majestic background. The High Place of Sacrifice is more symbolic – a flat surface on a high vantage point with a good view of Petra and some animal carvings. I had time for one and chose the hike up to the Monastery.
You could walk up the 850 uneven steps or take a donkey ride up. If you are walking up the donkeys squeezing past can be a scary experience on the uneven steps with sharp drops. If you are on the donkey, the angle of climb is steep enough that you are holding the saddle with all your strength and are unhappy at the donkey having to side-step the climbers. Choose the option that sounds more in your comfort zone. The climb up is nevertheless breathtaking at times. The view down to the valley, from the places that you can see it well, is quite amazing.
Finally, you turn a corner and face the unbelievable Monastery. In design, it doesn’t look very different from the Treasury, but it is larger being on top of a hill makes it even more amazing. Make sure you walk a little further to a viewpoint that gives a view of the facade along with the hill that it is carved out of – definitely the best photo spot of the area.
The final attraction of Petra that mesmerized us was the “Petra by Night” visit. It used to be available only a few nights of the week and a separate ticket was needed. The ambiance was out of the world. Brown paper bags were filled with sand for about an inch of depth. A candle was placed in the sand at the back was loosely folded at the top. These made for beautiful windproof lanterns. There were hundreds of these on the way, all through the Siq, to guide the way. Finally, at the Treasury, the area was lit up by a matrix of these lanterns in the center and several small seats around. We were served Bedouin tea and a local man told some tales about the history and culture of Petra. I didn’t have a tripod to be able to get some good night shots, but that majestic sight is still etched on my mind.
There is a lot more to walk around in Petra and many more corners to explore. Each cave probably tells its own story and many structures didn’t survive the beatings of time as well as the Treasury did. There are many others still waiting to be excavated. However, two full days and one night of wandering, 5 returns trips through the Siq, one major and many small hikes, a scary donkey ride, and one dash on a horse cart later I fully understand why Petra was chosen as a wonder of the world.