Once the capital of the
Nabataean Arab's trading empire, with its giant temples and tombs
chiselled out of swirling raspberry-ripple rock, Petra entices more than
600,000 visitors a year.
away from the deep yawn of the gully that marks the main tourist route,
an entire network of winding Bedouin back roads, narrow goat trails and
worn rock-cut staircases wind across the russet-hued cliffs, gloriously
empty of visitors; their stony paths leading to rarely-visited
monuments and panoramic vistas. Even in one of the world's most popular
sights it is still possible to escape the crowds.
See the Treasury from another angle
Most people who visit Petra begin at the Treasury (al-Khazneh), famed
for its starring role as the home of the holy grail in the film Indiana
Jones and the Last Crusade.
Steer clear of the tourists craning
their necks at the ornate 43m-high facade, and instead walk down the
main tourist route and up the steps to the cliff ridge bearing the group
of monuments known as the Royal Tombs. Just past the three-tiered ruin
of the Palace Tomb, a staircase can be seen slicing into the rock. It is
a knee-knocker of a climb from here to the top of Jebel al-Khubtha
mountain, but worth it for the sweeping panoramas of jagged orange and
dusky pink cliffs undulating out across the desert.
A walk across
the summit plateau reveals a craggy ridge from where the Treasury can be
seen a dizzying drop below. Looking down at the facade from this angle
miniaturises it against the vast, raw amphitheatre of surrounding
cliffs, and echoes of the ant-like cluster of visitors in front of the
monument soar up into the air. The fact that there is rarely anyone else
contemplating this view makes the scene even more surreal.
A Crusader fort with magnificent views
Petra's back roads do not just give a different perspective on the
ruins. Following them allows you to better understand the site.
Start at Qasr al-Bint Temple
at the edge of Petra's central city ruins, from where a rough trail
trundles up the cliff of Al-Habees, weaving its way around the hill.
Hidden from the hubbub of the main ruins on the slope’s western side is
the house of Mofleh Bdoul, with its oleander-strewn garden that serves
as a makeshift tea garden for hikers. Mofleh is one of Petra's last
permanent residents. "They tried to get me to leave but Petra is my
home," he said. "Why would I go just because they said I had to?"
Bdoul Bedouin tribe are Petra's traditional guardians. It was Bdoul
tribesmen who guided explorer Johann Burckhardt into the ruins in 1812,
leading to the Nabataean city's discovery to the outside world. The
Bdoul lived in Petra for at least the past few hundred years (though
some claim they are direct descendents of the Nabataeans), up until the
1980s when the site's newly acquired Unesco World Heritage status spurred the Jordanian government into removing them from their cave-homes amid the ruins to a nearby hilltop village.
vast network of trails are not just ancient highways, but reminders of a
much more recent history when the Bdoul inhabitants herded their goats
and sheep through the ruins and took shortcuts across the rock cliffs
between clusters of inhabited caves.
Just a short walk uphill from
Moflah's house, a steep sinewy staircase leads to the cliff’s summit
through a narrow cleft in the rock. On the top, the scattered remnants
of the 12th-century Al-Habees Crusader fort, built by First Crusade
leader and King of Jerusalem Baldwin I, are a reminder that although
Burckhardt is feted for bringing Petra to worldwide attention, the
Nabataean city was well-known to Europeans centuries before that.
fort's rubble is not the main reason to scramble to the summit,
however. It is the view. Down below, the great swath of ruins sprawl up
to the Royal Tombs on the opposite cliff face in a commanding display of
what the Nabataeans achieved. In an archaeological site not short of
panoramic vistas, this one truly captures the vastness of this ancient
The backdoor route to the Monastery Their power
base may have been secreted within Petra’s high canyon walls, but by
the 2nd Century BC the Nabataeans had built an incense-trading network
that stretched across the Middle East. Their influence ranged from what
is now Yemen, up into Syria and out to the Mediterranean ports of
Antioch (modern Antakya in Turkey), Tyre (Lebanon) and Gaza (in the
Petra's impressive Monastery
monument is usually reached by hiking up the well-worn staircase which
wraps around the cliff face at the end of the main tourist route.
Choosing to walk the alternative backdoor route to the Monastery,
however, gives a sense of the trading tentacles that were the very
reason for the city's existence and prosperity.
About 10km from Petra’s main entrance are the ruins of Al-Barid
(also known as Little Petra), thought to have been a resting stop for
the mammoth camel-caravans bringing spice and incense to and from the
city. From here a trail snakes it way across the sandy plateau, passing
Bedouin encampments and camel herds, to a stone staircase that spirals
its way through the cliff edge to Petra. Local guides can be hired at
the Al-Barid car park for those unsure of finding the trail.
Vertigo-inducing views plunge down to the deep chasm of the gully on the
staircase's edge, while the other side is blocked by sheer cliff face.
across the exposed rock balcony that juts out of the sandstone mountain
and the mammoth urn, which tops the facade of the Monastery, will come
into sight, poking above the nearby rocks. It is only a short scramble
up to the plateau where the mammoth bulk of the Monastery is carved out
of the towering cliffs.
Like all the back road routes in Petra,
you will be lucky to encounter more than a handful of other people along
the way. The archaeological park's vast area means that those willing
to step off the connect-the-dots trail of the main monument road will be
rewarded by getting Petra's spellbinding natural landscapes and
half-forgotten ruins all to themselves.
Even as regional insecurity continues to affect neighbouring nations,
Jordan remains a safe and stable destination, perfect for travellers who
want to dip their toes in the Middle East.
Entry to Petra costs
50 Jordanian Dinars for one day, 55 JOD for two days, and 60 JOD for
three days. If you are planning on a full day hiking in the site, wear
sensible walking shoes and carry plenty of water and food. Although
there are plenty of Bedouin-run shacks on the main tourist route selling
soft drinks, water and snacks, once you are on the back roads supplies
are difficult to come by.