Tucked away between parallel rocky ranges in southern Jordan, Petra is awe-inspiring. Popular but rarely crowded, this fabled site could keep you occupied for half a day or half a year: you can roam its dusty tracks and byways for miles in every direction.
Petra was the capital of the Nabateans, a tribe originally from Arabia who traded with, and were eventually taken over by, the Romans. Grand temples and even Christian-era church mosaics survive, but Petra is best known for the hundreds of ornate classical-style facades carved into its red sandstone cliffs, the grandest of which mark the tombs of the Nabatean kings.
As you approach, modern urban civilization falls away and you are enveloped by the arid desert hills; the texture and colouring of the sandstone, along with the stillness, heat and clarity of light bombard your senses. But it’s the lingering, under-the-skin quality of supernatural power that seems to seep out of the rock that leaves the greatest impression.
As in antiquity, the Siq, meaning “gorge”, is still the main entrance into Petra – and its most dramatic natural feature. The Siq path twists and turns between bizarrely eroded cliffs for over a kilometre, sometimes widening to form sunlit piazzas in the echoing heart of the mountain; in other places, the looming walls (150m high) close in to little more than a couple of metres apart, blocking out sound, warmth and even daylight.
When you think the gorge can’t go on any longer, you enter a dark, narrow defile, opening at its end onto a strip of extraordinary classical architecture. As you step out into the sunlight, the famous facade of Petra’s Treasury looms before you. Carved directly into the cliff face and standing forty metres tall, it’s no wonder this edifice starred in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade as the repository of the Holy Grail – the magnificent portico is nothing short of divine.
Petra (daily 6am–sunset) is 240km south of the Jordanian capital, Amman. The adjacent town of Wadi Musa has restaurants and hotels. Check out petranationaltrust.org.