The jewel of South Jordan is Petra, the unique, 2,000-year-old rock-carved city, the pink and salmon coloured capital of the Nabataean Arabs. Petra is always breath-taking, never to be forgotten. It flourished for over 400 years around the time of Rome and Christ, until it was occupied by the Roman legions of the emperor Trajan in 106 A.D. The Petra basin boasts over 800 individual monuments that were mostly carved from the kaleidoscopic sandstone by the technical and artistic genius of the Nabataeans. The wealth and political power of this indigenous Arab people derived from their control of the international trade routes that linked China, India and Southern Arabia with the wealthy Mediterranean markets such as; Anatolia, Greece, Rome, Egypt and Syria.
The drama of visiting Petra starts with the journey, on horseback, horse-drawn carriage or foot, into the mountain-ringed city along the siq, a winding, one kilometer long fissure through the surrounding and overhanging cliffs. At the end of the siq, you experience a thrill that is as dramatic today as it was two millennia ago: suddenly, turning the corner and passing beneath two overhanging cliffs, you come face-to-face with the Khasneh (The Treasury), the baroque Greek temple-style royal tomb that is Petra's most famous and impressive monument. You are totally engulfed by the magic and the beauty, but there is much more yet to see.
From here, you penetrate deeper and deeper into the 2,000-year-old city, surrounded everywhere by hundreds of Petra's carved and built structures: soaring temples, elaborate royal tombs, a carved Roman-style theatre, large and small houses, burial chambers and funerary banqueting halls, water channels and reservoirs, baths, monumental staircases, cultic installations, markets, arched gates, public buildings, paved streets, and many other structures whose mystery is matched by their compelling and enduring beauty. From the ancient city-centre, you set on dramatic walks and climbs along winding mountain trails to some of Petra's more remote treasures, such as; the monumental Ad Deir (The Monastery), an unfinished tomb for a Nabataean, carved from a mountain-top high above the Petra basin. Ad Deir overlooks cliffs that plunge nearly 1,500 meters to the west into the Wadi 'Araba, the southern extension of the Dead Sea and the Jordan Rift Valley.
The High Place of Sacrifice, perhaps the most complete and best preserved cultic altar and sacrificial complex to be handed down to us from the biblical period. The processional way to the High Place and back is embellished by a series of stately monuments and cultic complexes, including temples, tombs, giant obelisks, altars, fountains and forts.
Sabra, the southern Nabataean suburb of Petra, with a small theatre and numerous collapsed temples and other buildings is still reflecting the magnificence of its time.
Siq Al Barid, the capital's northern suburb that is a miniature of Petra itself, complete with its own little siq, temples, tombs and cultic installations, and which served as a meeting place for the camel caravans that came to trade at Petra from the four corners of the ancient world. It preserves a rare painted fresco from the Nabataean/ Classical period.
Umm Al Biyara, the massive mountain dominating the centre of Petra, whose summit housed a small village of the Edomite people mentioned in the bible, before the Nabataeans moved in and built a temple on this natural perch overlooking the whole of central Petra.
But Petra is not only about the Nabataeans. The greater Petra region was inhabited by people throughout the full sweep of human civilization. At Beidha, 15 minutes to the north, are the excavated remains of an entire Stone Age village, from 6,500 BC-when humankind was first making the transition from small bands of hunter-gatherers to settled villagers who cultivated cereals and domesticated sheep and goat. The Edomite village on Umm Al Biyara dates from 600-700 BC. Twenty minutes by car to the east is the Roman legionary fortress at Udruh, which continued to be used in the Byzantine and early Islamic eras. Though the Petra city-centre is dominated by structures that reflect the glory days of Nabataean power, art and technology- roughly between 300 BC and 100-150 AD - it also has many remains from the Roman and Christian Byzantine civilizations that followed the heyday of Nabataean glory. There are even two 12th Century AD Crusader castles at Petra itself, making a visit to the Petra region a panoramic journey back into the last 9,000 years of human history, culture, religion, art and architecture. The small museum within Petra, displaying artifacts excavated in the region, is the perfect place to appreciate the advanced technical and artistic skills of the Nabataeans and the other ancient peoples who inhabited the Petra basin.
Travelling north along the King's Highway (mentioned in the Genesis accounts) you will encounter two massive Crusader fortresses at Shobak and Kerak, or Nabataean temple complexes at Khirbet ed-Dharieh or Khirbet Tannur. From Kerak, the modern road sweeps down into the Dead Sea plain -- at 400 meters below sea level, the lowest spot on earth--where there exist half a dozen walled towns from the biblical period, sugar mills from the medieval Islamic era, and a string of Nabataean/ Roman caravanserai.