A narrow sandstone gorge known as the Siq serves as the main entrance to southern Jordan’s UNESCO World Heritage site of Petra. This 1.2 kilometer long canyon twists and turns, and then turns some more before finally opening up to reveal a stunning view of the rock-hewn Al Kazneh, more commonly known as The Treasury. Photo: Henry Lewis

As the coarse sand and scree crunched under the weight of my moving feet, I passed through one narrow bend after another as I entered the wonderland that is southern Jordan’s UNESCO World Heritage site of Petra. The sheer cliffs and warm rose hues of the 1.2 kilometer-long sandstone gorge known as the Siq, which is the main entrance to this vast archaeological site, enveloped me as if I was being embraced by Mother Earth herself.

The sun was rising and the play of light and shadow on the stone walls of the narrow passage was mesmerizing. My only worry was that another speeding horse carriage driven by one of the local Bedouin guides would come careening around a blind-curve and run me down as I daydreamed about ancient caravans navigating such narrow passages.

A horse and carriage speedily navigates through the narrow passage known as the Siq. Photo: Henry Lewis

The Magic of Stone

Some of my earliest childhood memories are of rock hunting with my grandmother in the fields surrounding my grandparents’ house. As soon as a neighboring farmer had plowed a field–turning the soil and exposing the layers beneath–and before planting which levels the mounds of dirt and exposed stones, my grandmother and I (buckets and spades in hand) would excitedly walk the ruts in our quest for geological treasures. All our finds from the day would then be taken back to her house and classified based on information found in one of her many reference books on rocks and minerals.

My grandmother was a rock-hound  of the highest order and displayed her collection of interesting specimens on shelves and tables in a living room that doubled as a library. From those early experiences, I developed a primal fascination for stone and its connection to the very core of our planet.

It was my combined love of stone and ancient civilizations that had led me to Petra, and I tried to imagine how excited my Grandmother would be if she was walking along beside me. Quite honestly, I talked a lot to her during the 3-days I explored the hills and ancient carved temples and tombs of Jordan’s most visited tourist destination.

The local Bedouin people use donkeys to transport tourists up the steep (and slippery) rock-carved stone steps that lead to the ridge tops overlooking Petra. Photo: Henry Lewis

Petra Revealed

Just when I had begun to think I might have taken the wrong path, I came around the final bend in the Siq and saw in front of me one of Petra’s most admired landmarks–Al Kazneh, or more familiarly known as The Treasury. I had timed it just right as the pink sandstone cliff from which this rock-hewn marvel was carved was rapidly being bathed in morning sunlight that gave it a deep-rose tinted glow as the quartz crystals in the sandstone reflected the suns yellow rays.The ancient Nabataeans–a northern Arabic tribe–are credited with carving these richly detailed monuments out of solid sandstone cliffs between the 4th century BCE and the 1st century CE.

The ornately detailed Al Kazneh (The Treasury) as it reveals itself at the end of the narrow gorge known as the Siq. Photo: Henry Lewis

The magnificent Al Kazneh (The Treasury) fully revealed as the early morning light begins to illuminate the buildings pink sandstone facade. Photo: Henry Lewis

A row of hand-carved temples and mausoleums situated up on the cliff face overlooking the center of Petra. Photo: Henry Lewis

Present day Petra was known in antiquity as Raqmu and was strategically located at the crossroads of major trading routes that connected kingdoms in all directions, from Babylon in the northeast to Egypt in the south. In such an inhospitable desert environment with no Tigris, Euphrates or Nile to provide water, Nabataean design and construction techniques allowed rain water to be collected to sustain and grow the city’s population to an estimated size of 20,000 by the 1st century CE. The city’s unique water storage facilities, along with a series of oases developed throughout the region  sustained traveling caravans for centuries.

The Nabataens engineered quite sophisticated systems for collecting rain water to sustain Petra’s inhabitants as well as the many caravans that passed through on the trade routes that intersected at the city. This photo shows a cistern designed for collecting rain water that would run off the mountain slope above during the regions sporadic seasonal rains. Photo: Henry Lewis

The Nabataen rulers grew rich off the caravan trade and their wealth is clearly evident in the design and ornamentation of the many mausoleums that cling to the sandstone cliffs surrounding Petra. The visually stunning Treasury is believed to have once served as the tomb of a Nabataean king. Indeed, Petra’s architectural and sculptural wealth is on par with the world’s greatest monuments to human achievement as are the sheer number of rock-carved houses and tombs.

Rock carved temples above and structures below constructed out of cut blocks of stone. Photo: Henry Lewis

The hand-carved structures and striking colors found in the stone are amazing both inside and out. Photo Credit: A kind tourist who took pity on this solo traveler

A Marvelous Place to Hike

For me, the rugged and wild landscapes of Petra encompass the best of all worlds. It’s a major archaeological site where it’s easy to escape all the tourists on one of the many trails that wind their way up and down the mountainsides and through the wadis (dry river beds). Just like the ancient tombs and houses, the steps on the trails are carved out of solid sandstone. These steps lead to intriguing ceremonial sites high on the mountain tops with panoramic views overlooking the city and surrounding rose-toned desert.

One of the many carved stone trails that lead to the ridge tops around Petra. Photo: Henry Lewis

It was while gazing out from one of these high viewpoints that the story of Petra came together in my mind. The steep-sided  stone ridges surrounding the strategically located city provided natural fortifications to protect against invaders seeking to attack the city. The narrow passages between these ridges functioned as city gates and could be easily defended in case of attack.

Vista from a ridge top looking across the valley where the center of the city of Raqmu (today’s Petra) once stood. Photo: Henry Lewis

In the center of Raqmu stood the Main Temple which was built of carved blocks of sandstone and has only been partially reconstructed. Photo: Henry Lewis

The outlines of the ancient roads as they thread their way between the sandstone ridges can still be clearly distinguished, one road heading south toward Egypt and others to the north and east. Petra flourished due to its strategic location, but it also declined due to the same factors. With the advent of maritime routes for trade, the inland city began a long decline before being all but abandoned by the early Islamic era in the 7th and 8th centuries CE.

An ancient caravan route as it leaves Petra heading south toward Egypt. Photo: Henry Lewis

The Current Residents

There are people inhabiting some areas of the site which will tell you they’re descendants of the ancient Nabataens. While their claims are disputed by the merchants and innkeepers of the nearby town of Wadi Musa, it is these Bedouin people who sell crafts, snacks and provide the donkeys and horse carriages for those tourists who either can’t trek up stone steps or are reluctant to try.

The rock-hewn temple known as The Monastery is found at one of the highest points above Petra after a hike on carved stone steps up through a narrow canyon. Photo: Henry Lewis

When the UNESCO designation was assigned to the area back in 1985, the Jordanian government built cinder block housing just outside the site for the people who had been living in the rock-hewn structures, but some still make their homes among the ruins.Thankfully, I LOVE walking and hiking so I was able to avoid further taxing the sad-looking animals that provided transportation for many tourists.

A necropolis located near the Main Temple at the center point of the city is filled with small niches where the remains of Raqmu’s ordinary inhabitants would have been laid to rest. Photo: Henry Lewis

Final Notes

Petra’s fame has also been spread through literature and movies and the setting is truly magical when lit at night. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and the Syfy channel’s Dune miniseries are two standouts that take full advantage of this unique location.

One of the night tours of the main structures in the central section of the archaeological site. Photo Credit: Susana Hajer 

For Further Information on this marvelous site, follow this UNESCO link.

peace~henry

 

Posted by Henry Lewis

Unconventional artist, writer, videographer and teacher. Personal Quote: It isn't easy being me ;-)

53 Comments

  1. One of my favourite places ever. Thank you for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

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    1. Thanks Marie. Petra is one of my favorite places too!

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  2. Your photos are absolutely amazing, and I loved reading your post too. I was here last month and have learnt extra from you! Cheers.

    Liked by 1 person

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    1. Hi Anna,

      So glad you had the opportunity to visit this special place!

      Liked by 1 person

      Reply

  3. The color of the stone is amazing. It almost seems to radiate.

    Liked by 1 person

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    1. I think sandstone contains a high percentage of quartz crystals which catch the light and actually do radiate it back. It truly is a beautiful stone whether seen in nature or when used as a building material.

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  4. Great photos. I’d love to see it.

    Liked by 1 person

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    1. Thanks Jim. Petra is one of the most awe-inspiring places I’ve had the pleasure of visiting.

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  5. Beautuful and magical! I saw it a couple of times when I worked in Jordan! Are you there now??

    Liked by 1 person

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    1. Oh, I didn’t know you had worked in Jordan. How lucky for you! I would have enjoyed spending more time exploring there. These photos were from my visit in 2010. I’m in Colombia now. I’m trying to avoid flying anywhere unless there’s a family emergency. I do love traveling, but it leaves such a heavy carbon footprint.

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    2. Your photos are just beautiful of Petra! You’ve captured the awe inspiring size of these structures and sense of space…in this rocky desert place, also with the photo of the trail snaking off into the magical landscape! I did a wonderful camel ride with a Jordanian friend to Mount Haroun somewhere round the back of Petra…truly unforgettable! You’ve inspired me to do some writing about my time in Jordan! Did you also go to Wadi Rum?

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      1. Hi Peta,

        Yes, you should write about your experiences while living in such a historically rich part of the world. I skipped Wadi Rum, although I’ve heard it’s lovely. Quite honestly, I’d had enough camping in the desert, regardless of its beauty, at that point in my life. I look forward to reading about some of your experiences!

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  6. Fantastic Henry… Added it my “must-see” places 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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    1. Thanks! Petra will not disappoint!

      Liked by 1 person

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  7. Amazing. I never knew…

    Liked by 1 person

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    1. Hi Kevin,

      Living in the Middle East for many years opened up a whole new world of exploration for which I’m very grateful. Jordan offers so much–ancient Roman ruins in Jerash, beautiful Byzantine mosaics in Madaba and the amazing sights of Petra, plus gorgeous red sand desert around Wadi Rum.

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    1. Hi Robert,

      Sandstone formations along with desert sunlight do make for stunning landscapes.

      Liked by 1 person

      Reply

  8. What wonderful meditations, writing and photography! Reblogging this to my readers at sister site Timeless Wisdoms

    Liked by 1 person

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  9. This post brought back memories for me of my own visit there last year. It’s a magical place that’s for sure.

    Liked by 2 people

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    1. Hi Lisa,

      Petra really is a magical place and I feel so lucky to have been about the explore it.

      Liked by 2 people

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      1. Hi Henry, That’s how I felt when I was there too…lucky and privileged to see it. I especially loved hiking the trail down from the High Place of Sacrifice to the Garden Temple. There were few tourists and the views were stunning. I also loved exploring the Royal Tombs first thing in the morning on my own before the tour buses arrived. It’s where I took the shot that’s in my blog’s home page banner (with the help of a self-timer 😊). Thanks for sharing your experience with all of us, your readers.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Hi Lisa,

        Yes, my favorite trail was also the one that led from the High Place of Sacrifice to the Garden Temple. There wasn’t another soul in sight on the day I did the trek. I was there in January when the temps were just perfect and there were very few tourists. Thanks so much for sharing your experience!

        Liked by 1 person

  10. This was so beautiful….

    Liked by 1 person

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    1. Petra is a beautiful place! The sunlight and gorgeous colors of the stone perform all the magic.

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      1. It’s like a page out of history….

        Liked by 2 people

  11. These photos bring back a lot of memories of the film Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade.

    Liked by 2 people

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    1. Hope they were fun memories. Many of the scenes shot in Petra and used in the Syfy Channel’s Dune miniseries also make for very atmospheric viewing.

      Liked by 1 person

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  12. How great that you had an opportunity to visit Petra. I watched a documentary some time back on the location. It’s a fascinating and mysterious place.

    Liked by 1 person

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    1. Hi Rosaliene,

      I took full advantage of the central location during my time working in the Middle East. Europe, Asia and Africa all seemed so close and there were (are) so many historical treasures to be found in the arc from Egypt to Iran. Petra, however, was one of the most interesting places I was lucky enough to be able to visit. I must say I have mixed feelings about sharing info on such enticing destinations with our current awareness of the climate crisis and the heavy carbon footprint of airline travel.

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      1. Fear not. I don’t spend vacation in foreign locations. Articles like yours give me an opportunity to learn about the richness of our diverse natural and human-constructed landscapes and the ways in which other peoples live out their lives. They connect us. At least, that’s the way I see it 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Thanks for that response Rosaliene. Observing and learning from other cultures is a never ending fascination for me as well. Still, I am trying to avoid air travel these days.

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  13. You took me back 30 years when I was there myself. Thanks Henry for your stunning, beautiful photos of this unique place. A life in pictures and colour!

    Liked by 1 person

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    1. Hi Marios,

      Glad I brought back happy memories for you!

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  14. WOW! That was great. Thanks for sharing your wonderful adventure.

    Liked by 1 person

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    1. Thanks for reading Peter!

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  15. Amazing, incredible, stunning. I imagine you have to be there to appreciate the true grandeur of such a place. Thanks for sharing.

    Liked by 2 people

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    1. Yes, it’s true that two-dimensional photos never quite convey the true travel experience, but they do offer hints and fond memories. Thank you for reading and commenting!

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  16. The purple shadows on those orange roc walls…absolutely beautiful!

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    1. There’s nothing quite like the simple combination of stone and light.

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  17. I love this Henry. I was there several years ago and hiked to the Treasury, where an exhausted dog greeted me by lying at my feet as if he was channeling my own sense of relief after the 1100 stair trek. Petra is one of the world’s most remarkable antiquities. You share a lot I didn’t know and I see I will have to return some day for the night tour. Beautiful.

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    1. Petra really is one of the world’s most special places, at least of those touched by humanity. As I hiked up to the Treasury, my heart went out to the exhausted donkeys carrying some extra large tourists up that long series of weathered stone steps. Thanks for sharing your experience!

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  18. Great pictures and post. I enjoyed reading it. It fueled my desire to visit Jordan and Petra. Thanks for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

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    1. Thanks Fragilistic. Jordan is incredibly rich in history and natural wonders!

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  19. Hi. A quick note to say I’m going to follow your site. No pressure to reciprocate, though I’ll be glad if you do.

    Neil Scheinin

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply

    1. Hi Neil,

      Thank you for the follow. I thought I was already following your blog as well–maybe just via Reader though. I will check and remedy the situation if necessary. Cheers!

      Liked by 1 person

      Reply

  20. […] via Ancient Petra: The City of Stone — my quest blog […]

    Liked by 1 person

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    1. Thanks for the reblog!

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