A Bedouin’s trail through Petra

See a different side to Jordan’s most popular attraction, following winding back roads and worn rock-cut staircases to rarely-visited monuments and panoramic vistas.

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.

But 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?"

The 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.

Petra’s 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.

The 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 city.

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 Palestinian Territories).

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.

Hike 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.

Practicalities         
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.