The city of Petra was carved from red sandstone in the 3rd century BC by nomadic Arabs known as Nabataeans. The only entrance is through a siq - a long, narrow gorge. This channel, eroded by thousands of years of floods, forms a twisting and convoluted pathway through solid rock that looms up to 100 metres on either side.
At some points along its 1.2-km length the siq is wide enough for the sunlight to flood in and lift the dark and oppressive atmosphere, but at others it is no wider than a couple of metres, and the walls appear to close above your head. An early morning visit can be an eerie experience, with just the wind whistling through the gorge and the strangely tinny echo of your own footsteps.
At one time the siq would have been crowded with camel trains laden with wealth, and even the invading Romans, who finally conquered the city in AD 106, would have had to fight their way down its entire length.
Rounding the final and narrowest corner of the siq you are confronted by the towering façade of Al Khazneh (the treasury), which is the enduring image of the city. Although the carvings on the treasury have been damaged by 8edouin, who once lived among the deserted ruins and used the statues for target practice, there is still much to be seen. This includes the large urn on the top of the structure, that the Bedouin shot at in the belief that it contained the lost treasure of King Solomon.
Excavations taking place in front of the treasury seem to indicate that it had another storey below the current structure, which is now buried under debris washed down by the annual flash floods that created the siq. The treasury is fully bathed in sunlight for a couple of hours from around 9.30 in the morning, but looks pinker and more atmospheric when in shadow. A good, though officially unsanctioned, view can be had by climbing the rock face to the right of the siq, to a ledge level with the top of the treasury.
All the great façades, including the treasury, are, in fact, tombs. Dwellings have long since disappeared, but you can still see the 7000-seat theatre carved out of rock, and a temple built by the Romans when they governed the city. There is also a major stretch of Nabatean road running past an old market area that would once have been thronged with shoppers and merchants trading goods and treasures brought to Petra from all over the Middle East.
It is no wonder that, tucked away in the middle of the desert, the city remained hidden and forgotten for 300 years after it was finally deserted, with only Bedouin living in its caves and tombs. It was 'rediscovered' for the West by Johann Burckhardt in 1812.
Although the Bedouin no longer live in the city they are still much in evidence, having been given sole rights to the various tourist concessions on the site in return for moving out to a nearby village. Petra is huge, and you will need a good few days to do it justice, especially if you are planning to visit some of the more outlying places, such as the monastery up in the adjacent hills. A good way to appreciate the size of Petra is to climb the steep steps to the High Place of Sacrifice, where you can see over most of the city and watch as the sun slides behind the camel-shaped mountain on the far side of the valley, before making your way back to your hotel through the rapidly darkening siq.
Petra is just a few hours' drive from the Jordanian capital Amman and is easily reached by bus or by car. Passes for one, two or three days are available from the visitor centre. You can also hire a guide there.