Among the Seven Wonders of the World, Petra may be the least known location in the group of Taj Mahal, Great Pyramid, Chichen Itza, Machu Picchu, Greater Wall of China, and Colosseum… however, it is still a fascinating archaeological treasure to many world travelers in the know. Located in today’s Jordan, the ancient city was originally inhabited as Raqmu or Raqēmō. The city was established as a trading post by the Nabateans, however, the significance of Petra as an international trading post was reduced 2,000 years ago after the Roman Empire took possession of Petra, and the city continued to decay with earthquakes and the rise of sea trade across the region. By the time of the Byzantine Empire’s rule in the year 700, Petra reached its lowest period – and it has a “lost city”, lost touch with the outside world for centuries until it was once again unearthed.
The scale and beauty of Petra are impressive. While I was traveling in Israel, I made it my mission to visit Petra, as it is another pilgrimage for me to explore all the amazing wonders of the world.
While Jordan, as a country, has a lot of other important historic sites and heritage to offer, this region played an important role in the Crusaders’ activities between Christians and Muslims. For this post, I am mainly focusing on a day trip from Tel Aviv (or Jerusalem) to Petra, but I shared some info about planning your trip to Petra from different locations as well.
Like Chichen Itza and Machu Picchu, Petra is also a disappeared kingdom that was left in ruins and later discover to the world with all its glory. While the ancestors may have been defeated by other civilizations over centuries, they left their mark that was not wiped away entirely. That is why for us travelers in the modern days, these places are where we can have a peak and understand their way of life and the achievements they made.
Petra is one of the oldest cities in the world. Petra is an ancient trading city in the Middle East, built by the Nabatean Arabs, at its peak has 30,000 inhabitants; it is one of the best-preserved historic sites and one of the most important archaeological sites in the Middle East. Petra was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985. In the descriptions, Petra was called “one of the most precious cultural properties of man’s cultural heritage.”
Petra is an architectural marvel. Imagine the city was built with an impressive number of buildings that were carved into mountains and gorges, and they are not just caves, they are magnificent sites reflecting a blend of eastern traditional and Hellenistic architecture. A walk in Petra is a marvelous and exciting experience because every step into the city reveals a new wonder. Notice in many photos that the rock changes colors under different weather and at different times of the day. Petra is also called the “Rose City” because the rock is manifesting a hue of warm colors under sunlight.
Petra is so well preserved. Given that Petra was hidden in the valley for centuries, it was simply forgotten for a long period of time. While some of the sites in Petra fell and were damaged after the earthquakes in the 4th and 6th centuries, the site was discovered by the Swiss traveler Johann Ludwig Burckhardt. The scale marks the incredible achievement of the Nabateans and if you truly want to study the site, you will need at least 3 days to do so.
Petra is so spectacular that a walk through the red-rock mountains and sandstone gorges is an experience. The carved tombs and temples of the ruins sparked visitors’ imaginations since the city’s rediscovery. In regards to a brief summary of the history, Petra was built between the 3rd century BC and the 1st century AD, and therefore it has a long history of over two thousand years.
Petra covers an area of over a hundred square miles, almost four times the size of Manhattan. Today, only about 15% of Petra has been unearthed by archaeologists, and plenty of its site is still waiting to be explored. The name “Petra” is a word derived from the Greek word “petros” meaning rocks. This ancient city plays a vital role in the connection of the Red Sea and the Dead Sea, being the trade hub among Egypt, Arabia, and Syria-Phoenicia during Hellenistic and Roman times. Petra was originally the capital of a vast trading empire. The Romans annexed it in the year 106. It was later the Byzantines built churches in the city and where the Crusaders passed through.
In modern culture, a number of Hollywood blockbusters were shot in Petra, including The Mummy Returns, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.
Seven Wonders of the World
So what are the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World?
- Great Pyramid of Giza, El Giza, Egypt the only one that still exists.
- Colossus of Rhodes, in Rhodes, on the Greek island of the same name.
- Hanging Gardens of Babylon, in Babylon, near present-day Hillah, Babil province, in Iraq.
- Lighthouse of Alexandria, in Alexandria, Egypt.
- Mausoleum at Halicarnassus, in Halicarnassus, Achaemenid Empire, modern day Turkey.
- Statue of Zeus at Olympia, in Olympia, Greece.
- Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, in Ephesus (near the modern town of Selçuk in present-day Turkey).
New Seven Wonders of the World
Who are the Nabataeans?
The Nabataeans were an Arab tribe that began in the 6th century BC. They came from the southeast of the Arabian Peninsula and settled in the desert to the east of Jordan. The Nabataeans lived as nomads in tents and they spoke Arabic. They didn’t develop any agriculture, but they established a society in the 2nd century, including Petra. As the tribe gradually grew in power and wealth, they draw attention from the north and invaders attacked Petra through the years since the 1st century BC. With an advantage in the desert, the Nabataeans were able to remain untouched and independent from the Seleucids, yet they also remained a diplomatic relationship with the neighbors to support their position as a trading hub. At the same time, they had a huge influence on the Hellenistic culture, and this is evident in the art and architecture we see in Petra today.
The emerging economic and political power of the Nabataeans had made the Romans worried; they began to exert their power to control the Nabataeans. While the Nabataeans managed to keep their independence for a period of time, they eventually lost control after the death of the last Nabataean King, Rabbel II, who made a deal with the Romans that if they did not attack the Nabataean Kingdom during his lifetime, they would be allowed to move in. The Romans then claimed the Nabataean Kingdom in the year 106, and the city is renamed Arabia Petrea.
With sea trade beginning to rise, Petra was simply forgotten over time. The last inhabitant left Petra and it was kept “hidden” until it was rediscovered by a Swiss Explorer, Johann Ludwig Burckhardt in 1912.
The day trip from Israel
We flew with Arkia Airline from Ben Gurion Airport to Eilat on their 6 am flight and as I know there are two flights between Ben Gurion and Eilat in the morning. Note the train services start at around 5:30 am (it is very convenient to get to Tel Aviv or Jerusalem from Ben Gurion because the Airport is located between the two cities). So, no matter if are you staying in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem, you will need to hire a taxi because you should be at the airport by the latest… 5 am in the morning.
It will be a long day and note that if you are joining a bus tour from Tel Aviv, the pickup time is actually as early as 3 am (You can sleep on the bus though), and so it takes about 8 hours just to travel both ways from Eilat to Tel Aviv on the same day.
When you look at Google Map, Google probably tells you there is a shorter route to Petra through Eastern Israel at the King Hussein Bridge Border crossing, the trip from Jerusalem to Petra through King Hussein Bridge is just about 4 hours away, however, most of the local tours travel through Yitzhak Rabin / Wadi Arava crossing.
The King Hussein Bridge (Allenby) Border crossing is situated about 57 kilometers from the capital city of Jordan, Amman, and the reason why not many tour groups use this crossing is because of its tight security measures. I visited St. John the Baptist Monastery at the country border in Jericho and the site is merely a few kilometers away from the border. Some think that the gate is closed to tourists, but this is not entirely true. However, the custom may require tourists to go through-ray scanning, questioning by the officials, and bag searches. Besides, Visas must be arranged beforehand and cannot be obtained at the border. Additionally, private cars and tour buses cannot cross international borders at this gate. The process may take a longer time than Wadi Arava Crossing and the long queues may take an even longer time.
All in all, whether you signed up for a day trip from Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, or Eilat, you will most likely be crossing the country border at Yitzhak Rabin / Wadi Araba Crossing.
Regarding the question about whether to take the full-day trip from Tel Aviv / Jerusalem to Petra with roundtrip flights or by bus. My answer is both types of transportation is a long way and it will be a long day. Round flights reduce actual traveling time significantly (Driving from Tel Aviv to Eilat takes 4 hours, and flying takes about 35 minutes), however, you cannot discount the time required to check in (you need to be at the airport at least one hour before the flight and you need to go through security), to wait at the airport, to travel to the airport and to wait at the gate if the flight is delayed. Additionally, the cost for the roundtrip flight is roughly double (US$ 80 – 100) of the bus tour.
While I was told I had to be at the airport by 5 am for my 6 am flight to Eilat, my hotel concierge (who told me how much he loved Wong Kar Wai’s movies, and I am a fan too!) insisted on booking my taxi to Ben Gurion at 3 am “just to be safe”. I didn’t exactly earn any more of my much-needed sleeping time than the bus tour. I came back to Tel Aviv a tag earlier at around 9 am though. I supposed the difference between the two is really about comfort, how much you don’t like sitting on a bus for 4 to 6 hours because somehow you probably have a better sleep on the bus as you are always awake to board the flights and to go through the security.
One more thing, the flight to Eilat is actually quite scenic on a clear day, if you sit on the left side of the plane, you will get to see Timna Park descending to the airport, and if you are on the right, you will enjoy a clear view of the Tel Aviv’s city skyline during take-off, and then the Dead Sea and Negev Desert.
Our tour guide picked us up at the airport and we went straight to the Yitzhak Rabin / Wadi Araba Crossing. Everything is quite organized and it was not busy at all during the day of our visit, most of the visitors at the border were in our group. There is a border fee of US$65 per person and remember to prepare US dollars (or Israeli Shekels) in cash. This fee covers the exit from Israel and the entry back into Israel after the day tour. For a day trip that is not staying in Petra overnight, a visa fee of another US$60 will also apply. The local guide will escort you as far as the Israeli border and then you will walk across the border for passport control, where you will be greeted by the local guide in Jordan. In general, I had a pleasant experience and it takes about an hour at the border, just to wait for the whole group to arrive and get their passports checked (There is a travel agent at the border and there are some paperwork and tour groups to sort out). The officers at the customs are prepared to make the process goes smoothly.
Across the border, we entered the border city of Wadi Araba, and immediately we hop on the coach bus and headed to Wadi Musa, the main nearest town to Petra. The drive takes about two hours across the desert.
Ticket price and opening hours
Petra is so big that it takes a couple of days to cover its whole ground. The tickets are available at the visitor center at the entrance and they are purchased on arrival.
Visitors who stay at least one night in Jordan, have the option of purchasing one-day (50 Jordanian dinars), two-day consecutive (55 J.D), or three-day consecutive (60 J.D) tickets. For visitors who are on a day trip to Petra and not staying in Jordan overnight, the ticket costs (90 J.D). (1 J.D = US$ 1.4)
The ticket does not include the night show “Petra by Night”.
Opening times: Petra opens daily from 6 am to 6 pm during the summer and 6 am to 4 pm in the winter.
The best time to visit Petra
The best time to visit Petra is between the spring months from March to May, and the autumn months between September to November, mainly because of the cool and dry weather. In all these months, May is considered the best with warm weather and the lowest rainfall.
For me, it was also pleasant to visit there as early as March because you get sweaty as you are literally hiking through the Siq in Petra, it gets too hot during summer to do so.
Getting around Petra
There are a number of checkpoints as you walk along Petra. For a day trip from Israel though, you will probably get about four hours in Preta (less if it took more time to go through customs), and that is enough to guided walk through the gorges to the Treasury (and the guided tour usually completed at the Treasury) and visitors will have the remaining free time to explore the rest of Petra. The main trail is about 4 kilometers and it is from the visitor center to the Monastery. If you move fast, you will probably be able to reach the Museums. However, that’s not enough to head to the Monastery, and Little Petra, because the Monastery is 6 kilometers away, and it takes at least an hour to get there on foot. As a reference, the walk from the Treasury to the entrance of Petra through the Siq takes about 40 to 45 minutes.
That’s why a good way to get around Petra if you are not on a budget, is to hire a horse or hop on the golf carts that take you to various places in a much shorter time.
Horseback riding: you will find horses on the side of the pedestrian in case you don’t want to walk. Tourists can also sign up for a horseback riding tour that takes you to the checkpoints at a much faster pace. It is a wonderful experience in the saddle and the views from the trails are stunning.
Horse Carriage: The carriage travels down to the bottom of the Siq.
Camels: Visitors can also hop on a camel from the Siq and they will go as far as the Theatre. Camel riding, on the other hand, is a scenic and tourist experience, and therefore not the main way to commute and get to different places in Petra.
Donkeys: The donkey takes visitors to commute between the Theatre to the Monastery or tombs.
Club car (Golf Cart): The electric vehicle commutes between the entrance of the Siq to the Treasury and each gold cart takes 5 passengers. The first aim of this service is for seniors and disabilities. The golf cart is just a shuttle service and so they do not stop in the middle of the Siq you may also want to explore that area before heading to the Treasury. The service is subject to availability (there are only a number of them in Petra), and there are not possible to book in advance. A round trip for five people is about US$185. (25 J.D per person)
The Siq is the very first adventure of visitors walking into the ancient city. The one-kilometer-long winding fissure, with 15-meter-high cliffs on both sides, leads to the Treasury and this is one of the most romantic and adventurous experiences visiting Petra. In places it is so narrow it feels cave-like. The way that the Treasury was built at the end of the Siq is a brilliant calculated design to maximize the visual impact. To make it even more dramatic, join the thrice-weekly night-time candlelit tours that are magical.
The Treasury was the most photographed and featured spot (not one of) in Petra and it was built in the 1st century BC. The reason why it is the Centerpiece of Petra is that it is basically the best-preserved architecture in Petra with an incredible sight. One of the most magical moments in Petra is when you walk to the end of the Siq and then the Treasury materialized right in front of you.
The Treasury was originally built as a mausoleum and crypt. The rose-pink façade is deeply recessed into the rock, and the rock is sharply chiseled into columns, two half pediments, and horned capitals. The interior of the Treasury is relatively simple. The outer court is the busiest place that leads to the inner chamber with an ablution basin at the rear. It was in Bedouin’s beliefs that the urn on top of the Treasury contained the hidden wealth of the pharaohs, so they shot at the urn in an attempt to dislodge it. You will find bullet marks at the top. There is a path on the cliff facing the Treasury where you can take picture of the landmark at a higher point, and trust me, the Treasury looks gigantic on the ground and completely different up there. To get up there, you will need to pay US$10 to the local guides, and they will help take pictures from different angles.
High Place of Sacrifice is the best preserved of Petra’s sacrificial places and is where animals and birds were sacrificed. At the summit, visitors can see two twenty-foot free-standing stone obelisks that have been hewn out of the rock. Check out the large courtyard with a squat offering table. You can find the steps that lead to the main altar with a rectangular indentation at the top. The adjacent round altar has a channel leading to a basin, possibly used for draining away sacrificial blood.
The Archaeological Museum is located inside a cave tomb and displays relics excavated from the area. Stone Statuary includes the elephant capitals used to decorate buildings. Other exhibits include jewelry, Edomite pottery, water pipes, figurines, and ancient coinage.
The Theater is just a few steps behind the Treasury and it’s a magnificent facility scooped out of a hillside. The Roman-style Nabataean theatre can accommodate 7,000 audiences.
Opposite the Theater, you will see an impressive structure on the higher ground and they are the royal tombs. They were built by wealthy citizens in Petra. The Palace Tomb is the largest among the total of 800 tombs and it was originally 5-story high. The Corinthian Tomb echoes the design of the Treasury, yet it was seriously eroded over time. Walk up the stairs to the Urn Tomb, and the interior was consecrated as a church in 447 AD. The walls and ceilings of these tombs are decorated with vibrant stripes of colors, and they are more apparent when they are viewed from a distance in the afternoon sun.
There are few churches in Petra and the main Petra Church dates to the 6th century AD. The well-preserved mosaic aisle floors depict mythological creatures, deer, and birds. You may also see human figures representing different seasons and elements of nature. In the nave, parts of the geometrical stone and marble floor have also survived. A cache of 152 burned scrolls was discovered in 1993 here, providing evidence of the life of Byzantine Petra.
The Monastery is another impactful sight of Petra after the Treasury. The path up to this site carved into mountains ascends through a gorge and involves over 800 rock-cut steps. Dedicated to the deified king Obodas I, who deceased around 86 BC, it is a simpler version of the Treasury on a larger scale. The façade hides one larger chamber where an altar stood. The top is crowned by a colossal urn resting on ornate horned capitals.
The Little Petra is called Siq al-Berid (Cold Canyon) and it is commonly known as “Little Petra” because of its similarity with Petra. The site is about 8 kilometers away from the North of Wadi Musa and it is easier for visitors to reach there on a golf cart.
Does it worth visiting Petra in one day?
Given all, I have said above it is quite obvious the answer to the question is “yes”. When I was chatting with the other visitors on our way back and asked them this question, the feedback was unanimous and they were all happy with the experience they had in the day. It was a long day with at least ten to twelve hours of transportation. Yet the beauty of Petra makes it all unimportant. The only thing that I would add is that of course it would have been even better to spend at least two to three days to fully explore the site if you have more time. So, Petra will definitely be on my itinerary if I am returning to Jordan.
Can you go there by yourself? Self-planned tour, what would it be like?
Absolutely. If you are visiting Jordan on a self-guided tour, I strongly recommend planning a two to three days visit in Petra and making the most out of the entrance ticket. The price of the ticket per day drops if you visit Petra in three days.
There are more places to see in Jordan, including Aqaba in the Wadi Rum Desert, the capital city Amman, and Mount Nebo. Visitors also get to visit the Red Sea, the Dead Sea, and the Baptism Site along the Jordan River as well.
For a self-planned tour to Petra, spend three days on the site so you can fully discover what Petra has to offer. On day 1, cover the main trail as shared above through the Siq to the Treasury, the royal tombs, and Street of Facades, and even the girl palace. If you have more time, explore the Monastery or leave it to the next day.
On day 2, start the visit at the archaeological site through the dam and dark valley. Enjoy the gorgeous sunset on the ground and catch the “Petra by Night” event. Take a walk in the Bazaars of East antiques where you will find silver, jewelry, books, and some Arabic clothes.
On the last day, visit the shrine of the prophet Aaron in Petra. Take a hike to the Altar of Sacrifice viewpoint, or even the Little Petra. You may also visit the Petra Museum which is right by the Visitor Center.
Tips and how to make the most out of the tour
- It is a long day tour and note that there is an hour of the time difference between Jordan and Israel. Lunch is served (lunch is included) at about 5 pm (Jordan time, 4 pm Israel time) that day, have a big breakfast before taking off and bring water and a snack so you won’t be visiting “hangry”.
- Same, buy or bring bottled water and some snack before boarding your flight and you can bring bottled water on a domestic flight. You probably won’t be able to do so once you entered Jordan because there’s basically only coffee available even at the gift shop during the rest. But there are vendors inside Petra that you could shop.
- The flight from Tel Aviv to Eilat takes only about 35 minutes and sometimes a cookie and water are served.
- Flying from Tel Aviv to Eilat, request a seat on the right side of the plane if you can, the view of the Dead Sea is stunning. The view on the left is not so bad though.
- For a day trip, you will not need any Jordanian Dinar. Apply Pay and credit card is accepted in the gift shop and the vendors and hawkers in Petra take US dollars or Euros generally.
- Note that phone service won’t be working if you use an Israel local sim card once you passed the border.