Petra’s most awe-inspiring monument is also one of the most taxing to reach. The Monastery (Ad-Dayr or Ad-Deir in Arabic) boasts a massive facade almost fifty metres square, carved from a chunk of mountain nearly an hour’s climb northwest of the city centre, 220m above the elevation of the Qasr al-Bint. Daunting though this sounds, there’s a well-trodden route the whole way – involving roughly eight hundred steps – as well as plenty of places to rest; a tranquil holy spring two-thirds of the way up is almost worth the climb by itself. Even if you’ve had your fill of facades, the stupendous views from the mountain-top over the entire Petra basin and the Wadi Araba make the trip essential.
Whether you want to ride a donkey to the summit or not (prices are very negotiable), you’ll most likely have to beat off the hordes of kids riding alongside offering them as “Air-condition taxi, mister?” Bear in mind that the archeological authorities would prefer that you walked: all those hooves are seriously degrading the Nabatean-carved sandstone steps on the route up. The best time to attempt the climb is in the afternoon; not only is the way up mostly in shadow by then, but the sun has moved around enough to hit the facade full-on.
The walking route passes in front of the Basin restaurant and museum, and leads dead ahead into the soft sandy bed of the Wadi ad-Dayr. The steps begin after a short distance, and soon after there’s a diversion pointed left to the Lion Triclinium, a small classical shrine in a peaceful, bushy wadi, named for the worn lions that flank its entrance. A small, round window above the door and the doorway itself have been eroded together to form a strange keyhole shape. The frieze above has Medusas at either end; to the left of the facade is a small god-block set into a niche.
The processional way up is broken after another patch of steps by a sharp left turn where the Wadi Kharrubeh joins from in front; a little way along this wadi – off the main path – you’ll find on the right-hand side a small biclinium, a ceremonial dining room with two stepped benches facing each other. Back on the path, after a step-free patch, the climb recommences. Some twenty or thirty minutes from the Basin, where the steps turn sharply left, you can branch right off the main path into a narrow wadi; double-back to the left, follow a track up and then right onto a broad, cool, protected ledge overlooking a deep ravine below. This is the Qattar ad-Dayr, an enchanted mossy grotto enclosed by high walls, completely silent but for the cries of wheeling birds and the continual dripping of water; it’s a perfect spot for a picnic. Here, the one place in Petra where water flows year-round, the Nabateans built a triclinium and cisterns, and made dozens of carvings, including a two-armed cross.
As the steps drag on, the views begin to open up, and you get a sense of the vastness of the mountains and valleys all around. With tired legs, it’s about another twenty minutes to a small sign pointing right to the Hermitage, a sheer-sided pinnacle of rock featuring a less-than-gripping set of caves carved with crosses. Another ten minutes, after a squeeze between two boulders and a short descent, and you emerge onto a wide, flat plateau, where you should turn right for the Monastery.
The Monastery facade is so big that it seems like an optical illusion – the doorway alone is taller than a house. A local entrepreneur has thoughtfully set up a café in a cave opposite: sink down at one of the shaded tables in front to take in the full vastness of the view. At first glance, the facade looks much like the Treasury’s, but it’s much less ornate; indeed, there’s virtually no decoration at all. The name “Monastery” is again a misnomer, probably suggested by some crosses scratched inside; this was almost certainly a temple, possibly dedicated to the Nabatean king Obodas I, who reigned in the first century BC and was posthumously deified. Inside is a single chamber, with the same configuration of double staircases leading up to a cultic niche as in the Qasr al-Bint and the Temple of the Winged Lions. The flat plaza in front of the monument isn’t natural: it was levelled deliberately, probably to contain the huge crowds that gathered here for religious ceremonies. You can pick out traces of a wall and colonnade in the ground to the south of the plaza, near where you entered. The opposite side (the left flank of the monument as you face it) has a scramble-path leading up to the urn on the top of the facade, which is no less than 10m high. Leaping around on the urn is a test of mettle for the local goat-footed kids, and some even shimmy to the very top; follow them with your life in your hands.
There are dozens more monuments and carvings to explore around the Monastery, not least of which is a cave and stone circle directly behind the refreshments cave. At any point, once you climb off ground level, the views are breathtaking. The cliff to the north of the facade is punctuated for well over 100m with Nabatean caves, tombs and cisterns; some 200m or so north of the Monastery, you’ll find a dramatically isolated High Place, with godlike views over the peaks down to the far-distant Wadi Araba, over 1000m below.
The only route back into Petra from the Monastery is the way you came up. Like all these descents, it’s too rocky and isolated even to think about attempting it after sunset.