Photographer’s Guide to the Ancient City of Petra

“A Rose-Red City, Half as Old as Time”

Photo by Susanahajer

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Harrison Ford and Sean Connery pause momentarily atop their horses. Their steeds kick up whispy desert sands as their riders pause, utterly bewildered by what they see just off-camera. Playing the iconic roles of the doctors Jones, this is the moment in the 1989 film that Indiana and his father have reached the end of their hero’s journey. The Indiana Jones character has survived ancient temples with elaborate booby traps, witnessed the face-melting power of ancient artifacts, and even navigated alligator strewn obstacles. And yet, after thousands of miles travelled, and countless riddles solved, he is staring mouth agape, unable to comprehend the majesty of this final destination. The home of the fabled Holy Grail.

As the camera pans, we, the audience, see what has overwhelmed their senses. The grails home is opulent for this ancient relic of such legend and power. Soaring thousands of feet from the canyon floor stands this temple, hand-carved into the wall. Columns and statues grace its intricate façade, and its majesty soars almost 150-feet up the canyon’s wall. Surely this is a setpiece dreamed up in the mind of Steven Speilberg, an epic final destination for what should have been the last film in the Indiana Jones series. But this is no work of movie magic; this is but one of many ancient ruins of the Ancient City of Petra.

Az Khazneh Seen from a Lookout Viewpoint - Photo by Andrea Leopardi
Az Khazneh Seen from a Lookout Viewpoint - Photo by Andrea Leopardi

History of Petra

Virtually unknown before its casting the Hollywood Blockbuster, Indiana Jones and the Quest for the Holy Grail, Petra has secrets of its own to tell. The famous front of the temple in the film is not, sadly, home to the fabled chalice of the blood of Christ. Instead, the building in Arabic is called “Al Kazneh,” or vault, a common name for a cities treasury. It is just one of many structures that remain standing of this ancient traders city.

Al Khazneh Seen from Ground - Photo by Brian Kairuz
Al Khazneh Seen from Ground - Photo by Brian Kairuz

Nomadic Nabataeans are believed to be responsible for the temples, obelisks, altars and theatre that make up the ancient city of Petra. In the days of Christ, Petra flourished as the capital of the Nabataean Empire and was home to roughly 30,000 people. Located at a crossroads of silk, spice, and incense trade routes the city thrived on commerce and ingenuity. The once nomadic Nabataeans amassed vast wealth and built these structures into the sandstone to encourage business among weary traders who had come to sell their wares.

Somehow, Petra almost vanished as an ancient memory and became virtually unknown to westerners for nearly 600 years. Rediscovered in 1812, even then it was not a popular travel destination until it’s debut role in Hollywood film. Today it is a popular tourist destination found roughly 150 miles south of Amman.

Al Khazneh in Petra - Photo by Julien Menichini
Al Khazneh in Petra - Photo by Julien Menichini

Al Khanez

Al Kahnez (The Treasury) is the most iconic structure in the valley. It reveals itself to present-day adventurers in the same way it would have 2,000 years ago- through a 1200 metre slot canyon called the Siq. When it appears, the ancient Treasury frames itself with a lightning bolt-shaped gap in the rock, and it is magnificent. Calling it a treasury is a bit of a misnomer. It acquired this name as local legend told of how the large urn carved into the second level of the façade was full of hidden gold.

Ad-Deir Monastery Framed by Rock - Photo by Valdemaras
Ad-Deir Monastery Framed by Rock - Photo by Valdemaras

In the early 20th century, Bedouins put this legend to the test by firing at it. Their attempts to shatter the urn and spill its golden contents to the canyon floor were in vain. We no know it is in fact, solid sandstone. This lack of hidden wonders is not the only disappointment to be found. It seems that in addition to not being home to undiscovered treasures, it is also mainly just a façade. The interior of Al Khazneh is mostly spartan, consisting of a few large, blocky rooms.

Camels at Al Khazneh - Photo by Mikael Thunberg
Camels at Al Khazneh - Photo by Mikael Thunberg

Touring Petra

Once you arrive at Al Khazneh, you are free to explore the extensive ruins of the entire ancient city. Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, almost 35 unique and compelling locations await your lens. Ancient Temple ruins, cave structures and more await along the circuitous journey. The pink, purple and orange banded rock faces twists and turns their way through the ruins. Guiding you deeper into the historical wonder that is Petra. Typically your tour will conclude with a steep climb up an 800 step stairway hewn into the rock. At its peak, you will find the Ad-Deir Monastery, a magnificent hilltop temple.

Steps to Al-Deir Monastery - Photo by Agustina Furor
Steps to Al-Deir Monastery - Photo by Agustina Furor
Al-Deir Monastery in Petra - Photo by Emile Guillemot
Al-Deir Monastery in Petra - Photo by Emile Guillemot

Petra still has many hidden stories to tell. Studied since its rediscovery in 1812 by Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt (in full bedouin disguise we might add) new secrets are revealed regularly. In 2016 archaeologists discovered a ceremonial platform previously hidden, and scholars estimate that nearly 85 percent of the ancient city remains buried in the desert sands.

Photographing Petra

  • There are entry fees to visit Petra, and while they may vary, typically it is about USD 70 for one day, and USD 80 for three. We recommend paying for the three days. As well, to avoid the crowds and the standard entrance through the Siq, you can hire a local guide to take you in through one of the many backdoors.
  • Petra can be deceptively tricky to photograph. The sun rises early here, and because of its location, the morning sun casts most of the site in shadow. So for shooting all but Al Khazneh, the late afternoon and sunset is your best bet. We recommend extending your visit into the evening and enjoying your morning in an air-conditioned hotel.
    As is the case when shooting evenings, light can be unpredictable, so plan to visit a few times to capture the best light.
  • Be wary of the locals, particularly those offering horses and carriage rides. If you opt for this luxury, be sure you confirm costs with them and that these costs include any “tip” added as a mandatory fee at the end.
  • Do not miss Petra By Night (roughly USD 15), when the staff light the Siq and the Treasury with candles and put on a show. If you are patient, you can wait out the last tourist stragglers at the conclusion. The result is a stunning scene with the iconic building lit by hundreds of candles.
  • Ensure you bring a tripod, especially for Petra By Night.
  • Your sunset location is Al-Deir Monastery. Seriously, don’t miss it.
Royal Tombs of Petra Panoramic - Photo by Saturn83
Royal Tombs of Petra Panoramic - Photo by Saturn83

Conclusion

Petra offers a rare glimpse into a well-preserved city from the first century. It is compelling, replete with photographic opportunity and historical wonder. Petra’s secrets are almost as fanciful as its cinematic alter-ego and invite the modern adventurer deep into its fascinating past.

Al Khazneh Lit By Candles at Night - Photo by Susanahajer
Al Khazneh Lit By Candles at Night - Photo by Susanahajer

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