My guidebook’s first line about Petra said that whenever you hear the word Petra, you immediately think of the Nabateans. I don’t know about other people, but whenever I think of Petra, I immediately think of Indiana Jones.

The Treasury in Petra as seen through the Siq

Ever since I was a child I have always been fascinated by the grand Treasury and the narrow siq leading up to it. What I never realized until last weekend was that Petra is much bigger than that one building. So much bigger, in fact, that a friend of mine assured me that my boyfriend and I would need more than a day to see it. Unlike Indiana Jones, we weren’t there seeking just the Holy Grail. Petra itself was our holy grail, and we wanted to explore every inch of it.

The ancient city of Petra in Jordan

We arrived in Petra at 4:57pm after barrelling down the King’s Highway faster than Indiana Jones running from his pursuers. Since the visitor center supposedly closed at 5pm, I ran to get our tickets while my boyfriend parked the car. We quickly set off down the road to the siq and found ourselves navigating through massive tourist crowds that were coming the other way. We were going to have Petra all to ourselves. I couldn’t wait.

The Siq in Petra

We entered the narrow corridor with its high walls of tormented rock and our pulses quickened as we looked for a hint of the Treasury around every corner. The siq was much longer than I had anticipated, but we were finally rewarded with the welcoming facade of the great Nabatean edifice.

The Treasury in Petra at dusk

Quickening our pace and pulling out our cameras, we headed towards the Treasury. Everything we read about Petra said that seeing the building in person was even more amazing than seeing it in the most beautiful photographs. They were right. Tall, imposing, and enigmatically ancient, the Treasury was stunning.

Camels in front of the Treasury in Petra

We knew that the building’s interior wouldn’t look like it did in Indiana Jones, but I couldn’t help walking up to the entrance just to make sure. What I found was a rather small empty room with an even smaller empty room behind it. A bit of a stark contrast to the grand exterior, but I wasn’t complaining.

The amphitheater in Petra

After being sufficiently star struck by the Treasury, we walked along the road towards the amphitheatre and the Royal Tombs, savoring the last bits of daylight as we made our way past small caves in the warm sandstone. The amphitheater was beautifully preserved, and the Royal Tombs stunning in their size and condition after thousands of years. We were dying to walk farther down into the city center, but dusk was spreading its dark blanket over the valley and we knew we wouldn’t make it home before nightfall.

The royal tombs in Petra at dusk

We hurried back to our hotel in Wadi Musa, the modern town that has been built up on the outskirts of its ancient neighbor. We had a quick dinner under the stars on the roof terrace, then went to bed early so we could see more of Petra in the morning.

The royal tombs in Petra

We were up before 7am and on the path to Petra shortly thereafter. While our guidebook had promised that no tour buses would arrive before 8am, we were dismayed to see large groups already on the trail. Walking as quickly as we could, we got around the tours and had the quiet siq almost to ourselves as we journeyed back into Petra.

Dawn in Wadi Musa

The sun was shining on the rock as we made our way through the slender crevasse. The light coaxed beautiful red and gold colors out of the stone while the shadows threw the illuminated rocks into relief. It was stunning.

The Siq in Petra in the morning

We stopped only briefly to admire the Treasury before pressing on to widen the gap between ourselves and the tour groups behind us. Our first stop was the Royal Tombs. We climbed up the steps to get a better look from below, then climbed up into the tombs themselves. As we made our way up, I couldn’t help but wonder how long it would be before tourists were forbidden from climbing all over the ancient tombs. I couldn’t imagine that the toll of thousands of feet and humid breaths per year wouldn’t someday ruin the ruins

The ruins of Petra in the morning

After exploring the Royal Tombs we headed into Petra’s city center. Not much of it was still standing aside from some columns and a few buildings on the hillside, but the major highlight was an excavation of the Petra Great Temple. I wasn’t just interested in it from a historical perspective. I was thrilled to find that the team of archaeologists working on the site were from Brown!

The Great Temple in Petra being excavated by Brown University

We explored the Great Temple for awhile, then headed deeper into the city center and up to the Monastery. It was a bit of a trek to get to the latter, but when we caught our first glimpse of the rock facade, I knew that I would climb twice as far just to see it.

The Monastery in Petra

Larger than the Treasury and just as well-preserved, the Monastery is one of the most impressive sights in Petra. Carved right out of a rock cliff, the building is all gorgeous gold. We took it in, then climbed to a vista point above it to see views of the valley below before heading back to the city center for lunch.

The facade of the Monastery in Petra

We still had a few more things on our must-see list, so we bought another huge bottle of water (our third of the day and it was only 11am!) and set off on a trail that led to the High Place of Sacrifice. On our way, we passed by more tombs in the mountainside, including one of Roman Soldiers and one called the Renaissance Tomb.

Roman soldier tomb in Petra Jordan

We climbed a set of vertigo-inducing stairs to the top of a mountain, then climbed some more. We bought another huge bottle of water. We kept walking. Finally, finally we made it to the High Place of Sacrifice. By the time we arrived at the altar I was ready to sacrifice myself if it meant I didn’t have to climb any higher. But the views were stunning and the place an amazing piece of history, and it was well worth the trek.

The High Place of Sacrifice in Petra Jordan

As we descended from the High Place and made our way back to the siq, I couldn’t help but be awed by how huge Petra was and how much history was there. The Nabateans, the Romans, the crusaders, and most importantly, Indiana Jones had left their marks on Petra. My hope in leaving is that I didn’t leave too much of a mark myself. Seeing as how there is still so much excavation to be done and so much of Petra I didn’t have a chance to see, I hope to return some day to see even more of the ancient city. Until then, it will remain my holy grail.

Petra Jordan

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