top of page

Romancing the sandstone: Hiking in Petra

Updated: Oct 10, 2021

My day of hiking in Petra, Jordan's ancient red rose city: 1500 steps, 25 kms of walking over nine hours, 600 m of elevation change, 28 degrees Celsius, 2.3 L of water and two lemon mints gulped down, one twisted ankle, 92 photos, one magnificent ancient carved sandstone city, and a whole bunch of stunning views.

red rock landscapes on a hiking trip in Petra, Jordan

The Treasury by night

My first glimpse of it was by candlelight, after a moonlit half hour walk through the deep, narrow canyon in the cool evening. A trail of candle lanterns lit the way through the blackness. There was no other lighting, so it was a bit unsettling to shuffle along the completely unknown path.

It wasn't exactly a peaceful experience, since there were a few hundred visitors making the trek. Suddenly, the towering cliffs gave way to a clearing backed by the noble facade of the Treasury building carved into a sheer vertical cliff. Hundreds more candle lanterns were placed on the ground in front of the Treasury, their flames flickering in the darkness.

Attendants served each of us a hot cup of tea as we took our seats among the lanterns on the ground. Overhead, thin clouds slipped across an almost-full moon as everyone settled in.

Petra treasury at night, let up by candle lanterns

Then came the cheesy part. A Bedouin man addressed the crowd with a meandering story about the history of Petra. It was difficult to follow over the chattering of those visitors who either didn't understand his polite request for silence, or didn't care to understand. The three solo musicians who took turns playing different traditional instruments fared a little better as the crowd hushed to hear the notes resonating off the canyon walls.

It was an over-produced sort of experience, but a unique one. Mostly it whet my appetite for seeing the city in daylight.

Sacred canyon

Repeating the walk the next morning was a much more revealing experience, with the beauty of the 200 metre-high pink canyon walls on full display. To the Nabatean people who built it in the 6th and 5th centuries BC, this canyon was the 'Sacred Way'-- the final leg for pilgrims and priests headed for the temples, tombs and sanctuaries within the city.

Along the way, we encountered carved tombs and time-worn relief sculptures. Our guide Ayman also pointed out ingeniously carved engineering features that allowed Petra's inhabitants to control the water supply - the key to their survival in this dry desert valley. They created an elaborate system of secret channels and cisterns that allowed them to funnel the flow where they needed it, store water from flash floods to save for periods of drought, and conceal their water sources from enemies who might otherwise try to poison it.

Red rock city

The big reveal of the Treasury was even more breathtaking than the previous night, with the morning sun bathing the site in gorgeous warm light. We gawked and posed for pictures for a good few minutes before setting off to explore the rest of the sprawling ancient city.

We started with a steep climb and slippery scramble up and around to the top of the canyon wall opposite the Treasury. Our reward was awesome alternate view from above. But that was only the beginning.

We climbed rock stairways, trekked, walked and hiked up and down the hills all day to see panoramic views of the surrounding mountains and valleys and many more carved structures. The ancient monuments have exotic names like Street of Facades, High Place of Sacrifice, Sacred Hall, Silk Tomb and Temple of The Winged Lions. How could anyone not be romanced by the place?

facade of Petra's Sacred Hall in Jordan

All day, Ayman bounded ahead of us with great ease and frequent cheers of "Yalla!" (Let's go!) and 'Take your time, keep walking' (a confusing contradiction).

It would have been more comfortable to see Petra over two days instead of one very long one. The blazing heat and throbbing ankle twisted early in the day made it tougher hiking than expected. But, it truly was exhilarating, and I'm grateful that we saw so many of Petra's magnificent treasures in the short time I had.

For more Jordan adventures, read about my stay in the Wadi Rum desert.

bottom of page