29 Fascinating Facts About Petra, Jordan’s Famous Site
When I ask you to picture Jordan in your mind, there’s probably one thing you imagine, right? It’s the iconic view of Petra, made most famous in 1989 by the film Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. With this blockbuster film, everyone wanted to know where the famous setting of the movie’s grand finale took place – and how to visit.
Petra has long been a popular tourist attraction in Jordan, though its presence in pop culture undoubtedly increased the desire for many travelers to visit. But do you know anything about Petra, beyond its famous film location status, or that it was once claimed to be “lost?”
Petra is one of my favorite places in Jordan – naturally – and I love educating visitors about it too. For that reason, I’ve pulled together a bunch of facts about Petra so that you can learn more about the site before you visit – or maybe it will inspire you to finally plan that trip! We’ll kick it off with the five facts everyone should know, plus many more Petra facts about the history and importance of this treasured site.
5 Must-Know Facts about Petra
- Petra was named one of the New 7 Wonders of the World by UNESCO in 2007. The organization described the historic site as “one of the most precious cultural properties of man’s cultural heritage.”
- Petra also goes by the name the “Red Rose City.” This name stems from the pink color of the stone that the Nabateans carved to build the city.
- “The Lost City” is another popular name Petra goes by. The Western world had no knowledge of Petra’s existence until 1812. In fact, no European had entered the ancient site since the Crusades before that year.
- The Western world “rediscovered” Petra thanks to Johann Ludwig Burckhardt, a Swiss explorer who traveled to Petra in 1812.
- Petra has been a popular film location in Jordan – and is iconic around the world. The Mummy Returns and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade both had their crews shoot a few scenes at Petra.
Fascinating Facts about Petra History
- Petra is one of the oldest cities in the world. Archaeologists believe the Nabateans established the city in 312 BC.
- It was the capital city of Nabateans, an ancient Arab tribe who inhabited northern Arabia and the southern Levant and arrived in Jordan around the 6th century BC.
- The Nabateans didn’t call it Petra. According to the ancient historian Josephus, evidence suggests the Nabatean knew Petra as Raqemo, the Aramaic name of its royal founder.
- Archaeologists have explored only 15% of Petra. I think this is one of the most surprising and exciting facts about Petra. Most of the city remains underground, but it only means that there are more wonders to come!
- Petra was home to three different peoples throughout history: the Edomites inhabited Petra from 18th to the 2nd century BC; the Nabateans from 2nd century to 106 BC; and the Romans from 106 to 395 BC.
- Despite having been home to numerous tribes, most of the remains archaeologists have excavated date back to the Nabateans period.
- An earthquake hit Petra in 693 A.D. The terrible earthquake devastated Petra’s water irrigation systems and destroyed many of its buildings.
- Petra appears numerous times in the Hebrew Bible. The ancient city sits inside Wadi Musa, which means “Valley of Moses” in Arabic. According to the Bible, Moses passed through the valley and struck water from the rock for his followers at the site of Ain Musa (“Moses Spring” or “Moses’ Well”). The Nabateans built channels that carried water from this spring to the city of Petra.
- Petra was one of the most famous water stops in the Middle East. I know it’s hard to conceive Petra as a water stop when you see its dry landscape. Take a look at the next fact to understand how the Nabateans got the water.
- The Nabateans were excellent engineers. Recent excavations at Petra uncovered a complex irrigation and water storage system that enabled the tribe to transport water from the springs in the hills outside of Petra into the city.
- Petra was home to lush gardens. Yes, this is one of the most fascinating Petra facts. Their inhabitants designed stunning artificial gardens with fountains, ponds, and swimming pool thanks to their complex irrigation systems. A true oasis in the desert!
- When it was “discovered,” the Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt disguised himself as an Arab traveler to enter Petra.
- Some Nabteans’ descendants still call Petra home. The B’doul tribe claims they are descendants of the original Nabataeans, and some members still live in the ancient city and nearby Wadi Must. You can see them roaming around as the B’doul and other Bedouin tribes work as tour guides inside Petra.
General Facts about Petra
- The name Petra has Greek roots. It derives from the Greek word ‘Petros,’ which means rocks.
- The entrance to Petra is the Siq, a narrow gorge around 1km long.
- Petra’s centerpiece is the Treasury or Al-Khazneh, a 40 meters high monument with a stunning façade. It is the first thing you see after you exit the Siq.
- The Treasury is actually a graveyard. While it looks like the entrance to a rock-carved castle, the Treasury is a magnificent tomb.
- Petra is home to more than 600 tombs. Like many other ancient civilizations, the Nabataeans honored the memory of their dead and carried numerous mortuary rituals once they left the material world.
- Petra has more tombs than the Valley of the Kings in Luxor. The Valley of the Kings in Luxor, Egypt, houses a fascinating set of 63 carved tombs and mausoleums, while Petra houses over 600.
Facts about Petra’s Importance
- The Nabatean capital city aligns with the sun. The Nabateans built Petra so that their sacred places would receive direct sunlight. This is one of my favorite facts about Petra as it shows how the Nabateans’ building style also had strong links to their theological beliefs and customs.
- Petra was a busy trade hub. The Rose City was at the crossroads of two popular trade routes: one linked the Red and Dead Sea, and the linked the Persian Gulf and Gaza.
- It was also an important epicenter for the commercialization of the silks of China, spices of India, and the incense of Arabia.
- Petra became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1985, thanks to its stunning rock formations and historic relevance.
- Today, Petra is Jordan’s most visited tourist attraction. It welcomed over one million visitors in 2019.
Have any other questions about Petra or these facts about Petra? Let me know in the comments!
How long did it take to build Petra?
Great question – and a Petra fact I should have included. Archaeologists and historians estimate it took 500 years to build Petra.