Inside Petra: Ruins and Trails

Jordan’s Petra should be on everyone’s bucket list of “must see places”. The trip will most likely start in Amman, Jordan’s economic, political and cultural center, a modernized city with excellent hotels and considered safe for tourism. There are several sites around Amman worth visiting (see our post on Amman). To get to Petra, you can take a bus (approx. 4 hour drive), a taxi or rent a car without or without a driver. You can also get a guide that will stay with you for the length of your trip.

Jordan is is one of the most progressive states in the middle east and one of the few Arab states to have cooperative relations with Israel (Peace Treaty in 1994).

When visiting Petra, Little Petra and Aaron’s Tomb should be added to the itinerary, also, it is recommended that you visit Jordan’s other distinguished sites (see our post).


Located in South West Jordan, Petra is a Unesco World Heritage site famous for its archaeological ruins. It remained unknown from the time of its decline in early islamic era (7th century) until it was rediscovered in 1812 by Johann Ludwig Burckhardt, a Swiss traveler and scholar of the Orient. It was built by the Nabateans (see brief history below) around 150BC.

The city is famous for its rock architecture, rendering it the name Rose City. It is also famous for its water conduit system.

Petra is Jordan’s most visited site and a universally recognized symbol of the country. Tourist numbers peaked at 918,000 in 2010, but there followed a temporary slump during the political instability generated by the Arab Spring, which affected countries surrounding Jordan. Tourism numbers have subsequently increased and reached a record-breaking 1.1 million tourists in 2019, marking the first time that the figure rose above the 1 million mark.

Petra houses numerous tombs, most of them built at the edge of the city, beyond the main street. Some were simple, containing multiple burials in an unadorned rock chamber, while others were more spectacular. Accessed via a narrow canyon is the Al Siq, it contains tombs and temples carved into pink sandstone cliffs.

Perhaps its most famous structure is 45m-high Al Khazneh, seen in the picture below: a temple with an ornate, Greek-style facade, and known as The Treasury.

The ‘Treasury’ (Al-Khazneh) at Petra

This is Petra’s best known tomb called the “Khazneh,” which is Arabic for the “Treasury.” It is called this because at one time local people believed it contained hidden treasure. Today, archaeologists regard it as a two-story high tomb. Its facade measures 82 feet (25 meters) wide and 128 feet (39 meters) high.

The columns have no structural function, mainly Greek in appearance, they are built in the Corinthian style. The entrance is flanked with reliefs depicting Castor and Pollux, a pair of mythical twin brothers. At top center is a draped woman who may be a version of Isis, the Egyptian goddess. Also depicted at top are six axe-wielding Amazons, mythical warrior women who were well-regarded in the ancient world.

The “Great Temple” in Petra is situated in a strategic position, from its ruins one can now see the Siq to the Southeast, the Qasr al-bint to the West, and the Lower Market – Petra Pool Complex to the East.  Archaeologists are not decided on whether the complex was a religious or administrative building.

The Monastery, the second most visited monument after the Treasury, is located high in the hills northwest of the Petra city center. It was carved out of the rock around mid first century AD. The huge facade, the inner chamber and the other structures next to it or in the wider area around the Deir (Monastery) probably originally served a complex religious purpose, and was possibly repurposed as a church in the Byzantine period.

The Qasr al-Bint is a religious temple, facing the town of Wadi Musa and is located to the northwest of the Great Temple and to the southwest of the Temple of the Winged Lions.

From the Treasury to the centre of Petra leads to a narrow outer Siq. Here the gorge widens and you see high tombs in a row like mansions. This is called the Street of Facades.

One of the grandest sights in Petra as you continue along the Street of Facades, are the Royal Tombs. These cannot be associated with any particular Nabatean rulers due to lack of evidence. They stand, side by side, high up on the rock face of Al-Khubtha, the mountain they were carved into. Their monumental stature and elaborate facades suggest that they were the tombs of Petra royalty. As you get closer, you’ll notice that they are naturally patterned by the striations found in the sandstone.

Petra Hiking Trails

The main hiking trail is 8km / 5 miles return from the Visitors Centre. Easy walk, largely flat, walking the length of the Main Trail without stopping, it will take roughly 1 hour from the Visitors Centre to the start of the Monastery Trail at a reasonable pace.

The Petra Monastery Trail is 2.5km / 1.6 miles return from the end of the Petra Main Trail (4km in). Medium walk, steep with lots of stairs, but not too long.  Takes about 2 hours return from the start of the Petra Monastery Trail.

TIP: You can take a donkey on the Main Trail in order to save your knees and then hike the Monastery trail on foot.

The monumental semicircular theatre is evidence that Petra was a city for living complete with entertainment. The smoothed rock face in the back was made by slicing through older tombs in order to enlarge the theatre, after the Roman annexation of Petra in 106AD.

The Temple of the Winged Lions is a large Nabatean temple complex dated during the reign of King Aretas IV (9 BC to 40 AD). The temple is located in Petra’s Sacred Quarter, an area situated at the end of Petra’s main Colonnaded Street consisting of two majestic temples, the Qasr al-Bint and, opposite, the Temple of the Winged Lions on the northern bank of Wadi Musa.

The temple is likely dedicated to the supreme goddess figure of the Nabatean, but the exact identity of this goddess is uncertain. It was ultimately destroyed in the massive earthquake of 363 AD.

Based on inscriptions found at the temple, Archaeologists tell us that the architecture, goods, and practices associated with the Temple of the Winged Lions have given us valuable insights into Nabatean religion, economy, and culture.

Little Petra

Little Petra is a Nabatean archaeological site located north of the Petra town of Madi Musa. Its buildings are carved into the walls of the sandstone canyons. It is much smaller than Petra and consists mainly of three open areas. It is part of the Petra Archeological Park, though accessed separately, and included in Petra’s inscription as a Unesco World Heritage Site.  It is often visited by tourists in conjunction with Petra itself, since it is free and usually less crowded.

The gorge, Siq al-Barid “cold canyon” opens up in the rock facade to the southwest and because of its location and high walls, sunlight is prevented from coming in. The name “Little Petra” comes from its similarities to the larger site to the south—both must be entered via a narrow canyon, and consist primarily of Nabatean buildings, most famously the Ticlicium, meaning “three benches”. It was used for banquets.

Archaeologists believe that Little Petra was established in the 1st century BC.

Tomb of Aaron

The Tomb of Aaron is the name of the supposed burial place of Aaron, the brother of Moses. There are two descriptions of its location in the Pentateuch (first five books of the bible) and different interpretations of its location. Although in Jewish tradition, the location of Aaron’s grave, like that of Moses, is shrouded in mystery, the Islamic tradition places it on Mount Hor, near Petra.

There is much religious fervour surrounding the tomb site and in 2019, the Jordanian Ministry in charge had to shut down visitation due to “illegal performance of rituals without the knowledge of the Jordanian ministry”. Such rituals include prayer. Because the Muslims consider Aaron a prophet, it is a Muslim holy site and therefore other religions are not allowed to pray there without prior permission. It has subsequently reopened.

A brief history of Petra and the Nabatean Kingdom

Jordan, Petra, map

The history of Petra is tied to the Nabatean Kingdom. The Nabataeans were nomadic Arabs, (the precise location remains uncertain), who invested in Petra’s proximity to the trade routes by establishing it as a major regional trading hub. The Nabataeans were one among several nomadic tribes who roamed the Arabian Desert, moving with their herds to wherever they could find pasture and water. These nomads became familiar with their area as seasons passed, and they struggled to survive during bad years when seasonal rainfall diminished. The Nabateans had occupied the area 150 years prior in order to escape Greek invasion.

Petra was built in 150 BC, and theory has it that because of its location, the sun would illuminate the Nabateans’ sacred places like celestial spotlights, thereby highlighting their solstices and equinoxes. It would later become the capital of their Kingdom.

Excavations have demonstrated that it was the ability of the Nabataeans to control the water supply that led to the rise of the desert city, creating an artificial oasis. The area is visited by flash floods, but archaeological evidence shows that the Nabataeans controlled these floods by the use of dams, cisterns and water conduits. These innovations stored water for prolonged periods of drought and enabled the city to prosper.

Mondisti’s Petra Trip Tips

  1. A visit to Petra is highly recommended, at least once in a lifetime.
  2. The side trip to Little Petra is worthwhile as it does not take much time and is not crowded.
  3. A visit to Aaron’s tomb, unless for religious purposes, is not necessary.
  4. If you hike up more than one trail in Petra, take a donkey for part of it, it will save you time and energy for the rest of the day.
  5. A guide in Petra is highly recommended. There is a lot of misinformation, oral as well as written with regards to this site.