The Horses of Petra, Jordan

By Abi King | Asia

Jan 08

Petra, Jordan

Dust rose from the ground as the horse thundered past and the sun began its ablutions. It painted pinks and pomegranates, amber, pistachio, charcoal and soft apricot rust across the walls of Petra before calling it a day and turning in for an early night.

A donkey stamped its foot in the chalky rock. Colour faded to grey, while my muscles trembled with fatigue.

Petra at sunset isn’t a place you want to leave. It looks beautiful, you feel hot and tired and there’s a professional army of touts with a menagerie of animals whose job it is to make you stay. Donkeys, camels, horses, chariots. They all promise to make your journey easier and to let you stretch out time itself.

Time has a habit of playing tricks on you in Petra, not to mention the truth. When I first saw The Treasury, strawberry stone columns peering between a tear of jagged darkness, I felt thrilled. As though I was uncovering an ancient legend myself.

Approaching Petra, Jordan

In a way, I was. The legend part, that is. It turns out that despite the bullet marks and the odd Hollywood film, the Treasury isn’t really a treasury. Never was. Debate continues as to what its true role involved, but most scholars plump for the label of “ceremonial tomb.”

As for the ancient part, well, like the fast-growing ivy colleges in the US, it turns out that Petra’s not as old as it looks. The Treasury has celebrated a mere two thousand or so birthdays, a cheeky child with freckles when compared to the crumbly Egyptian Pyramids or the rocky giants of Stonehenge.

Right now, though, I have more than a few thousand years to worry about. I have about fifteen minutes.

The flashlight from an official brings me back to the present and I rally the sinews of my less than heroic muscles and attempt to stride but tend to hobble towards the exit.

Camel in Petra, Jordan

Humans aren’t the only ones who get tired…

Petra, as you probably don’t need me to tell you, is incredible. You may need me to tell you that it is vast. This city, built by the Naboteans, “inherited” by the Romans, lived in by the Bedouins and “discovered” by the Swiss – is colossal. Huge. A Roman-style theatre designed for around 3000 people registers as something of an afterthought, dwarfed as it is by everything else there is to see.

Petra spreads over 250 square kilometres (depending upon your source) – and the only realistic way in – and out – is by foot.

In fact, transport in Petra has become something of a political circus, with a near farcical arrangement of options. In the past, local Bedouin on horseback would charge through the kilometre-long gorge, with travellers crammed into their wagons behind. As Petra’s fame and popularity grew, however, problems arose since the gorge, or siq did not grow one inch.

Horse manure, accidents, rumours of hustling and intimidation…

“Eventually, authorities decided to ban horses in the siq altogether,” said my guide, perhaps an unreliable source himself as a horse-drawn chariot stormed past us into the gorge, drowning out his words.

“That’s different,” he said, although he never explained why.

The official line seems to be that Bedouin horses can travel the few hundred metres from the ticket gate to the entrance of the Petra gorge, with approval for a few carriages to travel on further than that.  A short – and rather stunted – effort.

The situation has irritated many, exasperated that the cost of the ride is now factored into the ticket price, regardless of whether you climb on and shout “tally ho!” (For the sake of accuracy, I should point out that the actual pronunciation of “tally-ho!” has no bearing on the ticket cost, the ride, or, well, anything at all. I just threw it in for effect.)

Entering the siq on horseback in Petra

As a first time visitor, though, I found the sight of the horses incredibly atmospheric. They’re ridden with a ferocity and abandon I’d not seen before. Flowing robes and jet black hair streaming into the wind. Clouds of purple-pink Petra dust thrown into spirals and hanging in the heat-soaked air.

It’s what dreams and legends are made of.

But perhaps not thin cotton trousers. To preserve the skin on my thighs, I staggered on towards the gate, feeling a mixture of both gratitude and joy.

For my time in Petra wasn’t over yet. I would soon be back – for Petra at Night.

Petra en route to the monastery

Goat in Petra, Jordania

Petra Red Rock

Camel in Petra, Jordania

Petra Monastery from Afar

Looking up at the monastery in Petra, Jordan

The Treasury at Petra, Jordan

B&W Petra, Jordan

I visited Jordan as a guest of Visit Jordan. To read other posts of mine – and of others – about this fascinating country, please read A Portrait of Jordan.

Have you ever visited Petra, Jordan? Would you like to go?


About the Author

Abigail King is a writer and photographer who swapped a career as a doctor for a life on the road. Now published by Lonely Planet, the BBC, CNN, National Geographic Traveler & more, she feels most at home experimenting here: covering unusual journeys, thoughtful travel and luxury on

Federico January 8, 2012

Great story, writing and pics Abi, I particularly like the first to last one. I´m jealous as Jordan is one of those places I have waned to visit for years…

    Abi King January 10, 2012

    Thank you – although it’s hard to take bad pictures there, really, as it’s absolutely stunning.

Angela January 8, 2012

Beautiful post and stunning pictures. I haven’t been to Petra, I’ll probably be heading to the Middle East early this year and Jordan is very high on my list.

    Abi King January 11, 2012

    Oh…enjoy. I’ve noticed something of a trend to knock famous places like this over the last few years – and it’s a shame. There’s a reason why it’s so famous.

Neha January 8, 2012

I love the first line of this post. I was drawn in and swooning. Great photos too!

    Abi King January 12, 2012

    Thank you – I was swooning by the time I reached the monastery from too much heat and not enough water ;)

Camels & Chocolate January 8, 2012

I want to take a carriage through Petra! How cool. Also (no big surprise), I love the weary camel.

    Abi King January 12, 2012

    Isn’t he great? Pretty much sums up how I felt by that stage!

Erica January 8, 2012


One of the places I’ve been dying to get to and Shaun will be able to live out his Indiana Jones fantasy. :P Loving the picture of the sleepy camel.

    Abi King January 15, 2012

    Go! And film Shaun living out his Indiana Jones fantasy ;)

I love the tired camel photo! Actually, I love them all!

    Abi King January 15, 2012

    He’s great, isn’t he? Just how I felt by then…

dtravelsround January 9, 2012

I’m with Stephanie, that camel sleeping is awesome!! Love the pics.

Nice post, you’ve captured well what was also part of my experience there. I do have one question about your photos, however — does the goat have a hangover?

    Abi King January 15, 2012

    Ha! This comment may be the one that tips me over into using the expression “LOL!”

Darlene Foster January 9, 2012

Great post! I would love to visit Petra some day and now I am even more inspired. LOve your camel photos, you capture these amazing beasts so well. (I am a bit of a camel fan!)

    Abi King January 15, 2012

    I love taking photos of camels – they’re both photogenic and cantankerous!

sylvia January 9, 2012

On holiday in Israel, we visited Petra 2 years ago and I love your description and photographs. It was exactly as you say but I could never have brought it to life as you do.

    Abi King January 15, 2012

    Thank you so much

Edgar January 10, 2012

I visited Petra quite a number of times when I worked in Tabuk/KSA and Iraq from 1979-1981. After 30 years I visited Jordan again last September, but the time was not enough to go to Petra this time. Since I plan another trip to Jordan this year and with more time, I hope to be able to visit Petra again too.

    Abi King January 15, 2012

    Yes, I think it would be so interesting to spend more time there. The colours of the rock change so much throughout the day – and the complex itself is so big.

Sandra January 11, 2012

Fascinating. Gorgeous pictures too. I’ve always wanted to go and this makes me want to even more.

    Abi King January 15, 2012

    Thank you. It’s wonderful when something exceeds expectations!

cailin January 14, 2012

Great Post Abi, I’m dying to visit there myself, gorgeous photos as well :)

Bret @ Green Global Travel January 14, 2012

Nice one, Abi! I’ve gotten somewhat burnt out on all the Jordan posts lately, but appreciated the unique angle your story took, as well as the fantastic photos!

Abi King January 15, 2012

I very much appreciate the comment ;)

James - January 22, 2012

I would love to visit Petra. It seems like such a mysterious place.

    Abi King January 22, 2012

    Despite so many visitors, so many photographs and so much study…yes, it is…Hope you get there one day…

Ken July 23, 2012

Great photo…full of “mystery” place

Blog Me Travel August 7, 2012

Oh how I do like dipping into your archives!

A couple of friends and I have booked flights to Amman for 5 nights in September, we have The Dead Sea and Petra on our ‘to do list’ which I suspect will take up quite a large amount of our time, but I was wondering if you had any other suggestions or tips?

Did you go to Mount Nebo? Is there anything we should avoid?

Thank you!

Paige Conner Totaro March 20, 2013

Great photos and excellent writing. You really captured it. But no mention of the 800 steps to the… I don’t even remember what it was, I was so tired!

Neil July 27, 2013

I first visited Petra about ten years ago and immediately fell in love with the place. I have been back a couple of times since, the latest in October 2012, as an independent traveller, when I spent three days exploring much of the area not normally visited by tourists. It was an amazing experience with hardly another person to be seen.However I was saddened because the passage from the Siq to the Monastery is now so commercialised. I understand the local Bedouin need to make a living but I think the Jordanian government have got the balance wrong.

    Abi King July 30, 2013

    The decisions about how to manage Petra have certainly stirred up controversy lately. Like you, I appreciate the need to earn a living (for both the locals and the country) but it can be tricky knowing where to draw the line. At least there are still places (by the sound of it, from your words) that tourists can still visit to get away from the crowds…

Hogga January 27, 2014

these animals have seen some shit

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