Jordan Cities: Petra

Jordan Cities: Petra Last updated on Tuesday 20th April 2010

The ancient Nabataean city of Petra (pictured), in the southern part of the Kingdom 160 miles (257km) from Amman, is Jordan's most famous tourist attraction. Known as the "rose red city", it was once a fortress, carved out of craggy rocks in an area which was virtually inaccessible.

The city was first settled in about 800B.C. by the Nabataean tribe from northern Arabia, the city reached the peak of its fame in the second century, under Roman rule. A succession of habitation, leadership and development followed but, as the caravan routes were slowly displaced by shipping, the city's importance gradually dwindled; it fell into disuse and was lost to the world for over a thousand years. In 1812 it was re-discovered by the Swiss explorer, Johann Ludwig Burckhardt and is now a favourite with tourists from all over the world.

The Nabataeans were builders of great skill, carving their city from the living rock. Working from the top down, they sliced off huge slabs of stone, using the two-metre ledge thus formed as scaffolding for the masons to stand on. Entablatures and capitals were carved before another slab was removed in the same way, to make another platform, from which facades and columns were carved and the deep chambers beyond were hollowed out. In this way, the builders were able to descend ten storeys to the valley floor below.

Petra is approached through a narrow, deep gorge or siq, which winds for about 1km through a massive wall of rock. This is at some points less than three metres wide and its vertical walls tower to a height of 70 metres, making Petra one of the best-defended cities of all time.

At the end of the siq appears the impressive monument of el Khazneh, the Treasury. This is an enormous royal tomb, which was carved out of solid rock in the side of the mountain. Beyond this, a stairway cut in the rock takes the visitor to rock-carved streets lined with hundreds of temples, royal tombs, large and small houses, banqueting halls, water channels and reservoirs, baths, monumental staircases, markets, arched gates, public buildings and paved streets. There is also a gigantic Roman theatre, seating 3,000.

Visitors can reach Petra from Amman by the Desert Highway, a journey which takes about three hours. Travelling by the King's Highway, which is an historic scenic, winding road, takes much longer -- a minimum of five hours. From Aqaba, the drive is about 82 miles (133km), but as the highway usually has heavy traffic, visitors should allow plenty of time if using this route.

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