Petra lies about 3 hours south of modern Amman, about 2 hours north of Aqaba, on the edges of the mountainous desert of the Wadi Araba. The city is surrounded by towering hills of rust-coloured sandstone which gave the city some natural protection against invaders.
The site of Petra has been inhabited since very ancient times. Remains from the Paleolithic and the Neolithic periods have been discovered at Petra, and the biblical Edomites (Genesis 146, 3620-30; Deut. 212) occupied the area about 1200 BC. Petra may be the city of Sela (which, like Petra, means "Rock") mentioned in the Old Testament (Judges 136; Isaiah 161, 4211; Obad. 3; 2 Kings 147; 2 Chr. 2512), but this is not certain.
Petra achieved its greatest importance under the Nabataeans, an ancient people whose original homeland was in northeastern Arabia. They migrated westward in the 6th century BC and eventually settled at Petra. Little is known about the Nabateans' history before 312 BC, when Petra was unsuccessfully attacked by Seleucid forces. The High Place of Sacrifice was probably built during this time.
As the Seleucid kingdom weakened in the 2nd century BC, the Nabataean kingdom increased in strength. The chief source of the Nabataeans' prosperity and power was their monopoly on the caravan spice trade that involved such distant places as China, Egypt, Greece, and India and passed from the Arabian interior to the coast.
By the 1st century BC the rich and powerful Nabataean kingdom that extended from Damascus in the north to the Red Sea in the south, and Petra was home to as many as 30,000 people. It was during this period that the most impressive structures of Petra were built, including the Treasury, the Great Temple and the Qasr el-Bint el-Faroun.
A significant key to the city's success was the Nabataeans' ability to control and conserve water. Conduits and the remains of terracotta piping can be seen along the walls of the Outer Siq, which was part of an elaborate system for channelling water around the city.
Upon the Roman general Pompey's entry into Palestine (63 BC), the Nabataean King Aretas III became a Roman vassal, but he retained Damascus and his other conquests. Damascus was later annexed by the Roman emperor Nero (reigned AD 54—68).
In 105-106 AD the Roman emperor Trajan annexed the Nabatean kingdom as part of a major military campaign on Rome's eastern frontiers. The former Nabataean kingdom became the Roman province of Arabia Petraea. Bostra (Bozrah), east of the Jordan River, was chosen by the Romans as the provincial capital instead of Petra.
The final period of Nabataean history was one of peaceful prosperity as allies of Rome. Although after Roman annexation the Nabateans ceased to be an identifiable political group, Petra continued to thrive culturally. Hellenistic and Roman influences may be traced in the royal coinage, temple art, and rock-cut architecture at Petra.
In the 1st century AD the Siq was paved and the impressive classical theater was constructed. After annexation, Roman touches were added to Petra such as the colonnaded cardo (main street). A Nabataean-style tomb was built in Petra for the Roman governor of Arabia Sextius Florentius (127 AD), and a high-ranking Roman soldier was buried in another tomb. The Urn Tomb also dates from this period (2nd-3rd century).
Christianity arrived in the 4th century, and a Byzantine church, whose ruins can still be seen at Petra, was built around 450-500 AD. Various tombs and temples at Petra were also used as churches, including the Monastery (a cross carved in the wall gave the structure its popular name) and the Urn Tomb (turned into a church in 447).
But changing trade routes in the 2nd and 3rd centuires had already cause Petra's gradual commercial decline, and in 511, an especially bad earthquake (there were many) sealed the city's fate. Significant habitation of Petra seems to have ceased not long after this point, although there is evidence for a remodeling of the Petra Church around 600 AD.
Islam arrived in the Arab invasion of the 7th century. Aaron's tomb, on a mountain near Petra, is an important Muslim shrine (holy also to Jews and Christians) and dates from the 14th century.
A Crusader outpost was built in Petra in the 12th century. After the Crusades, Petra became a "lost city," known only to local Arabs. It would lie hidden from the Western world for more than 500 years.
Petra was rediscovered by Johann Ludwig Burckhardt in 1812. The Swiss explorer was a brilliant student with a thirst for adventure, and in 1809 he was contracted by a London-based association to explore the "interior parts of Africa." Three years later, after intense study of Islam and Arabic, Burckhardt disguised himself as a Muslim scholar, took the name Ibrahim ibn Abdullah, and set out for Egypt. On his way, however, he was lured by local tales of a lost city in the mountains. Using the pretence that he wanted to offer a sacrifice to the Prophet Aaron, he convinced a guide to take him there, and in 1812 he became the first modern Westerner to see Petra.
After Burckhardt's discvoery, almost 50 visitors between 1818 and 1898, followed in his footsteps and published their impressions of the site throughout the 19th century. But until the 1920s, Petra was an inaccessible and inhospitable city where strangers were not particularly welcome.
In World War I, the British hero T.E. Lawrence ("Lawrence of Arabia") famously assisted Arab tribes revolting against Turkish rule. Beginning in 1916, he led many Arab guerilla operations in the desert, some launched from Wadi Rum near Petra. In one such operation, he trapped Turkish soldiers in the Siq in Petra.
Excavations from 1958 on behalf of the British School of Archaeology in Jerusalem and, later, the American Center of Oriental Research added greatly to knowledge of Petra. Further excavations begun in 1993 revealed several more temples and monuments that provide insight into the political, social, and religious traditions of the ancient city.
In 1985 Petra was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, In 2006 a team of architects began designing a "Visitor Centre," and Jordan's tourist revenue is expected to increase dramatically with the attraction of visitors on package holidays. The Jordan Times reported in December 2006 that 59,000 people visited in the two months October and November 2006. On July 7, 2007, Petra was named one of New Open World Corporation's New Seven Wonders of the World.
Average daily temperatures in degrees Fahrenheit
Month Temperatures (°F)
Min Max Average
Jan 15 41 28
Feb 20 47 34
Mar 28 57 43
Apr 34 66 50
May 42 75 59
Jun 51 86 68
Jul 58 93 75
Aug 56 91 73
Sep 46 81 63
Oct 34 68 51
Nov 24 53 38
Dec 15 42 29
Renting a car is a very practical, a good way of transportation around Jordan. You can choose to go from Amman to Petra via the Desert Highway or the Kings Highway (which will take more time but is a nice drive).
The South Bus Station (Mojama' al-Janoob) located in south eastern Amman, accessible by taxi and public transport from different places in Amman like Abdali bus station, is the link between Amman and the southern part of Jordan. Buses and service (Serfis) cars do not operate on fixed schedules, but move whenever they are full of passengers to different cities. The Wadi Musa bus takes approximately 3 hours. A stop is made at a rest house on the way for sandwiches and coffee. A service car might cost a bit more per person, but fills with passengers and arrives faster. Buses are available from 6 am to 2 pm and available until 2 pm for the way back. Ma'an (located on the Desert Highway between Aqaba and Amman) is the closest city to Wadi Musa, 30 min by taxi from Petra/Wadi Musa, and from there you can go to Amman almost any time. If you are going to Petra from Aqaba, you can also use Ma'an as a station; Aqaba - Ma'an is around 2 JD, and all buses from Aqaba pass by Ma'an, so if this is your only option you will not be going out of your way.
You can also go to Petra by a normal taxi from anywhere in Jordan. Simply stop any taxi and negotiate the price. Although not all taxis will be willing to make the trip immediately, it is worth stopping four or five drivers in order to get a fair price. A taxi could be the easiest way to move to and from Petra to any other place.
Petra is an archaeological park, so the entrance fees are considered fairly steep compared to other Jordanian attractions. Visitors can purchase tickets at the Visitor's Center for 21 JD for a single entry and 26 and 30 JD for a 2 or 3 day pass respectively. A 3 day pass will get you a 4th day for free. A valid student ID card used to allow entrance for 11.5 JD, however this offer has been discontinued, it is not sure if it will become available again. Do not attempt to purchase tickets from dubious scalpers around town! Time permitting, the two-day pass is recommended, as there is much to see and do in Petra
Guides can be hired at the Visitors Center. You may want to take advantage of the knowledge of the Bedouins who work in Petra. Many of them were born and raised in Petra, and will gladly share their knowledge with you for the price of a camel or donkey ride. Alternatively, major hotels can rent you a portable Easyguide or audio guide) for commentary in English, Arabic, French and Spanish.
Easyguide is also available as a mobile phone service on all Jordanian mobile phone networks, a map is needed to use this service
The entrance to Petra is a long, winding sandstone canyon known as the Siq. There are minor carvings spotted here and there throughout the Siq, but the most impressive sights are the colorful and unusual sandstone patterns in the rock walls. There are also remains of terracotta pipes built into the sides of the canyon that were used in Roman times to carry water.
Upon exiting the Siq, visitors can view the jaw-dropping grandeur of the Treasury (al-Khazneh). Be sure to note the urn atop the Treasury structure. It has been rumored that the urn contained a Pharaoh's hidden treasure, and the urn bears the bullet pock marks where Bedouin travelers throughout the years have tested the theory.
Past the next bend is the outer Siq or Street of Facades, a large canyon lined with the facades of various tombs
At the end of the Street of Facades is the 7000-seat Roman Theater. The theater was created by the Nabateans but later enlarged by the Romans. It is still used for occasional performances
On the side of the valley opposite the Roman Theater and a short walk up the hill, are the Royal Tombs. The name was given because they are quite grand in scale compared to the others in the area, but it is unclear for whom the tombs were originally constructed
The Monastery (Ad-Deir), the largest carved monument in Petra, dates back to the 1st century AD. The interior, like that of the Treasury, is puny in comparison to the facade. The more than 800 steps up to the Monastery can take over an hour; many visitors choose to ride donkeys up to the top.
Throughout Petra, vendors will offer bottles of decorative sand art. While they may appear similar to other such souvenirs found in other Jordanian locations, these are unique in that the sand used to create the art is naturally colored sand scraped from the rock walls of various Petra canyons and not artificially colored.