How to See Petra

Luckily most of the planes that fly in and out of Jordan look better than this!

GETTING THERE

If you’ve always wanted to go, just do it. You won’t be disappointed with a visit to Petra.

Traveling into and around Jordan is easier and smoother than you might expect.

I flew into Amman (AMM) on Royal Jordanian, a oneworld airline that offers a daily direct flight from Chicago’s O’Hare that I booked on AA (at 14 hours or so, it’s a long haul).

Upon arrival, I grabbed a simcard for my phone at the airport I was ready to roll.

 

SETTING UP

Once in country, I attended an archaeological conference (WAC-7) for the better part of a week, basing myself around Madaba and the Dead Sea.

I stayed at the cheap and cheerful Mariam Hotel in Madaba on the advice of a fellow archaeologist who’s worked in the region. Basic, no nonsense, affordable lodgings with a “rooftop” breakfast that is awesome. Think hummus and eggs!

Madaba is a great place to get up and running if you’ve just flown into Jordan. Cheaper than either Amman or the Dead Sea by a fair stretch, it’s a conveniently located (30 minute cab ride from airport) non-descript town that has a colorful history and several sites (the Madaba Map, to start) well worth checking out.

I used the time in Madaba to get my bearings. After that, I rented a car to get myself to Petra. The car seemed a bit worse for the wear but it never broke down. I arranged it through the hotel, where they dropped it off for me (with a near-empty tank). Their name? Reliable Rentals, but of course.

I drove from Madaba to Petra on the Dead Sea highway and back roads via Karak, and afterwards back to Madaba via the Desert Highway. I was stoked for the freedom my wheels afforded and felt safe traveling alone (although I didn’t stop or linger all that much between my destinations, but most certainly would have if only I had more time).

 

Petra at sunrise

PETRA

In Petra I stayed at the Petra Moon Hotel, which is one of the closest hotels to the entrance of the World Heritage site itself at just a few minutes walk.

It had a decent breakfast (that I mainly missed as I left too early) and a room that felt downright fancy after the Mariam in Madaba – but somehow less personal too.

Petra itself is huge. It really is a city – you could wander around for days. For a good look, head in there prepared to stick around.

Here are the essentials that I packed in every day:

  • food
  • cameraThere is no end of things to see in Petra
  • guidebook
  • headlamp
  • knife/multitool
  • down vest
  • beanie
  • rain jacket
  • money in small bills (for trinkets, snacks, and last minute donkey rides)

 

I primarily relied on the map and route descriptions from my guidebook, the Rough Guide to Jordan to get around. This worked great as I was able to survey the options and make plans but also able to look up places as I came upon them to learn a little context.

I wore long pants with a wicking tee, and a long sleeved shirt that I took on and off depending on the conditions. Hot and cold with variable weather means it’s good to be able to cover up but also to keep cool. It’s a desert, with the according highs and lows.

 

PHOTOGRAPHY THOUGHTS

Petra is truly a photographer’s mecca. If you’re a photographer with any weakness for history you will be simply overwhelmed. You should be spending at least a few days here, or more.

One thing I would have loved to have with me is Canon’s 24mm tilt-shift lens. Staring up at all these incredible carved faces of rock means that convergence is everywhere. Being able to take that out in the field would have been fantastic.

Another great mission would be going after epic time-lapses at Petra. Given the desert environment, the light, and the ruins, rich potential definitely exists.

One can obviously shoot a variety of lenses. As I wanted to travel light, my approach was to spend one day shooting a wide angle lens and another shooting a long lens. The first day I toted a tripod, the second I did not. It was interesting to “see” the place differently depending on what I had with me to shoot it.

Take your time. I could happily set up shop there for weeks. I’d be in with the camels!

 

CONTEXT

Here’s an fascinating account of a 19th century photographer’s visit to Petra:

http://ebooks.library.cornell.edu/cgi/t/text/pageviewer-idx?c=cent;cc=cent;idno=cent0031-1;node=cent0031-1%3A2;view=image;seq=13;size=100;page=root

This is what I believe to be the official government site for Petra:

http://www.kinghussein.gov.jo/tourism6d.html

This is a fine account of a 4th of July softball game hosted by Brown archaeologists working at Petra:

http://archive.archaeology.org/online/features/jordan/banner.html

Extensive scholarly bibliography on archaeology at Petra from Brown, and much more:

http://proteus.brown.edu/bupap/8501

 

Good luck and safe travels!

Al Khazneh (The Treasury), Petra

The Big Picture Portfolio, #10

The Treasury, Petra

A doorway that effortlessly blends reality with fiction. Deep in the sandstone canyons of Jordan at Petra, monumental carvings are around every corner. Thanks to Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, this particular one – known as Al Khazneh or The Treasury – is easily the most iconic. But here’s the thing – this magnificant facade is only the tip of the iceberg, and I’m not (just) talking about the Holy Grail.

FACT:

Where: Petra, Jordan

What:  Temple carved from solid sandstone, in the side of a cliff, at the bottom of a canyon

Height: Over 40 m (130 feet) – roughly a twelve story building

Founders: Nabateans (during the reign of Aretas IV Philopatris)

Date carved: 1st Centuary AD

Purported Function: Funerary (mausoleum/crypt)

Date of “rediscovery”: 1812 (by Johann Ludwig Burckhardt)

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MYSTERY:

Legend has it that pirates hid their treasure here, hence the name it’s known by today.  But then again maybe that was just a convenient excuse for an itchy trigger finger (note the bullet marks in the urn up top). Whatever the case, the truth of the matter is that The Treasury has more than a few stories that go along with it.

Part of Al Khazneh’s real treasure is its location.

The near walls in the image above mark the very end of a slot canyon known as the Siq. Audaciously narrow, nervously deep, and suitably long, there is no getting in and out of the Siq – only through it. At one end lies an open desert, and on other the fabled lost city itself. The perfect gateway and a very grand entrance.

As you navigate the final throes of the Siq a sliver of Al Kazneh emerges into view, the masterpiece in worked stone still framed by its parent material. With every step, the visibility of the monument increases and so also its scale in relation to you. Whether alone or in a crowd (both possible) it’s an experience not easily forgotten.

The Treasury was at least partially designed, placed, and protected for the purpose of impressing people. We’ll never know who exactly walked, trotted, or rolled down the Siq and how they felt upon seeing this building in the stone for the first or fiftieth time, but we can be pretty sure they were looking.

Don’t miss it for yourself.

PERSPECTIVE:

In front of the Treasury you will be confronted with a desire that you may not yet know you harbor – the urge to ride a camel. Panicked, I shunned this urge and distracted myself otherwise. I’m still not sure whether to be: a) proud of resisting; or, b) shameful of squandering such an opportunity.

Locomotion in Petra is actually a fascinating subject. Various beasts of burden (you’re the burden) and their masters make a roaring trade (one can pay handsomely for the honor) out of specialized kinds of movements all around the place.

Horses try to snag you at the very beginning, to take the “Indiana Jones” way into Petra by riding the escarpments to get a first look of the city from above. Camels bask in front the Treasury and cruise the canyon floors and valley bottoms beyond, counting on your innermost dromedarian desires. Mules and donkeys are rather more opportunistic, often popping up in places of topographic difficulty like the climb up to the Monastery – “Helicopter ride to the top, Sir?”

Not opposed to dropping a dinar or two if the time was right, I imagined enjoying a horseback approach one of my mornings, or a camel cruise some late afternoon after a long day of playing pedestrian.

It didn’t work out quite that way and despite traipsing around the desert for kilometers on end I ended up sticking to my own two feet. As I got to know my way around I started to become rather proud of the fact that I’d done it all on my own, inwardly spurning the thought of ever taking out my wallet for the dubious privilege of tottering around on high, a hapless tourist stranded on the back of some ass.

On my last afternoon in Petra I lingered as I had every day, enjoying, watching, and shooting the sunset. I had a sneaky plan in mind to leave the lost city by a different route that night. As everyone else walked one way up and toward the Siq, I walked another. My smugness quickly wore off, however, when an hour later deep pools of water made my more creative canyon route impassable. I was well prepared for it all, but the development definitely meant an extended and indirect walk back to Wadi Musa.

I shouldered my pack, got moving again, and had resigned myself to a very late dinner when I heard the click and clack of hoof on stone. I turned, and the dark outline of a donkey and his master appeared from under the stars before me.

I rode the damn helicopter out.