Imagine walking a one-and-a-half kilometre narrow, winding passage through 200-metre high red sandstone rocky cliffs and then coming upon the vast façade of a huge structure precisely carved into the sandstone towering over the young Bedouin men and camels that congregate at its base.
This is your introduction to Petra, Jordan's biggest tourist attraction, and it is mind blowing. It has world-heritage status and is also known by many for being the setting for the finale of the movie Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. The entire ruined city is a huge work of art, with a natural stone backdrop that changes colour every hour.
Petra is a honeycomb of hand-hewn temples and tombs carved from sandstone, most 2,000 years ago, overlaid by more recent Roman structures. Hidden by time and shifting sand, it was built by the Nabateans — a nomadic desert people who acquired great wealth from trade between the Mediterranean and Arabian Seas.
The Nabateans remained unconquered for centuries until the Romans arrived in 63 B.C., and this led to a new era of massive expansion and grandiose construction at Petra. Then it was lost to all but the local Bedouins.
Petra was only rediscovered by the outside world when Swiss explorer Johann Burckhardt visited in 1812, and even now, archaeologists have explored less than half of the sprawling site.
Petra's engineering achievements are legionary, including the sophisticated water system that supported some 30,000 inhabitants. You see evidence of this as you walk through the Siq (entrance passageway). It's the raw beauty of Petra, however, that draws in visitors today.
Tourist numbers are down at present because of the perception many have of the Middle East. In fact, we found it was perfectly safe to visit and because of lack of visitors, the vast classical Treasury building, carved into the rock in the first century BC, and the rest of the site, felt very peaceful. There were no crowds with selfie-sticks and no umbrella-waving tour guides.
While donkeys, camels, and horse buggies are available for travel between highlights, in my opinion, most of Petra's sites are best reached on foot. Be prepared for a long, hot day though. My wife and I ended up walking about 15 kilometres one day and we didn't see everything by any means.
We were overwhelmed by the quantity of beautiful tombs and facades and decided that photographs we had seen before we visited did little justice to the splendour of the site, the monumental architecture and the colour changes of the rock as the day progresses.
It is relatively easy to reach the city's parched core, the Colonnaded Street and the temple of Qasr al-Bint and there are places to eat along the way in simple shelters. But then you need to be ready to hike some steep terrain if you want to see more.
Apart from the Treasury, the Roman Theatre and the spectacular Royal Tombs, most of the other highlights involve quite a bit of climbing. Some visitors decide not to do this and are content to watch the camels wandering past or listen to a grizzled Bedouin playing a melancholy tune on a one-stringed rababa.
Petra's biggest monument, the Monastery, sits at the top of an 800-step rock-cut path. It is easy to imagine the months of carving that went into its creation. It was built in the 3rd century BC as a tomb, and was probably later used as a temple. From here you have sweeping views across to Israel and Palestine.
The Monastery is similar in design to the Treasury, but it is much larger and much less decorated. The interior consists of a single room with double staircases leading up to a niche. The flat plaza in front was carved out of the rock, perhaps to accommodate crowds at religious ceremonies. The best time to climb to the monastery is in the afternoon, when the path is mostly in shade and the sun is shining on the Monastery's facade.
Even if you decide not to go to the Monastery, it's worth going up the 670 steps, past tombs and Bedouin houses, to the High Place of Sacrifice — the exposed mountain plateau where the Nabateans performed religious rituals. There are great views and below you will see groups of camels sitting on the ground, and visitors scurrying past.
When we visited, "Petra by Night" was only available two nights a week. This gives you the opportunity to walk the Siq in the dark and then to see the Treasury lit by hundreds of candles and later by coloured spotlights. The effect is stunning but, unfortunately, the arrangements are haphazard and disappointing to some visitors. I still suggest you go to this unique event but keep your expectations low and take a torch with you.
There are many accommodation options in Wadi Musa, just a few hundred metres from the entrance to the Petra site. Some have rooftop bars and cafes. Restaurants are available where you can enjoy hummus, fried lamb meatballs, char-grilled eggplants, stuffed vine leaves and other local favourites.
Petra is a three-hour drive from Jordan's capital, Amman, and two hours from the Red Sea port of Aqaba. Buses run the route daily, along with organized tours and private taxis. Taking a visit of the site with a local guide is highly recommended.
Jordan has many other attractions worth seeing such as the Dead Sea, Wadi Rum and Jerash. I'll do stories about these another time but I suggest you give serious consideration to a visit right now.