Petra: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Just got back from an eight-day trip to Jordan. Admittedly, the end of July is NOT a good time to visit the Middle East, and especially Petra: the heat was intense.  I went in July simply because it was the only time I had free this year.  (UNESCO World Heritage Site)

Let’s start with a brief history of Petra, and the people that built the city.  They were called Nabataeans, and we know very little about them.  They left very few written records, and no inscriptions on any of their building.   Here’s a rare Nabataean document, carved on sandstone, from the 1st century AD.  About all we know is that it names a Nabataean military officer.  It’s on display at The Citadel Museum, in Amman, Jordan.

nab writing

It is believed that the Nabataeans were a nomadic people that settled around Petra and took advantage of the strategic location for north-south and east-west trade routes.  Huge camel caravans would come north from Arabia, carrying textiles and spices from India, precious metals and ivory from Africa, and incense such as frankincense and myrrh from the Arabian peninsula.  Other merchants would come from Persia and Palestine and Egypt to trade.  The Nabataeans would offer the caravans a place to rest, and precious water for the their return journey, and in return would charge the merchants a fee for those services.  By 100 BC, Petra was one of the richest cities in the ancient world.

Book credit

The following map was created by one scholar to show possible connections to Petra.  It’s in the book pictured on the right, (c) 2013 by CanBooks, and can be ordered online:

http://canbooks.ca/

 

 

 

 

map

The Nabataeans used this wealth to build a large, beautiful city.  They also used that wealth to overcome the most serious problem in the region: lack of water.  In an area that averages six inches of rainfall per year the Nabataeans were able to harness the rainfall and the desert springs to the extent that Petra had a daily supply of fresh water historians estimate was big enough for 100,000 people (even though the city population was only 20,000 people). They accomplished this engineering marvel through an intricate system of cisterns, pools and waterways that captured and then transported water to the city. Archaeologists estimate that the system carried about 12 million gallons of fresh springwater a day.  Some of the pipes and other artifacts can be seen in the Petra Museum.

By the time of Christ’s birth, the Nabataean empire included parts of Jordan, Israel, Egypt, Syria and Saudi Arabia. Its capital was Petra.  But the empire was conquered by the Romans in 106 AD, the Romans moved the trade routes away from Petra, and soon the city was abandoned.

Petra is definitely worth seeing.  I’m glad that I went: it is one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen.  But it’s not a place you should visit without some warnings.  In other words: the GOOD, the BAD, and the UGLY!

 THE GOOD

Petra gets a lot of hype, and it mostly lives up to it.  There are impressive, often breathtaking views wherever you turn.

2011 Jordan Petra 0069 The Treasury HDR 03

          (The “Treasury”, the iconic sight in Petra.)

 It’s called the Treasury because of the urn that sits at the very top center of the facade.  The people that came after the Nabateans thought it was filled with gold coins, and since then, it’s always been called the Treasury.  (If you look carefully at the facade of the Treasury, you’ll see hundreds of bullet holes, left by Bedouins who thought that they could shoot their way to the treasure inside….no kidding!)

2011 Jordan Petra 0072 The Treasury HDR 05
          (A closer view of the urn, top center.)

The walk down the Siq (an Arabic word meaning “the shaft”: the very narrow gorge that runs from the entrance of Petra to the Treasury) is nothing short of breathtaking

2011 Jordan Petra 0018 Bab el-Siq sign 01

Here are some shots taken in the Siq.  The last two show you the “peek” you get at the Treasury!

2011 Jordan Petra 0133 The Siq HDR. jpg

2011 Jordan Petra 0117 The Siq

2011 Jordan Petra 0137 The Siq

2011 Jordan Petra 0063 The Treasury from the Siq HDR 01

This temple facade I found beautiful.  Fortunately there was a sign in front, so that I knew what it was.

2011 Jordan Petra 0021 Obelisk Tomb and Triclinium HDR 04

2011 Jordan Petra 0082Obelisk Tomb and Triclinium sign 01

There are a lot of tombs in and around Petra.  Many of them are quite small, and some (like this one below) you can go into (though the chambers inside are empty.)

2011 Jordan Petra 0002 Nabatean Tombs HDR 02

Petra Tombs

          (Panoramic shot of some of the tombs in Petra.)

There are some really unusual monuments in Petra.  One type that I liked a lot were the “djinn blocks“.  A djinn is like what might be called a “genie”, like the genie in Aladdin’s lamp, but these blocks have nothing to do with djinn.  That’s just what the local Bedouin call them.  In fact, they’re grave monuments: one of them has two “shaft” graves in them (buried upright.)

2011 Jordan Petra 0026 Nabatean Tombs HDR 15

Djinn blocks

After the Treasury, the most famous sight at Petra is the “Monastery.”  It’s called al-Deir in Arabic, and wasn’t a monastery.  It was most likely a temple of some kind.  But it’s huge, and very beautiful.

2011 Jordan Petra 0210 The Monastery

I think you can see that Petra is really an impressive place.  Now for….

The Bad

The admission prices at Petra are a bit confusing if you’re not ready for them.  People that just come for the day will pay more than someone that spends one or more nights in town.  Just to give you an idea, here’s the info from the visitpetra.jo website.

Tickets

Entry into the site of Petra is only permitted to visitors holding valid tickets. These are available at the Visitor Center and can be purchased on arrival. Prices differ for foreigners and locals and a range of ticket types are available depending on the length of stay and number of visits to be made into Petra.

1. Fees for the accommodated visitor: Visitor who stays at least one night in Jordan.

Entrance Ticket Price
One  Day 50 (J.D)
Two  Days 55 (J.D)
Three days 60 (J.D)
Fees for the accommodated visitor who visits Petra in the first day of his /her arrival from the border
             Entrance Ticket:          90 JD – 40 JD = 50 JD
* For the accommodated visitors who visit Petra in the first day of their arrival from the borders they will pay the border ticket fees(90JD) and return in the next day to get a refund of 40 JD

2. Fees for non-accommodated visitor:

Entrance Ticket:  (90 JD)

We stayed for two nights in town, so our tickets cost JD 55 each, which at the current exchange rate works out to about $78.

Petra Visitors' Center

          (The Visitors’ Centre at Petra: this is where you buy your tickets.)

The prices themselves weren’t the problem for me.  Here’s the first thing I found less than good: Jordan practices discriminatory pricing for entrance into the site. If you are a “visitor” (i.e., non-Jordanian) you pay 50 Jordanian dinars (slightly over $70 US as of this moment) for a one-day entrance. Jordanians only pay ONE DINAR ($1.41) to get in! 

There are insufficient signs and descriptions about the sights within Petra. Those that are available were all provided by USAID (a US government agency), so one wonders where all that entrance money goes.  Sometimes, the signs are not much use unless you know what the Arabic names mean.  For example, here’s the sign pointing to the path to the Monastery:

2011 Jordan Petra 0208 The Monastery
If you don’t know that “al-Deir” refers to the Monastery, this sign is of no help to you at all.

There are no security personnel around in Petra itself. The only one I saw in two days was a local dressed as a “Desert Patrol” soldier, but he was only posing for photos (for a fee, of course.)

Once you get into the site, you are continually molested by locals trying to get you to ride a horse or camel or donkey. The “Arab horses” at the entrance are one of the biggest scams I’ve ever encountered at a tourist site. Part of your admission includes JD 12 to pay for a horse ride from the entrance to the beginning of the Siq (a distance of a few hundred yards at most).  What they don’t tell you is that, though the ride is “free”, a tip of at least JD 2 is considered compulsory, and the horse handlers get very vocal and very obnoxious if anyone tries to get away without paying.  VERY unpleasant. I didn’t ride the horses because I knew about the scam, but I saw a lot of people, especially older folks, getting abused for not paying a big tip.

The horse scam is just the first of several.  Once the horses drop you off at the entrance to the Siq, there are carriages waiting to take you on the next leg of your journey.  Carriage prices start at JD 20/$28, maximum of 2 persons per carriage (unless you’re Jordanian, in which case you can pack as many as five into one carriage for a much lower price). The carriages travel up and down the Siq to and from the Treasury, which sounds nice, until you realize that in many spots, the Siq is less than 12 feet wide! You spend a lot of time avoiding carriages or the horse manure left behind.

Once you get to the Treasury, it’s a beautiful site. Try to ignore the camel ride hawkers, and the donkey ride hawkers. If you want a “camel ride“, you’ll pay about $10 to ride around in a small circle.  If it’s not busy, you’ll get a couple of circles, but when it’s busy, you get one circle.  Pretty lame, unless you’re desperate to ride a camel and won’t have another chance.

From here, you head toward the “Colonnaded Street”, and the ruins of the main settled area of ancient Petra. 

2011 Jordan Petra 0196 The Colonnade Street HDR

2011 Jordan Petra 0198 The Colonnade Street

Don’t worry: before you can head in this direction, another group of “Bedouins” will try very hard to get you to hire a donkey for the ride (another few hundred yards at most).  And here’s the best part (sarcasm intended): if you say no, they’ll keep following you, and pestering you, as you try to walk and enjoy the sights.  It’s really not fun at all.   (By the way, the Arabic word for “no” is “la”.  Just say “la la la la” all the time at Petra, and you’ll do fine!)  🙂

2011 Jordan Petra 0167 Street of Facades HDR

          (The “Street of Facades“, with the ever-present donkeys in front!)

Because Jordanians pay almost nothing to get in to Petra, the place is crowded with local families, whose kids run everywhere, climbing on everything, and making it fairly unpleasant if photography is something you’re interested in.  About the only way you can get good photos is to be at the entrance as soon as it opens.  You’ll have about an hour of quiet, before the families descend on the place.

 No one seems to bother with litter, or even worry about it. There are some garbage containers scattered around, but as the locals just drop their trash wherever, it would be nice to have someone cleaning it up.

Like any other place in the Middle East, you have to contend with all kinds of souvenir sellers, no matter where you are in Petra.  Most of them are friendly, and a simple “la la” will get you left alone.  But some are like the flies that infest this place (donkeys, horses, camels, any questions?): you can’t easily swat them away.

The Ugly

If you decide to go to the Monastery, make sure you bring lots of water, good hiking shoes, a hat, put on plenty of sunscreen and leave a lot of time for the round-trip. The guidebooks will tell you it takes one hour to walk up the “800 steps”, but that’s quite misleading. Our group were mostly young, very fit people, and none of us finished the trip in less than about 75 minutes. Most took a lot longer. Also, be warned: the “steps” may just be indentations in the rock, and in many places the footing is slippery and treacherous.  Here are a couple pictures of steps you’ll encounter.

2011 Jordan Petra 0237 Hike down from the Monastery

          (These were the best steps on the whole path.  There weren’t very many like this.)

2011 Jordan Petra 0233 The Monastery

On our first day there, a man fell and broke his leg, and had to be stretchered down the mountain!  So be careful.

You’re probably thinking, “What?  No transport up the mountain?”  Ha!  The locals don’t miss that trick, I can promise you.  They offer donkey rides up to the Monastery.  Sounds OK, right?  Especially on a really hot day, and since the Monastery is one of the last things you visit, a ride up might be nice.  Silly you!  I thought the same thing, and almost ended up in the hospital!

2011 Jordan Petra 0238 Hike down from the Monastery

          (This is a picture of a herd of goats on the path.  Good luck with them: they’re not the friendliest or nicest of creatures at the best of times!)

First thing you need to know about this “ride”: it’s not cheap.  Plan on about $20 per person.  There are also many things they don’t tell you about the ride before you pay for it.  Once they get you on the animal (sometimes without a saddle!), the guy in charge just slaps the animal on the butt, and off you go.  I’ve spent a fair amount of time riding, but I wasn’t expecting that and so I was immediately jolted by the quick start.  It might have also been the lack of saddle or stirrups that made things harder than they should have been.  In any case, it was very difficult to get my balance back, because the animal was running up those steps. and going around sharp turns.  I was trying to stop the animal but it wouldn’t stop.  As we going around a particularly sharp curve (over a pretty steep fall), I could feel myself slipping off the beast.  I was saved by a well-placed tree: I hit the tree smack-on as I’m swaying on the back of the donkey!  It knocked me off the donkey and (fortunately) onto the path.  The donkey kept right on running.  I was less than halfway up, so I got to experience the hike both ways.   The concussion showed up later….. 

They also don’t tell you that it’s only a one-way ride.  When the animals get to the top and the passengers dismount (those that get to do so!) the handlers smack them again and they run down the mountain.  So as you’re hiking up, be aware that you’ve got three hazards to watch for: rough, uneven or missing steps; wild donkeys running past in both directions; and of course, donkey manure everywhere.

I think that Petra was a beautiful place to visit, but be aware of all the problems you’ll encounter there.  If  you’re prepared for your trip, you’ll enjoy it much more.

I’m including a really nice YouTube video that has some beautiful views of Petra.  I hope this overview of Petra has been of help to you in planning your own trip!

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