If your Middle East cruise calls at the Jordanian port of Aquaba, then you have the chance to explore one of the world’s true unearthed treasures, not to mention one of its New Seven Wonders, the ancient city of Petra. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is Jordan’s most celebrated tourist attraction and one of the Middle East’s must-sees.
What is it?
Petra is one of the world’s greatest archaeological finds, a city carved from sandstone which possibly dates back to around 300BC but which remained undiscovered until 1812. It was the capital city of the Nabataeans, an ancient race of people whose cultural influence was lost when the Romans conquered their kingdom in the first century AD and annexed it to the Roman Empire. Though excavations of tombs and coins and the building of the Petra Roman Road show that the Romans inhabited the city for time, the growth of the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra took much trade away from Petra and it began to decline in importance and become depopulated. An earthquake, which submerged many buildings, only served to speed up the decline and by the time of the Middle Ages, it had become nothing more than a curio.
Fast-forward to 1812, a time when Swiss traveller Johann Ludwig Burckhardt was living in Syria. Of course, as a traveller, Burckhardt didn’t stay still for long and one of his exploratory trips in the region took him to an area which is today known as Jordan, where he came across the ruins of Al Khazneh (Petra’s famous Treasury). Perhaps not fully realising the significance of his discovery, he continued with his on-going mission to find the source of the River Niger, he travelled on to Cairo, leaving his find behind for the rest of the western world to marvel over. It wasn’t until 1929, when a British-Dutch-Palestinian team of archaeologists, scientists and scholars excavated and surveyed the site that we began to find out more about what was there.
Though many of Petra’s buildings were destroyed by an earthquake and more remain under threat of collapse, erosion and flooding, there are many key sites to see during your visit.
On your excursion, you’ll enter Petra via the Siq, a narrow gorge which is surrounded by 300-foot high cliffs. It’s a humbling experience and you’ll get a sense of why the city remained hidden for so long. Upon exiting, you’ll arrive at the city and be confronted by its crowning glory, the aforementioned Treasury. Petra’s single most iconic image is very much influenced by Greek architecture, resembling the frontage of an ancient temple. It’s carved from the rock itself and is an awe-inspiring sight. It’s important to note though, that it was originally built as a crypt and only earned its name thanks to legend that bandits hid their loot there or that it was the treasury of the Egyptian Pharaoh Khaznet Far’oun. If you think it looks familiar, that’s because it famously took the role of the final resting place of The Holy Grail in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.
The Monastery involves quite a challenging climb, but it’s worth it. It’s actually Petra’s largest monument and in some ways, more impressive than the more well-known Treasury and offers a spectacular view of the valley below. Another key monument is the High Place of Sacrifice, which, like the Monastery, involves a climb, while the Street of Facades is a fascinating and intricate pathway to another monument a little way away from the main attractions; the Theatre, where ancient stone-carved amphitheatre-like seats can clearly be seen. One of Petra’s more ‘modern’ monuments is the Byzantine Church, which wasn’t discovered until the 1990’s. It dates back to the 6th or 8th century and features some stunning mosaics and carvings.
By Simon Brotherton