Petra Rocks!


There’s no denying that Petra is a place that inspires superlatives. It’s one of the world’s über-famous archaeological sites, and like most first-time visitors, we were astounded. With vibrant red, white, and pink sandstone cliffs carved into beautiful, ornate temples and tombs, the city is absolutely awe-inspiring.


We were so impressed by the hand-carved tombs created by Bedouins who live in the area. But the ancient Nabataeans aren’t the only ones who whittled away at the striking cliffs. Mother nature’s relentless sculptors – water and wind – have also been on the job for millions of years.

Liesegang rings photographer

Petra, now and for all its history, has been a desert. A meager 6 inches of rain falls here each year, but because the city sits in a valley surrounded by rugged mountain terrain, most of the water ends up in Petra. As a result, millennia of wind and flash floods have eroded the colorful sandstone cliffs to produce strange and wonderful rock formations, some of which are downright artistic.

Liesegang rings 2

These elegant swirls of ochre and terra cotta are called “Liesegang rings.” Exactly how these strangely beautiful rocks are formed has geologists scratching their heads, but understanding the process isn’t necessary to appreciate their unique appeal.

The Wedding Cake

This light brown wedding-cake formation is a result of “differential erosion.” This is geo-speak for what happens when some parts of the rock wall weather faster or slower than others; softer means fast, and harder means slow.

Differential Erosion

If visitors haven’t seen differential erosion before they arrive in Petra, they certainly will after the long walk along the bottom of the canyon. All it requires is a gaze up the cliff wall.

Weather-Carved Rooms

In a few locations the human carvers have been helped along by nature’s relentless duo. What were once flat walls and precise columns have been reshaped by water and wind into wavy, wonky rooms that would make Dr. Seuss proud.

Rock-cut tombs SL

But not to worry, understanding a bit about the geology of Petra is only a speck of icing on an already well-slathered cake. The complex colors and shapes of the canyon walls are just another reason that Petra has inspired and amazed people for thousands of years.

For the closet geeks out there, if you want to know a bit more about the geology of Petra, geologist Munim Al-Rawi has written a layman-friendly blog post.

And don’t forget, you heard it here: Petra Rocks!

Happy Trails,
James & Terri

Last updated February 5, 2019

Dashing through the Siq

Photo Credits:
8. Etan J. Tal via Wikimedia Commons


We're Terri and James Vance - high school sweethearts who went on to international careers and became world nomads. Today, 65 countries later, we're still traveling ... and still in love. Check out Our Story for more of the backstory at

97 thoughts

  1. Interesting post – it’s amazing what wind and water can do. These beautiful pics are a bit heartbreaking though – our visit was cut a bit short so didn’t see much – our three little ones tired out quickly (although they did really well considering!). I loved Jordan and would return in a heartbeat. Thanks for bringing me back.

    1. Thanks Lynda. What most people don’t find out in advance (including us), is how much walking is involved when visiting Petra. I can imagine that little ones would grow weary with those long walks. And the real killer is that when you finish, the walk home is all uphill – whew. In addition to Petra, we spent a few days in Amman, which was a different kind of fun. ~James

    1. Thanks Anne. Petra is a very special and photogenic place, and if you get a chance, go check it out. We flew in and out of Amman, and visited Petra and didn’t see or hear of any security issues. Of course, there’s always going to be a slight risk in this part of the world, but Petra is such a cash-cow for Jordan that I’m sure the government keeps a close eye on security. ~James

    1. Thanks for the comment and for dropping by the blog. Petra is indeed awe-inspiring and is a world class sight. And the colorful temples and rock formations are some of the most photogenic in the world. ~James

  2. How touristy was it? Was it overrun with other visitors and besieged by hawkers, or did you have the place pretty much to yourself?

    1. Alastair, the day we visited it was cold, and early in the morning it was frigid. This kept the crowds to a minimum. But as the day warmed up, the tour groups started showing up. Petra is world-renowned destination, and crowds are always an issue. So if you plan on visiting, do a bit of research to find out the best times (shoulder season, times of day, busiest days of the week, etc.) Hawkers weren’t a problem, but for more info, check the post we did on the Bedouin. ~James

      1. That makes sense. In my experience, you can usually see any ancient site almost alone if you get there when they just open. 10 a.m is when things get haywire, when the tour buses arrive.

    1. Thanks Darlene. Petra is a world-class sight, and is on the list with places like Machu Picchu. It had been on our list for years, and it was wonderful to finally visit. ~James

  3. An amazing demonstration of what Mother Nature does as the ages pass. Hard to imagine all of the work involved in carving the temples and tombs. Inspiring post!

    1. Thanks Laura. Anybody that says one of my geology posts is inspiring gets my vote. The temples are about 2500 years old, and the rocks they’re carved into are 500 million (yes million) years old. So nature has had lots of time to do her job. ~James

    1. Tess, a lot of things come together to make Petra such a special place: natural beauty, beautiful architecture, and interesting people. Everyone should see it. ~James

    1. Petra is spread out over a large area, and yes it is immense Lynne. For those interested in rocks, the walk in through the canyon is as much fun as the temple carvings. ~James

    1. Jenny, Petra is absolutely a must-see. But there’s lots of walking involved so you may want to delay until your toddler isn’t toddling anymore. If you noticed the horse cart in the final photo you see one option that will make it easier. The walk out is all uphill, so lots of folks choose to hire a cart. The bedouins have this racket down. ~James

  4. Great photos, and enjoyed the geology info.

    I was blown away by Petra. I think it’s worth as much time as you can give it. i had two full days (three nights) and could have used more. The second morning I got up really early (for me…) and there were only four of us in front of the Treasury at 6:15. I also did Petra at night, I hung back so I was behind the crowd and ahead of the flash photographers, and it was magical.

    I was there in 2009, so before the current violence, but I would think Jordan and Lebanon are still safe enough, although I wouldn’t want to get too close to the borders. In Jordan i also recommend the mosaics at Madaba. Again, not just the map in all the tourist brochures, there are a lot more.

    1. We had looked at Nat Geo and Smithsonian articles for years, and did our research well, and we were still amazed at the magnificence of Petra. We also learned that getting out early is definitely the way to go. It was really cold when we were there (it even snowed a bit), and that helped with the crowds. Like you, I think that security isn’t a big deal in Petra. As I said to someone else, Petra is such a cash-cow for Jordan that I’m sure the government keeps a close eye on security. Also, if you haven’t already, go to the link to the geologist’s website and check out the virtual tour. Since you’ve been, it will be a great reminder. ~James

    1. Andrew, I promise that you won’t be disappointed. As I’ve said to others, given its popularity, a visit takes some planning to avoid the crowds. But it’s right up there with places like Machu Picchu and The Great Pyramids, so all serious travelers should have it on their list. I hope you can make it soon. ~James

    1. Thanks for your comment and for dropping by the blog. “The planet beautifies itself.” Well said. I hadn’t thought of it, but you’re right. The first place that comes to mind is the Canyon de Chelly area. ~James

  5. Have never been to Petra, but would love to go there. Thanks for great pics and clever descriptions: “a speck of icing on a well-slathered cake” and all that!!! You are such good writers!!! Thanks for the tour!

    1. Thanks for your kind words Rusha. We always try to make our posts interesting and fun, and it’s heartening to hear that someone notices. Thanks for continuing to follow along. ~James

    1. Thanks Ben. We never take our ability to travel for granted, and being able to share our experiences with our blog readers makes the journey even more enjoyable. ~James

  6. Wow, what a fabulous place. Thank you for this! Love the photos – showing a whole side to Petra that I didn’t know about. Your post makes me want to go see for myself more than ever.

    1. Thanks Alison. I’m sure that you’d enjoy Petra. It was on our list for years, but we seemed to always miss it because it’s not really on the way to somewhere. It takes planning to get there, and we’re glad that we finally made it. ~James

  7. I knew very little about Petra before reading your post… Wow wow wow … Incredible! Both the beauty created by humans as well as that by nature… The wedding cake design indeed looks like a caramel-laden confection!
    Thank you for sharing your journey with us:) And I like you post title too!!!
    Happy Tuesday to you both,

    1. Thanks Lia. Given the age of the temples and the ravages of nature, it’s surprising that they exists at all. And in addition to the ruins, the Bedouins who live in the area make it even more interesting. It’s a unique sight and worth the effort to visit. And on the title, as I said to another commenter; It isn’t often that I can work in a little geology humor, but I couldn’t resist this one. ~James

      1. Wow, that is an area of the world that I’d love to see…Bedouins, desert, ruins…your photos were incredible.
        Hope to get there one day! And I liked your geology humor 🙂
        All my best,

    1. Thanks very much. Petra is one of those unique places that most people recognize instantly, because they’ve seen wonderful photos of the ruins in lots of places. ~James

  8. Ah James, spoken like a true geologist, which, if my memory serves me correctly, you are. (Or have I been indulging in Oregon weed?) The colors and textures, and erosion are what I love about the Southwest so much. It even has it’s own cliff dwellings. 🙂 –Curt

    1. Someone else mentioned similarities to the SW Curt, and now that you mention it, you’re right. I’ve been to a couple of the cliff dwelling parks and I love them. In a geologic sense, the rocks in the SW are generally much younger, but the composition is similar; hence the similar color and weathering style.

  9. Very clever title and I appreciated all of the inclusion of photos I have not seen of Petra. So what do you think about travel to Petra in light of current political climates. I would love to go but certainly am more hesitant these days to consider it. I would appreciate your thoughts.

    1. Sue, we’ve traveled (and lived) in some dicey areas, but my approach on travel in any area with potential problems is always the same. I do a thorough google search on the areas where I will be. I check travel forums (e.g. Lonely Planet, Trip Advisor) and see if there are any threads about problem areas. I go to the US State Department website and read their country report as well as their travel warnings. This site has lots of great security info. We always travel independently and never with tours, we keep our American passports in our pockets, and try to be as unobtrusive as possible. But having said all this: I think that security isn’t a problem in the area around Petra. The ruins are such a cash-cow for Jordan that I’m sure the government keeps a close eye on security. And I will also say, if you can make it; do NOT miss Petra. It will be a lifetime memory. ~James

      1. James I value your advice a great deal. Sound ideas for traveling pretty much anywhere I think. I will keep Petra on the bucket list for sure. 🙂

  10. This place is most certainly on my bucket list. I love how you included photos of the geology not just the main areas that are regularly photographed. I only want to visit it more than ever after seeing your photos and hearing of your experience.

    1. I’ve always love antiquities, but as a geologist, the rocks at Petra made it even better. The long canyon that leads to the main ruins runs gradually downhill. This is cool and beneficial for geologists because you start at the top of the formation (youngest rocks) and walk progressively down the formation into progressively older rocks. More info than you needed I’m sure, but just another thing to think about when you visit. ~James

  11. Not sure I will ever get there given how many other places are on our list so thanks for giving us a peek into this stunning landscape.

    1. LuAnn, Petra is a joy, and if you’re ever in the neighborhood (and you might be) you should definitely see it. In addition to being beautiful, it’s a very large ruin. There’s nothing like it in the world. ~James

    1. Thanks for the comment Manuela and for for dropping by the blog. Petra is a very photogenic place, and if you get a chance to go, you definitely should. ~James

  12. Bucket list for sure! Have you seen the show An Idiot Abroad? The Petra episode is hysterical!

  13. Wow. Wow. Wow. Absolutely spectacular!!
    In the 2nd photo, I was amazed at the sheer size of this rock wall carving with the person on the left for perspective!

    1. Joanne, this carving was one in a long row of temples. I can’t imagine how spectacular it must have been when newly carved. The troubles in the area have added a bit of risk for travelers, but if you ever get chance to see Petra grab it. It’s worth the effort for sure. ~James

    1. Thanks for the comment Stephanie and for dropping by the blog. If Petra is on your list, it should be close to the top. It’s fabulous and one-of-a-kind. I hope you can make it soon. ~James

  14. Sarah’s been lucky enough to already have visited, but not I.

    Has been on the wishlist since I saw it as much younger version of myself (possibly thanks to Indiana Jones…)

    Thanks for highlighting more than just the iconic pieces!

    1. I can hear Sarah saying: “Chris, you really need to see Petra!” and she’s right. It’s world-class, and I put it on the list with Machu Picchu, and the Valley of Kings. I hope you can see it soon. ~James

  15. Terri & James, I appreciate your focus on Petra’s geology, even though the history of the Nabateans is intriguing as well. My parents and I spent Thanksgiving at Petra a few years ago, and it was certainly one of our most memorable trips together. We glimpsed the Treasury by luminary light for the first time, then hiked up to the Monastery the next day. I wish we’d had more time to stroll to the various sites; the engineering in itself was fascinating.

    1. I’m sure the the night show was wonderful Tricia. When we visited it was freezing, so after a full day at the ruins, our cozy, warm hotel room was just too comfortable to leave. And I agree about the history of the Nabateans. I thought about writing a post on their water management engineering skills. In that desert climate, necessity is the mother of invention and they handled it brilliantly. ~James

  16. Absolutely amazing! I’ve never been to Petra so thanks for taking me there with you. Do you recommend a specific time of the year to travel to Petra?

    1. Virginia, like many tourist attractions, when to visit Petra is about crowds and weather. Petra is a popular destination, but the troubles in the area may have decreased the crowds somewhat. We visited in January, and the weather was cold (it even snowed a bit), the mornings particularly. There were crowds but they weren’t bad. It’s a desert, and summers are hot so this cuts down on the crowds. I think the peak seasons are Oct-Nov and Feb-Mar. So bottom line is try to avoid peak seasons and decide your tolerance for some potential unpleasant weather in the shoulder seasons. It’s about balance and money really. I hope you can visit. ~James

    1. Thanks Carla. Petra had been on our list forever, and it was fabulous. Between your leg problems and falling trees, you’ve certainly been having a run of bad luck. We hope that everything gets better soon.

    1. Thanks for the comment Christie and for dropping by the blog. I don’t know where Petra is on your list, but it really should be toward the top. It was on our list for years and we’re so happy to have finally visited. It’s right up there with Machu Picchu, Angkor Wat, Valley of the Kings, etc. I hope you can make it to this fabulous location. ~James

      1. Btw you have a great blog, I’m glad I have discovered! I shall probably revisit my list, I was always thinking that Petra is not quite safe.. In the meantime I will “travel” with you both:) Cheers, Christie

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