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Petra: a treasure in the desert

Petra, Jordan

Desert treasure

The Jordanian city of Petra has been a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1985, and rightly so: the ‘Pink City’ has even been proclaimed one of the modern wonders of the world. Indiana Jones and Tintin had some great adventures here – but nothing prepares you for the experience of seeing Petra in real life. Journey into the past at one of the most stunning tourist destinations of the Middle East.

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Wholly handmade

Historians still disagree on exactly when the first people arrived in the Jordanian Jebel al-Madhbaḩ Mountains. But they all agree on one thing: the arrival of the Nabataeans in approximately 4 centuries B.C. marked the beginning of Petra’s history (Petra is Greek for 'rock'). Fascinated by the pink sandstone, the Arab nomads traded their tents for a permanent settlement. They took up their chisels and carved buildings from the rocks. Look closely and you can still see the holes where the wooden scaffolds were anchored.

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A stunning image

To reach Petra, visitors must first walk 1,200 metres through a mysterious cleft in the rocks, known as the Siq. This is one of the reasons why many conquerors, including Alexander the Great, never managed to take the city.

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The first building that emerges at the end of the natural defense gate is the 40-metre high Al Khazneh. This funerary temple dating back to the first century is by far the most photographed sight in Petra. But there is plenty more to admire. Walk further and see the city that at its peak was home to 60,000 Nabataeans loom up in front of your eyes.

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Booming merchant city

Petra is located at the intersection of several popular trade routes between the West and the Far East. Greek, Egyptian and Roman demand for incense and silk transformed this settlement into one of the richest trade centres of the region and the thriving capital of the Nabataeans. Even after the city was swallowed up by the Roman Empire, it continued to prosper. However, Petra fell into decline when trade routes shifted to the Red Sea. A devastating earthquake in 363 A.D. buried the city under a pile of rubble.

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Excavations are still ongoing, but 1,500 visitors a day are given access to the site. Arrive early to have this historic scenario practically to yourself. Or plan your visit on Monday, Wednesday or Thursday, when the city basks in the magical glow of hundreds of lanterns.

Hundreds of lanterns

For centuries, Petra seemed condemned to oblivion – but then Swiss geologist Ludwig Burckhardt rediscovered the city in 1812. Over a century later, the first excavations began. Little by little, tombs, cave dwellings, temples, a monastery and an amphitheatre were uncovered.

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