Pink and perfect Petra

Pink and perfect Petra

Passage to Petra

My painting “Passage to Petra”

The Rose Red City. The highlight of Jordan. Probably the highlight of the Middle East. Possibly the most fantastic place made by human beings in the world. It has all the features that make the jaw drop: vast scale, grandeur, beauty, surprise, location, supreme human effort, natural wonder, history, romance, magic.
I had seen photos of Petra in books from my childhood. A pink city in a desert carved out of rock during the two centuries BC. Just think about that for moment! Then imagine that such a place could be ‘lost’ for almost two millennia. I felt sure that one day I would see it for myself. The day was 6 September 2005. I had always imagined myself riding to it. So I did!


I dismounted and left the horse at the top of As-Siq, a long, extraordinary gorge along which you walk to reach the city. 1.2km long, at times only two metres wide, the sheer sandstone walls rise all around you, creating fantastic plastic shapes where the stone has been weathered by water, time and sand.

And the rock is multi-coloured! Pink, orange, sulphur yellow, manganese blue, white, red, maroon, crimson… changing all the time as the light and shadow plays on it.

I had read the guidebooks, heard people tell me how unreal the gorge is but nothing prepares you for the sheer fantastical madness of this crazy canyon.

All the way along the bottom you follow a deep channel carved into the rock, down which ran the water to supply the city.

The first view

Petra – a first glimpse - painting by me.

Just before we reached the end of the Siq the guide stopped us to ‘warn’ us that around the next corner we would see our first glimpse of Petra’s best known view. I was already blown away, so the warning seemed all rather melodramatic. However… we rounded the corner and moving into view I finally saw it.

So beautiful! I wept. And I wasn’t the only one in our group blubbing. I stood for sometime unable to look again as if this wonderful apparation was just some fabulous trick in my mind and if I peeped it would be gone. But no, it was real!

Pink perfection

The perfect facade of the Treasury, as it is called, is 43ms high and cut out of the rock face and glowed pink and orange and is just one of 800 rock cut temples, tombs, houses, market places, amphitheatres, public and private dwellings that make up the city.

Many facades are crumbling and worn by water and weather and appear to be, in some wacky Dali-esque way, melting away in front of your eyes. And everywhere as the grain of the rock is exposed, the stone appears to be marbled in gorgeous colours.

We shuffled slowly down the main ‘street’ (actually a sandstone gorge) marvelling at the edifices which leave you lost in wonder.

The Monastery

Detail of me on a donkey from my painting “Passage to Petra”

We decided to go up The Monstery, a temple carved around 300BC high up away from the main drag, about an hour’s walk uphill in 40 degrees of heat. Sod that. I’d probably trip and fall down some steep gorge to certain and bloody death. Much safer to hire a nice comfortable sure-footed donkey. This would give me time to sketch at the top, too.

My strong white ass knew the way and tore off ahead of the walkers. On the way up, away from the main city complex, you get a really strong sense of how vast this ancient city was. The little gorge leading to the Monastery was pock marked with carved caves and tombs, houses and niches, steps and irrigation channels.

Detail the Monastery from my painting “Passage to Petra”

Finally reaching the Monastery is quite a shock. Having left behind the main area, that something so large and utterly beautiful could be carved out of a mountainside right up here is truly staggering.

I tried to imagine to planning process.:”Hey, Ali! How about you and yer mates carve a 45 metre grand facade out of the mountain up there?” Perhaps not. The facade is bigger than the Treasury and appears to be carved out of melt-resistant butter. I tethered the donkey and sat in the shade of strategically positioned drinks stall and got out my sketchbook.

Petra treasury

Sketch of the Treasury done on site at dawn

Next day I had my sights set on the facade of the Treasury in the early morning light as is glowed. I sat and sketched.

Access for the disabled and less confident walkers

Petra is quite accessible for disabled people and less confident walkers. You can ride a horse to the Siq (as I did) or hire a calesh (a two-person horse-drawn carriage) which will take you both down the entrance road AND the Siq. Caleshs can also be used around the main street. The Siq is paved and smooth most of the way so suitable for wheelchairs. Donkeys and mules can be hired for moving around the main site and getting up the high paths to the mountain tops and remote sites. Camels are also available but these are only really for decorative purposes and getting up and down the main drag. Wheelchairs would find it difficult to get over the dusty flat paths of the main drag, but certainly not impossible.

Animal welfare: though worked hard, all the animals at Petra I saw looked to be in good health and well-fed. All the horses were adequately shod. Why not take your equine an apple or carrot?


There are toilets built into a rock cut chamber which are spectacularly clean and flush, too! And restaurants and stalls (selling gorgeous locally crafted jewellery) can be found intermittantly throughout the site. Two restaurants at the western end of the Colonnaded street are wonderful. The desserts at The Basin restaurant would please the fussiest of diners!

Back to blog
1 of 3