Discovering Jordan: Petra & beyond
Epic desert landscapes. Astounding monuments, castles and fortresses. Cities carved from soft, pinky sandstone. An inland sea rich in mud and minerals. The tiny kingdom of Jordan is truly rewarding to explore. Here, we'll take an in-depth look at the country's star attraction, the ancient city of Petra, as well as some of its other highlights. Join us for a journey to Jordan...
Visiting Petra: the rose-red city
Founded by the Nabataeans sometime in the 4th century BC, the ancient city of Petra was abandoned and forgotten for centuries by all but the local Bedouins, who justifiably wanted to keep this wonder tightly under wraps. It’s now one of the most extensive and best-preserved archaeological sites in the world. Hewn out of the surrounding rock, the site was designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1985 and named as one of the ‘New 7 Wonders of the World’.
Today, Petra is Jordan’s most popular visitor attractions, a proud national symbol and undoubtedly a highlight on our Jordan tours.
A brief history of Petra
Two millennia ago, Petra flourished as one of the ancient Middle East’s most important commercial centres, strategically located at the crossroads of highly lucrative caravan trade routes. Frankincense and myrrh from the wilds of southern Arabia, precious lapis lazuli from the hills of Afghanistan and silks and spices from far-off India and China - Petra was a bustling meeting point of east to west.
Around 20,000-30,000 inhabitants would have flurried around the city’s twisted walkways. We know surprisingly little about the people who called Petra home - they left few written records - but from the collection of complex temples and tombs carved directly from the pink-hued sandstone cliffs, it’s safe to say they were a pretty sophisticated bunch.
Greek geographer Strabo paints a pleasing picture of a wealthy and cosmopolitan society with few slaves, where the natives enjoyed lavish communal meals and never drank more than 11 cups of wine at one sitting.
The location of this impressive ancient city was rediscovered by the intrepid Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt in 1812, who was posing as a Muslim pilgrim searching for the nearby tomb of the prophet Aaron. Burckhardt had enlisted the help of a guide, who was under the impression Burckhardt had promised to sacrifice a goat to the prophet and needed help locating it. Little did he know, he was leading the first outsider for more than 600 years straight into the heart of the ancient city.
Upon entering, the excavated mausoleum came into view for the first time and Burckhardt was barely able to contain himself. Countless tombs. The towering rose-red mausoleum. The sprawling amphitheatre. The temple of Qasr Al Bint. There was no hiding Burckhardt’s excitement at his discovery - and his guide soon realised with horror that he had been tricked.
Seeing Petra for yourself
The wider, sun-drenched opening is dominated by the elaborate mausoleum carved out of the sheer rock-face. This is the most famous image of Petra and is known as ‘The Treasury’ - experiencing this iconic wonder for the first time is absolutely thrilling.
But it’s just one part of the vast site. You’ll have plenty of time to explore the hundreds of rock-cut tombs, temples, paved streets and impressive Greek-style theatre - all chiselled straight out of the rock face.
Around five kilometres from the main site, a series of beautiful wall paintings have been uncovered at a cave complex dating back to the 1st century. Despite the sheer amount of treasure that has been uncovered, only around 15 per cent of ancient Petra has been excavated. The rest remains buried beneath the desert, waiting to be discovered…
Exploring Amman & its surrounds
Amman is Jordan's capital city, and a great base for exploring the country's north-western corner. Built on seven hills, the city's architecture includes reminders from its Roman, Greek and Ottoman roots - the Roman theatre in the centre of the city is a highlight.
The ancient city of Jerash
Originally built by the Greeks, the city of Jerash came into its own under the Roman Empire. Today, it's one of the best-preserved classical cities in the world.
Only 30 kilometres from Amman, it makes an easy day trip from the capital. Explore the old ruins on foot, wandering through ancient temples and theatres, and past rows of colonnaded shops. Sites to note include the Triumphal Arch, the Forum (great for photographers), the Hippodrome and the Temple of Artemis.
Jordan's Desert Castles
Heading east from Amman, you'll find a series of incredible fortresses and caravanserais scattered across the desert landscape. Known as the 'Desert Castles', they offer a wonderful glimpse into Jordan's past. There are a number of different castles to discover, but the three we'll show you on our tours of Jordan are Qasr Azraq, Qasr Amra and Qasr Kharaneh.
Qasr Azraq is an ancient walled fortress once used by the Romans (and the base of T.E Lawrence during the Arab Revolt). Atmospheric Qasr Amra houses some beautiful paintings, murals and frescoes, some of which date back more than a thousand years. Qasr Kharaneh is thought to be an old roadside inn, welcoming travellers on long journeys from the east, and a meeting place for Umayyad caliphs and Bedouin leaders.
Experiencing the Dead Sea
Four hundred metres below sea level lies the salt lake known as the Dead Sea. With salt levels nearly 10 times that of the ocean, it’s famed for its healing powers and its harsh environment (pretty much nothing can survive here – hence the name). Slather mineral-rich mud over you, float yourself on the surface, and relax.
Spa treatments aside, this area is great for those interested in Biblical history - the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah are said to be submerged beneath the waters, while nearby is Bethany, described in the New Testament as the site where Jesus was baptised by John the Baptist.
An adventure in Wadi Rum
The desert landscape of Wadi Rum (the 'Valley of the Moon') is nothing short of extraordinary. A maze of monolithic rock formations, sweeping dunes and incredible petroglyphs, it epitomises the romance of the desert.
Much of David Lean’s ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ was filmed here, and the landscape was a stand-in for the Red Planet in Ridley Scott's 'The Martian'.
Bedouin tribes inhabit this otherworldly region, and visiting their desert camps is a great way to understand more about their way of life.
Discover the wonders of Jordan for yourself on our Jordan with Ancient Petra tour.
From the coffee-clad highlands of Colombia to getting up-close-and-personal with elephants in Thailand and the exploring the sprawling winelands of South Africa, Natalie is a wannabe-adventurer and finds it hard to pick favourites when it comes to travel destinations. She has a weakness for wildlife and good wine, so her escapades are usually in pursuit of one or the other. As well as writing for The Scenic Route, Natalie also manages our social media channels. Be sure to follow Titan on Facebook to keep up to date with the latest news.
Natalie | About the author
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