Now having been there, and walked the ancient paths and stairways, I can say that expectations don't matter. Nothing could have prepared me for the impact of emerging from the cool, richly-coloured rock walls of the siq and seeing the Treasury for the first time, glowing in the morning sunlight.
That was just the first thing we saw and, as we made our way along the canyon, more and more details of Petra became clear. Centuries of flooding had washed down stones and sand to partially fill the streets and low doorways. A wide amphitheater, carved in perfect detail into solid rock, presented on our left, waiting for the next audience and list of players. The benches were worn smooth, and silent.
We had heard that the Monastery was the best place to go, and worth the walk. What amazed us was the number of seemingly active people who thought it was just too far to drag their sorry arses, so they rode donkeys up to it instead. The path followed natural shelves and steps in a steep defile, doubling back on itself many times. Stalls made of steel pipe roughly welded together and filled with trinkets lined the way. Behind low curtains I could sometimes see a dim, narrow space with a tiny fire flickering in a ring of stones, a steaming kettle perched on top.
If the Treasury is the most well-known facade in Petra, I think the Monastery is the most stunning. It towered above us on the uppermost cliff and commanded a wide view over a chaotic, jagged mountain range that simmered in the heat. Cafes were arrayed opposite, the farthest one perched on the edge of a sheer drop, held up by optimism and bits of old steel pipe. We had expected Petra to be heaving with tourists, but the crowds up there were not bad. A tribe of ginger cats surveyed people from the shade. The wide basin in front of the Monastery was busy, but not overcrowded.
We felt sorry for the donkeys. One was hiding under an overhang in the shade, next to a massive drop. Another sad individual was hobbled in the sun, a master at showing its dejected expression. Succumbing to its plight, we gave over some food and water from our lunch. It didn't look like a fun place to be a donkey.
Our trail ended at the aptly-named Cafe at the End of the World. It offered a shady spot to enjoy sweet tea, while a deep and rugged canyon yawned at our backs. I had never seen such a powerful, desolate and beautiful landscape in which to build a city.
We retraced our steps, pausing at the Roman colonnaded street, then climbed the cliffs to the Tombs of the Kings where we could see the city laid out below us. On the path back down, I saw a tourist riding a donkey, blithely surfing on her phone while the donkey guy trudged behind her in the dust. Nothing much has changed since the times of the Pharos, it seems.
We returned to the Treasury, past tribes of self-absorbed Instagrammers, before walking slowly up the siq. The mystery of Petra faded behind us.