After you’ve finished coping with the practicalities of bed and board in Wadi Musa, PETRA comes as an assault on the senses. As you leave the entrance gate behind, the sense of exposure to the elements is thrilling; the natural drama of the location, the sensuous colouring of the sandstone, the stillness, heat and clarity of light – along with a lingering, under-the-skin quality of supernatural power that seems to seep out of the rock – make it an unforgettable adventure.
Whether you’re in a group or alone, you’d do well to branch off the main routes every now and again. These days Petra sees somewhere around three thousand visitors a day in peak season. The place is physically large enough to absorb that many (although archeologists and environmentalists are both lobbying for controls on numbers), but the central path that runs past the major sights can get busy between about 10am and 4pm. Taking a ten- or fifteen-minute detour to explore either side of the path or wander along a side-valley is a good idea, since not only does it get you out of the hubbub, but it’s also liable to yield previously unseen views and fascinating little carved niches or facades. All over Petra, the Nabateans carved for themselves paths and signposts, shrines and houses in what seem to us remote and desolate crags.
If you have the option, you should also plan to start out as early as possible. The first tour groups set off by 8.30 or 9am, which brings them noisily through the echoing Siq to the Treasury as the sun strikes the facade (which you shouldn’t miss). However, the experience of walking through the Siq in silence and alone is definitely worth at least one 6am start.Read More
- The Bab as-Siq
From the crowded, horse-smelly bridge, the path drops sharply down over the lip of the dam into Petra’s most dramatic and awe-inspiring natural feature – the Siq (meaning “gorge”), principal entrance into the city, yet invisible until you’re almost upon it.
The Siq was formed when tectonic forces split the mountain in two. The waters of the Wadi Musa subsequently found their way into the fault, laying a bed of gravel and eroding the sharp corners into curves as smooth as eggshell, helped by the cool winds that blow in your face all the way down. At the entrance to the gorge, the path was originally framed overhead by an ornamental arch, which collapsed in 1896 although its abutments survive, decorated by the smoothed-out remnants of niches flanked by pilasters.
Walking the Siq
The path along the wadi bed twists and turns between high, bizarrely eroded sandstone cliffs for 1.2km, sometimes widening to form broad, sunlit open spaces in the echoing heart of the mountain, dotted with a tree or two and cut through by the cries of birds; in other places, the looming 150m-high walls close in to little more than a couple of metres apart, blocking out sound, warmth and even daylight.
All the way along the left-hand wall is a Nabatean rock-cut water channel, and on the right-hand wall you’ll see the remains of terracotta pipes for water, both probably dating from the same time as the reorganization of the city water supply that prompted the building of the dam. At various points, you’ll be walking over worn patches of the Roman/Nabatean road which originally paved the Siq along its entire length, in between stretches of newly consolidated pathway. High, narrow wadis feed into the Siq from either side, most of them blocked by modern dams (often set back to show the remains of the original Nabatean dams) to limit both flood danger and unauthorized exploration: once you’re in the Siq, the only way is onward or backward.
Dotted along the walls at many points are small votive niches, some Greek-style with pediments, others with mini god-blocks. After about 350m, a small shrine has been carved on the downhill side of a freestanding outcrop of rock, with two god-blocks, the larger of which is carved with eyes and a nose. A little further on, on the left-hand wall at a sharp right-hand bend, is a merchant in Egyptian-style dress leading two large camels; the water channel originally ran behind all five sets of legs, and it’s just possible to trace the worn outline of the camels’ humps in the rock wall.
When you think the gorge can’t possibly go on any longer, there comes a dark, narrow defile, framing at its end a strip of elegant classical architecture. With your eye softened to the natural flows of eroded rock in the Siq, the clean lines of columns and pediments come as a revelation. As you step out into the daylight, there is no more dramatic or breathtaking vision in the whole of Jordan than the facade of the Treasury.
- The Treasury
Just past the Street of Facades sits Petra’s massive Theatre. Obviously classical in design and inspiration, it’s nonetheless been dated to the first century AD, before the Romans annexed Nabatea but at a time when links between the two powers must have been strong. Though the Romans refurbished the building after they took over in 106, the basic design is Hellenistic, with seats coming right down to the orchestra’s floor level. As many as 8500 people could be accommodated, more even than in the vast theatre at Amman. Aside from the stage backdrop and the ends of the banks of seating, the entire edifice was carved out of the mountainside; one whole row of tombs was wiped out to form the back wall of the auditorium, leaving some of their interiors behind as incongruous gaps. Recent renovation work has built up the stage area, with its niches in front and elaborate scaenae frons behind (tumbled in the earthquake of 363), the high back wall of which would have sealed off the theatre from the street outside.
The path continues past cafés and stalls on both sides down to a point at which the Wadi Musa turns sharp left (west) into the city centre. Straight ahead the valley opens up towards Beidha, with the Wadi Mataha coming in from the northeast, while way up to the right, some of Petra’s grandest monuments have been etched into the East Cliff.
The East Cliff
The East Cliff
About 250m beyond the theatre, just before the Wadi Musa makes its sharp left turn, modern steps lead to the East Cliff, looming up to the right. This whole elbow of Jabal al-Khubtha is ranged with some of Petra’s most impressive facades, collectively known as the Royal Tombs. If you have anything more than half a day in Petra, you should fit them in; the climb is easy and the views are marvellous. From down below, in the direct, reddish light of late afternoon, the entire cliff seems to glow with an inner translucence, and is one of the sights of Petra. However, it’s probably best to aim to be up here in the morning shadows, with the sun lighting up the valley and the mountains opposite.
From right to left, the first tomb on the cliff – separate from the big ones, and missable if you’re short of time – is the Tomb of Unayshu, viewed in profile from the Outer Siq and easiest to get to by scrambling up the rocks opposite the High Place staircase. This is part of a complete Nabatean tomb complex, and features a once-porticoed courtyard in front, with a triclinium to one side.
The Urn Tomb
Heading north from the Tomb of Unayshu above the main path, past another well-preserved tomb facade, you join the modern steps leading up to the soaring facade of the Urn Tomb, with its large colonnaded forecourt partially supported on several storeys of arched vaults. The Bdul know the tomb as Al-Mahkamah, “the Court”, dubbing the vaults As-Sijin, “the Jail”. Whether or not it was later used in this way, the whole structure would seem originally to have been the tomb of somebody extremely important, quite probably one of the Nabatean kings – but who exactly isn’t known. Set into the facade high above the forecourt between the engaged columns are spaces for three bodies; this is a unique configuration in Petra, since such loculi are normally inside the monument, and they seem to have been placed here as an indication of the importance of their occupants. The central one – possibly that of the king himself – is still partially sealed by a stone which formerly depicted the bust of a man wearing a toga. The urn which gave the tomb its name is at the very top.
Due, no doubt, to its dominating position in the city’s landscape, the Urn Tomb was later converted into a major church, possibly Petra’s cathedral; the large interior room features, near the left-hand corner of the back wall, a Greek inscription in red paint recording the dedication of the church by Bishop Jason in 447 AD. Probably at the same time, two central recesses of the original four were combined to make a kind of apse, and myriad holes were drilled in the floor to support all the relevant ecclesiastical furniture: chancel screens, a pulpit, maybe a table, and so on.
The view from the forecourt, which takes in the full sweep of the valley (and even the urn atop the Monastery), is one of Petra’s best.
The Silk Tomb
Working your way around the cliff from the Urn Tomb, you’ll come to the Silk Tomb, unremarkable but for its brilliant colouring. It was named for its streaks of vibrant colour, from pinks and blues to yellows and ochres, which appeared to archeologists and historians similar to the rippled sheen of moire (watered or “shot” silk).
The Corinthian Tomb
Next to the Silk Tomb, the facade of the Corinthian Tomb (named by a nineteenth-century visitor, though it’s Nabatean, not Corinthian) is something like a squat, hybrid Treasury. It has the Treasury’s style on the upper level – a tholos flanked by a broken pediment – but below, it’s a mess, the symmetry thrown out by extra doors on the left. It has also suffered badly at the hands of the wind. However, such an exposed position on the corner of the cliff – directly in line with the Colonnaded Street – points to the fact that, like the Urn Tomb, this may well have been the tomb of another Nabatean king, visible from everywhere in the city.
The Palace Tomb
Adjacent to the Corinthian Tomb is an even more ramshackle jumble, the very broad Palace Tomb, boasting one of Petra’s largest facades. It has at least five different storeys, the top portions of which were built of masonry because the cliff turned out to be too low, and so subsequently collapsed. The unevenly spaced line of engaged columns on the second row clashes nastily with the orthodox lower level. Protected by the cliff, the extreme right-hand edge of the facade still has some sharply carved detail surviving.
The Sextius Florentinus Tomb
From the Palace Tomb, tracks lead west towards the city centre. Continue hugging the cliff northeast to find the peaceful Sextius Florentinus Tomb, positioned facing north where a finger of the cliff reaches the ground. Sextius Florentinus was a Roman governor of the Province of Arabia who died about 130 AD, and must have chosen to be buried in Petra rather than in the provincial capital of Bosra. The facade of his tomb, with a graceful semicircular pediment, is one of the most charming in the city.
The Carmine Tomb
A few metres north of Sextius Florentinus, behind a tree, stands the spectacular Carmine Tomb, girt with breathtaking bands of colour, but, by virtue of its position, hardly ever noticed. Wadi Zarnug al-Khubtha, which divides the two, holds a path which gives reasonably easy, if steep, access to little-visited High Places and a few scattered ruins perched atop the massive Jabal al-Khubtha, the main barrier standing between Petra and Wadi Musa town. The views from on top are tremendous – especially of the theatre – but you’d have to be keen (and sure-footed) to try it.
We cover the continuation of this path, northeast along the Wadi Mataha.
Petra city centre
Petra city centre
As you round the corner of the path leading from the theatre, the city centre of Petra, focused along the Cardo Maximus, or Colonnaded Street, stretches out ahead, framed by the barrier range of mountains – and the flat-topped giant Umm al-Biyara – behind. Although there are excavations continuing on the flat, rounded hills to either side, the overall impression is of rocky desolation; nonetheless, in Petra’s prime, the landscape in all directions was covered with buildings – houses big and small, temples, market-places – all of them long since collapsed. Many archeologists theorize that most of Petra is in fact still hidden beneath the dusty soil, and that all the facades and what few buildings have so far been exposed are the tip of the iceberg.
Until you reach the Temenos at the far end of the Colonnaded Street, the only monument actually on the street is the Nymphaeum, although both the northern (right-hand) and southern (left-hand) slopes hold plenty of interest.
One of the few trees in the city centre – a huge, lush pistachio – stands proudly over the ruined Nymphaeum, originally a Roman public fountain, these days more popular as a shady hangout for the bedouin police than anything else. Virtually nothing remains of the ancient superstructure, and even the retaining wall is modern. However, its location is key, at the confluence of the Wadi Musa, flowing from east to west, and the Wadi Mataha, bringing the water diverted by the dam at the Siq entrance into the city from the northeast. It may also have been the terminus for the terracotta pipes and channels bringing water through the Siq itself. The sight and sound of water tumbling from such a monument must have been wonderful in such a parched city centre.
The Nymphaeum is where you’ll end up if you’ve walked the Wadi Muthlim route from the dam; it’s equally possible to walk the route in reverse, although the initial stretch will be down in the wadi bed, and less appealing than following the East Cliff around to join Wadi Mataha further north. You should allow around three hours from the Nymphaeum to circumambulate Jabal al-Khubtha and get back to the gate.
The Colonnaded Street
From the Nymphaeum all the way along the paved Colonnaded Street westwards, columns on your left (south) stand in front of what have been dubbed Petra’s markets. Ranged along street level, to either side of grand staircases, were small shops, which may have been refitted in the Byzantine period; some have been renovated, but work to excavate the floors and outbuildings remains ongoing.
To your right (north), slopes – formally dubbed Jabal Qabr Jumayan – host the Petra Church, with its superb mosaics, and a clutch of smaller Byzantine sites on the hills above, as well as one of the city’s longest-running excavations, the Temple of the Winged Lions.
If you walk dead ahead down the Colonnaded Street, without diverting to either side, you reach a ruined gateway giving into Petra’s sacred temple precinct, the Temenos.
The Petra Church
Above and behind the Nymphaeum stands a modern shelter protecting the Byzantine Petra Church, as it’s been called. This is a large tripartite basilica, roughly 26m by 15m, with three apses to the east and three entrances to the west, accessed from a stone-paved atrium. It was built in the late fifth century, and remodelled about fifty years later. Around 600 it was burned, and remained derelict until earthquakes shook it down shortly afterwards. Surviving in both aisles of the church, though, are superbly detailed floor mosaics depicting the bounty of creation, dated stylistically to the early sixth century. The presence of such a large church so richly decorated – and the discovery of the Petra scrolls – merely highlights how little is known about Byzantine Petra, and how much awaits discovery. Much of the stone used to build the church was pilfered from the ruined Nabatean and Roman monuments all around, and now lies tumbled down the slopes in front.
From beside the Petra Church, fine views extend over the valley. To the left is the East Cliff; ahead is the Great Temple; and to the right you can clearly see the unusual Unfinished Tomb, carved into the base of Al-Habees.
The spectacular south-aisle mosaics are in three rows, the central line of personifications of the seasons flanked by rows of animals, birds and fish. From door to altar, the middle line features fishermen and hunters interspersed with Ocean (with one foot on a fish), a delightfully clear-faced Spring, and Summer with her breast bared and holding a fish. The north-aisle mosaics depict people and indigenous and exotic animals and birds, including a camel-like giraffe, a hyena, boar, bear and leopard. Archeologists also found thousands of gilded glass tesserae, indicating that lavish wall mosaics once adorned the church, and they managed to reconstruct – from more than a hundred pieces – a huge marble tub with panthers for handles (which is now in the Basin Museum).
At the rear (west) of the atrium is a superbly well-preserved fifth-century Baptistry, with a cruciform font surrounded by four limestone columns.
The Blue Chapel
On a ridge just above the Petra Church is the partially reconstructed fifth-century Blue Chapel, so named for its bluish Egyptian granite columns, which were moved here presumably from a destroyed nearby monument or building. It’s tiny, and seems to have had access only via a small staircase from above, leading archeologists to theorize that this may have been the private chapel of a resident bishop, rather than a public building.
The Ridge Church
A short climb to the top of the hill that peaks behind the Petra Church brings you to the austere Ridge Church, another small building (some 18m by 13m) perched on a ridge at the northwestern edge of Byzantine-era Petra, overlooking the Wadi Turkmaniyyeh behind and the whole of the city centre in front. Its position suggests it may originally have been a military lookout post, which was converted in the late fourth century into a church. Much of the interior paving survives, but there’s no decoration. What’s most interesting about the place is that archeologists found almost no remnants of the building’s superstructure nearby, although they did find a hoard of water-washed stones in the church courtyard brought up from the wadi below. From this confusing evidence, they came up with an elaborate theory for the church’s destruction. At a time of increasing political instability, they postulate, the Petrans deliberately dismantled the church – which lay hard up against the city wall – in order to use its stones as missiles against invaders approaching from below. When the church had been razed, they collected more stones from the wadi to hoard against future attacks, but these were forgotten as, possibly, the city was overrun from a different direction. Any truth in this tale has yet to be confirmed.
The Temple of the Winged Lions
Overlooking the Temenos Gate west of the Petra Church is the Temple of the Winged Lions, the principal building of the northern slope. It was named for unusual column capitals featuring winged lions (one of which is in the Basin Museum), but would – so the excavator suggests – have been more appropriately named the Temple of al-Uzza, for it seems to have been dedicated to her. Dated approximately to the early first century AD, the building was approached via a bridge across the Wadi Musa, parts of which you can still see on the banks. Worshippers would have proceeded across ascending terraces, an open colonnaded courtyard and a portico into the temple itself, featuring close-packed columns and an altar platform. The floors were paved in contrasting black, brown and white marble, and the walls decorated with painted plaster. Archeologists uncovered both a painter’s workshop – with paints and pigments still in their ceramic pots – and a marble-cutter’s workshop adjoining the temple.
One of the most spectacular discoveries, also now on display in the Basin Museum, was a small rectangular stone idol, complete with a stylized face and a hole between the eyes (possibly for a set of horns, the symbol of the goddess Isis, to be inserted); the inscription along the base reads “Goddess of Hayyan son of Nybat”. Adjacent to the temple to the east is a large unexcavated area of rubble deemed to have been a royal palace, also with a bridge over the wadi, but no work has as yet been done on it.
The Garden Terrace
Across on the southern side of the Colonnaded Street, on the slopes above street level, an area has been recently identified as an expanse of ornamental gardens, dubbed the Garden Terrace. This was laid out in Petra’s “golden age” – the late first century BC – as a place of refuge in the city centre, tucked in amongst the grand public buildings and busy shops all around. In front, nearest the street, was a flat area that comprised the gardens themselves. Behind, occupying the whole southern part of the terrace, was a large pool, 43m long by 23m wide (and about 2.5m deep), surrounded by a colonnade. Occupying an island in the centre of the pool was a small, rectangular pavilion. The beauty of such a site can only be imagined.
The Great Temple
Alongside the Garden Terrace at the western end of the street, and accessed by a set of steps leading up from the street, is a late first-century BC building that has been dubbed the Great Temple, though not even the deity who was worshipped here is known. Ongoing excavation work by a US team suggests that this extremely grand affair, one of the largest complexes in the city at seven thousand square metres, might not have been a temple at all. Originally designed perhaps as some kind of gathering place or trade centre, then later adapted into a council chamber or even quasi-religious performance space, it seems as though the building – whatever it was – went through several incarnations, from one function to another, over centuries.
In its final, grandest phase access was via a staircase from street level through a monumental gateway onto a hexagonally paved lower courtyard, featuring triple colonnades to east and west culminating in semicircular benched alcoves.
Steps climbed again to the temple itself – if that’s what it was – some 25m above street level, fronted by four enormous columns which were originally stuccoed in red and white. Within stands a renovated Nabatean theatre, about 7m in diameter, which would have seated up to six hundred people, perhaps for performances, perhaps as a debating hall of sorts. The whole building is extremely complex, set on different levels, with internal and external corridors flanking it on east and west. Columns and chunks of architectural elements (many of them beautifully carved) all point to the fact that this was one of Petra’s most important monuments. You can even spot capitals here carved with the heads of Indian elephants – a symbol, perhaps, of just how cosmopolitan and well-connected the Nabatean traders were in their heyday.
Scramble to the highest point of the walls for views west to the arches of the Crusader fort atop Al-Habees, north across the wadi to the Temple of the Winged Lions, behind which lie the valley tombs of Wadi Muaysreh ash-Shargiyyeh, and northeast to the Petra Church, with Umm Sayhoun behind it and Mughur an-Nassara to one side.
The Monastery route
The Monastery route
Petra’s most awe-inspiring monument is also one of the most taxing to reach. The Monastery (Ad-Dayr or Ad-Deir in Arabic) boasts a massive facade almost fifty metres square, carved from a chunk of mountain nearly an hour’s climb northwest of the city centre, 220m above the elevation of the Qasr al-Bint. Daunting though this sounds, there’s a well-trodden route the whole way – involving roughly eight hundred steps – as well as plenty of places to rest; a tranquil holy spring two-thirds of the way up is almost worth the climb by itself. Even if you’ve had your fill of facades, the stupendous views from the mountain-top over the entire Petra basin and the Wadi Araba make the trip essential.
Whether you want to ride a donkey to the summit or not (prices are very negotiable), you’ll most likely have to beat off the hordes of kids riding alongside offering them as “Air-condition taxi, mister?” Bear in mind that the archeological authorities would prefer that you walked: all those hooves are seriously degrading the Nabatean-carved sandstone steps on the route up. The best time to attempt the climb is in the afternoon; not only is the way up mostly in shadow by then, but the sun has moved around enough to hit the facade full-on.
Walking up to the Monastery
The walking route passes in front of the Basin restaurant and museum, and leads dead ahead into the soft sandy bed of the Wadi ad-Dayr. The steps begin after a short distance, and soon after there’s a diversion pointed left to the Lion Triclinium, a small classical shrine in a peaceful, bushy wadi, named for the worn lions that flank its entrance. A small, round window above the door and the doorway itself have been eroded together to form a strange keyhole shape. The frieze above has Medusas at either end; to the left of the facade is a small god-block set into a niche.
The processional way up is broken after another patch of steps by a sharp left turn where the Wadi Kharrubeh joins from in front; a little way along this wadi – off the main path – you’ll find on the right-hand side a small biclinium, a ceremonial dining room with two stepped benches facing each other. Back on the path, after a step-free patch, the climb recommences. Some twenty or thirty minutes from the Basin, where the steps turn sharply left, you can branch right off the main path into a narrow wadi; double-back to the left, follow a track up and then right onto a broad, cool, protected ledge overlooking a deep ravine below. This is the Qattar ad-Dayr, an enchanted mossy grotto enclosed by high walls, completely silent but for the cries of wheeling birds and the continual dripping of water; it’s a perfect spot for a picnic. Here, the one place in Petra where water flows year-round, the Nabateans built a triclinium and cisterns, and made dozens of carvings, including a two-armed cross.
As the steps drag on, the views begin to open up, and you get a sense of the vastness of the mountains and valleys all around. With tired legs, it’s about another twenty minutes to a small sign pointing right to the Hermitage, a sheer-sided pinnacle of rock featuring a less-than-gripping set of caves carved with crosses. Another ten minutes, after a squeeze between two boulders and a short descent, and you emerge onto a wide, flat plateau, where you should turn right for the Monastery.
The Monastery facade is so big that it seems like an optical illusion – the doorway alone is taller than a house. A local entrepreneur has thoughtfully set up a café in a cave opposite: sink down at one of the shaded tables in front to take in the full vastness of the view. At first glance, the facade looks much like the Treasury’s, but it’s much less ornate; indeed, there’s virtually no decoration at all. The name “Monastery” is again a misnomer, probably suggested by some crosses scratched inside; this was almost certainly a temple, possibly dedicated to the Nabatean king Obodas I, who reigned in the first century BC and was posthumously deified. Inside is a single chamber, with the same configuration of double staircases leading up to a cultic niche as in the Qasr al-Bint and the Temple of the Winged Lions. The flat plaza in front of the monument isn’t natural: it was levelled deliberately, probably to contain the huge crowds that gathered here for religious ceremonies. You can pick out traces of a wall and colonnade in the ground to the south of the plaza, near where you entered. The opposite side (the left flank of the monument as you face it) has a scramble-path leading up to the urn on the top of the facade, which is no less than 10m high. Leaping around on the urn is a test of mettle for the local goat-footed kids, and some even shimmy to the very top; follow them with your life in your hands.
Around the Monastery
There are dozens more monuments and carvings to explore around the Monastery, not least of which is a cave and stone circle directly behind the refreshments cave. At any point, once you climb off ground level, the views are breathtaking. The cliff to the north of the facade is punctuated for well over 100m with Nabatean caves, tombs and cisterns; some 200m or so north of the Monastery, you’ll find a dramatically isolated High Place, with godlike views over the peaks down to the far-distant Wadi Araba, over 1000m below.
The only route back into Petra from the Monastery is the way you came up. Like all these descents, it’s too rocky and isolated even to think about attempting it after sunset.
The High Place of Sacrifice route
The High Place of Sacrifice route
Back near the theatre and Street of Facades, a signposted set of steps leads south up a rocky slope to the High Place of Sacrifice, a diversion off the main path, but an unmissable part of a visit. Even if you have only one day in Petra, this is still worth the climb, about thirty or forty minutes with safe steps at all tricky points – there’s no scrambling or mountaineering involved. You can return the same way, but steps also lead down off the back of the mountain into Wadi Farasa, forming a long but interesting loop that delivers you (after about two and a half hours) to the Qasr al-Bint. The breathtaking views and some of Petra’s most extraordinary rock-colouring make the hike worthwhile, quite apart from the wealth of Nabatean architecture at every turn and the dramatic High Place itself. The path is well travelled, and you’re unlikely to find yourself alone for more than a few minutes at a time.
Walking up to the High Place of Sacrifice
The steps up are clearly marked beside a souvenir stall and toilet block. They are guarded by several god-blocks, and wind their way into the deep ravine of the beautiful Wadi al-Mahfur. At several points, the Nabatean engineers took their chisels to what were otherwise impassable outcrops and sliced deep-cut corridors through the rock to house the stairs. It’s a dramatic walk.
The sign that you’re reaching the top, apart from one or two rickety café-stalls, is the appearance on your left of two very prominent obelisks, both over 6m high. As in the Bab as-Siq and elsewhere, these probably represent the chief male and female Nabatean deities, Dushara and al-Uzza, although far more extraordinary is to realize that they are solid: instead of being placed there, this entire side of the mountain-top was instead levelled to leave them sticking up. The ridge on which they stand is still marked on modern maps with the bedouin name of Zibb Attuf, the Phallus of Mercy (often adapted to Amud Attuf, the Column of Mercy), implying that the notion of these obelisks representing beneficial fertility was somehow passed down unchanged from the Nabateans to the modern age. Opposite stand very ruined walls, the last remnants of what could have been a Crusader fort or a Nabatean structure. Broken steps lead beside it up to the summit.
The High Place of Sacrifice
As you emerge onto the hand-levelled platform atop the ridge, the sense of exposure after the climb is suddenly liberating. The High Place of Sacrifice (al-Madhbah in Arabic) is one of the highest easily accessible points in Petra, perched on cliffs that drop an almost sheer 170m to the Wadi Musa below. It’s just one of dozens of High Places perched on ridges and mountain-tops around Petra, all of which are of similar design and function. A platform about 15m long and 6m wide served as the venue for religious ceremonies, oriented towards an altar, set up on four steps, with a basin to one side and a socket into which may have slotted a stone representation of the god. Within the courtyard is a small dais, on which probably stood a table of (bloodless) offerings.
What exactly took place up here – probably in honour of Dushara – can only be guessed at, but there were almost certainly libations, smoking of frankincense and animal sacrifice. What is less sure is whether human sacrifice took place, although boys and girls were known to have been sacrificed to al-Uzza elsewhere: the second-century philosopher Porphyrius reports that a boy’s throat was cut annually at the Nabatean town of Dunat, 300km from Petra. At Hegra, a Nabatean city in the Arabian interior, an inscription states explicitly: “Abd-Wadd, priest of Wadd, and his son Salim… have consecrated the young man Salim to be immolated to Dhu Gabat. Their double happiness!” If such sacrifices took place in Petra, the High Place would surely have seen at least some of them.
It’s also been suggested that Nabatean religion incorporated ritual exposure of the dead, as practised among the Zoroastrians of Persia; if so, the High Place would also have been an obvious choice as an exposure platform. You can survey the vastness of Petra’s mountain terrain from here, and the tomb of Aaron atop Jabal Haroun is in clear sight in the distance.
The ridge extends a short distance north of the High Place, nosing out directly above the theatre, with the tombs of the Outer Siq minuscule below. From here, it’s easy to see that the city of Petra lay in a broad valley, about a kilometre wide and hemmed in to east and west by mountain barriers. North, the valley extends to Beidha, south to Sabra. It looks tempting to scramble down the front of the ridge, but there is no easily manageable path this way; it would be dangerous to try it.
Walking down from the High Place via Wadi Farasa
It’s easy to go back the way you came, but the route down the western cliff of the Attuf ridge via Wadi Farasa is preferable. The route leads directly straight ahead (south) as you scramble down from the High Place past the ruined Crusader walls. After 50m you’ll come to stairs winding downward to your right along the valley wall; the way is often narrow and steep but always clear. Note that it’s also possible to descend via Wadi Nmayr, parallel to Wadi Farasa, but this is a very difficult, concealed path and should only be attempted with a knowledgeable guide.
The Lion Monument
Part of the way down into the Wadi Farasa you’ll come to the Lion Monument carved into a wall. This may have been a drinking fountain, since a pipe seems to have fed water to emerge from the lion’s mouth. The creature itself, as on the Treasury facade, represented al-Uzza, and the monument was probably intended both to refresh devotees on their way up and prepare them for the ceremonies about to be held at the High Place.
The Garden Triclinium
The precipitous stairs beyond the Lion Monument, which give views of the facades below, bring you down to the Garden Triclinium, a simple cave overlooked by a huge tree in a beautiful, hidden setting, which got its name from the carpet of green that sprouts in springtime in front of the portico. Two freestanding columns are framed by two engaged ones; within is a small square shrine. Stairs to the right of the facade lead to a huge cistern on the roof, serving the Roman Soldier Tomb below.
The Roman Soldier Tomb
A beautiful set of rock-cut stairs to the left of the Garden Triclinium brings you down to the complex of the Roman Soldier Tomb. Although not immediately apparent, the two facades facing each other here across the wadi formed part of a unified area, with an elaborate colonnaded courtyard and garden between them, long vanished. The tomb is on your left, a classical facade with three framed niches holding figures probably representing those buried within; the interior chamber has a number of recesses for the dead. Its name is based on the middle of the three figures, a headless man wearing a cuirass – but it’s misleading: the tomb is Nabatean, not Roman.
Opposite the tomb, with an eroded but undecorated facade, is a startlingly colourful triclinium, unique in Petra for having a carved interior. The walls have been decorated with fluted columns and bays, all worn to show streaks of mauves, blues, pinks, crimsons and silver. Why this triclinium was decorated so carefully, and who was buried in the tomb opposite, isn’t known.
The Renaissance Tomb and Broken Pediment Tomb
Stairs lead down over the lip of a retaining wall to the wadi floor, and it is around here that the colouring in the rock is at its most gorgeous. Plenty of tombs crowd the lower reaches of the wadi; one of the most interesting is the Renaissance Tomb, topped by an urn and with an unusual arch above its doorway also carrying three urns. Nearby is the Broken Pediment Tomb, above the level of the path, displaying an early forerunner of the kind of broken pediment found on Petra’s grandest monuments, the Treasury and the Monastery.
As you emerge from Wadi Farasa into the open, you should bear in mind that you’re still the best part of half an hour from reaching the main routes again. From here onwards, though, there’s not a scrap of shade and you’re quite often walking in stifling, breezeless dips between hills. In addition, the path isn’t immediately clear. You should bear a little right, initially keeping out of the wadi bed, and aim for the left flank of the smooth rounded hill dead ahead. This hill is Zantur, where a Swiss team have excavated the residential mansion of a wealthy first-century AD Nabatean merchant – a lavish two-storey affair which would have towered above the city, offering sweeping views. More houses have been uncovered on the Zantur slopes, which crunch underfoot with fragments of pottery: as well as coarse, crudely decorated modern shards, there are countless chips of beautiful original Nabatean ware – very thin, smooth pottery that’s been skilfully painted. As long as you don’t start digging, you can take whatever you like.
The path from Wadi Farasa eventually curls around to the western flank of the Zantur hill, and Amud Faraoun (“Pharaoh’s Column”), also called Zibb Faraoun (“Pharaoh’s Phallus”). This standing column, which must have formed part of the portico of a building – part-visible buried in the rubbly hill behind – now serves as a useful landmark and resting spot. Paths converge here from all sides; to the southwest is the main route into Wadi Thughra towards Umm al-Biyara, Jabal Haroun and Sabra; to the west is a path accessing a route up al-Habees; to the northwest are the Qasr al-Bint and the tent cafés; and to the northeast a path runs behind the markets area of the city centre, parallel to the Colonnaded Street.
Jabal Haroun (Mount Aaron)
Jabal Haroun (Mount Aaron)
Jabal Haroun – Aaron’s Mountain – is the holiest site in Petra and one of the holiest in Jordan, venerated by Muslims as the resting place of Prophet Haroun, as well as by Christians and Jews (Haroun is Aaron, brother of Moses). Some local resistance to tourists casually climbing the mountain simply for the views, or to gawk, still persists: you should bear in mind that this is a place of pilgrimage. The trip there and back takes at least six hours from Petra city centre, involving a strenuous climb of almost 500m (a donkey can take you for all but the last twenty minutes), and you shouldn’t attempt it without a guide, six to eight litres of water, some food, respectable clothing and a sense of humility. Don’t bother if you’re expecting an impressive shrine (it’s small and unremarkable) or outstanding views (they’re equally good from the Monastery and Umm al-Biyara). If you choose to visit, you should consider bringing a sum of money with you to leave as a donation.
Rosalyn Maqsood, in her excellent book on Petra, explained the power of Jabal Haroun well:
Believers in the “numinous universe” accept that certain localities can be impregnated with the life-giving force of some saint or hero – transforming the sites into powerhouses of spiritual blessing. Traces of their essential virtue would cling to their mortal leavings even though their spirits had passed to another and better world. Holiness was seen as a kind of invisible substance, which clung to whatever it touched. So the virtues (the Latin word virtu means “power”) of saints would remain and be continually renewed and built up by the constant stream of prayer and devotion emanating from the pilgrims who found their way there. These places are visited to gain healing, or fertility, or protection against dangers psychic and physical, or to gain whatever is the desire of the heart. Jabal Haroun is such a place… There is nothing there, really, and no one to watch you – so why should you remove your shoes, or leave an offering? Only you can answer this.
From the cultivated area near the Snake Monument, a path leads down into the Wadi Magtal ad-Dikh. A little beyond a cemetery on the right-hand side, and past a rock ledge called Settuh Haroun (Aaron’s Terrace) at the foot of the mountain, where pilgrims unable to climb make an offering (Burckhardt slaughtered his goat here in 1812), there is a reasonably clear path up the mountain. Check in the tent at the bottom of the mountain whether the guardian will be around to open the shrine at the top; if not, you should collect the keys from him before heading up. Read a detailed account of the route at w walkingjordan.com.
A plateau just below the summit was the location of a Byzantine monastery dedicated to Aaron; excavations here are ongoing. The small domed shrine of Haroun on the peak – visible from all over Petra and Wadi Musa – was renovated by the Mamluke sultan Qalawun in 1459, replacing earlier buildings which had stood on the same site. Up until then, the caretakers had been Greek Christians, and it was in the late sixth century that the Prophet Muhammad, on a journey from Mecca to Damascus, passed through Petra and climbed Jabal Haroun with his uncle. The Christian guardian of the shrine, a monk named Bahira, prophesied that the boy – then aged 10 – would change the world. Today, pilgrims bedeck the shrine with rags, twined threads and shells, the Muslim equivalent of lighting a candle to the saint.
Joining the Wadi Musa between the Qasr al-Bint and the Basin Restaurant, Wadi Turkmaniyyeh – also often called Wadi Abu Ullaygeh – is a very pleasant walking route to follow out of Petra to the north, a small sandy valley with the 100m-high jagged cliffs on your left contorted into weird shapes. Along the bank runs the only driveable track into and out of Petra, currently forbidden to non-locals without written permission from the Wadi Musa tourist police (though plans are afoot to consolidate the road and open it to tourist traffic).
Along the way there are two groups of tombs: if you enter the Wadi Muaysreh ash-Shargiyyeh, which joins Wadi Turkmaniyyeh on the left barely five minutes from the restaurant, after about 350m you’ll come to a dense gathering of facades. Back in Wadi Turkmaniyyeh, after five minutes’ walk further northeast you’ll see, ranged up on the Muaysreh Ridges to your left, plenty more rock-cut facades, with niches, double-height courtyards and a tiny High Place dotted among them. Either of these areas would repay scrambled exploration, well away from the crowds. Both Wadi Muaysreh ash-Shargiyyeh and its neighbour Wadi Muaysreh al-Gharbiyyeh provide walks (7km; 2hr 30min) linking Petra with Little Petra, emerging from Petra’s valley onto a cultivated plateau 4km southwest of Little Petra (which is concealed behind a small hill).
The Turkmaniyyeh Tomb
About 1km along Wadi Turkmaniyyeh from the Basin restaurant you’ll see the facade of the Turkmaniyyeh Tomb on the left, with the entire bottom half broken away. Between the two pilasters is the longest inscription in Petra in Nabatean, a dialect of Aramaic, dedicating the tomb and the surrounding property to Dushara. All the gardens, cisterns and walls mentioned in the inscription must have been swept away by the floodwaters of the wadi, as, indeed, the facade almost has been.
From here, the road begins 1500m of tight switchbacks as it climbs the ridge to the police post on the outskirts of the modern Bdul village of Umm Sayhoun. Buses shuttle regularly from the village’s main street into Wadi Musa town, about 4km away, curling around the head of the valley.
“Little Petra” (Siq al-Barid)
“Little Petra” (Siq al-Barid)
Petra’s northern suburb of Siq al-Barid, 9km north of Wadi Musa town, is often touted to tourists as “Little Petra” – which, with its short, high gorge and familiar carved facades, isn’t far wrong. However, although it sees its share of tour buses, the place retains an atmosphere and a stillness that have largely disappeared from the central areas of Petra. Adding in its location in gorgeous countryside and its proximity to Beidha (a rather less inspiring Neolithic village), it’s well worth half a day of your time.
The route to Little Petra follows the road north from the Mövenpick hotel. A short way along, where the road curves left, you can park on the shoulder for one of Petra’s best views, a breathtaking sweep over the central valley of the ancient city, with many of the monuments in view, dwarfed by the mountains.
Further on, past the Bdul village Umm Sayhoun, the road heads on across rolling, cultivated uplands that are breathtakingly beautiful after Petra’s barren rockscapes. About 8km from the Mövenpick, at a T-junction, head left for 800m to the end of the road. You are now beyond Bdul territory in the lands of the Ammareen tribe; a signpost points off the road to the Ammareen campsite. In the small car park you’ll likely be approached by Ammareen kids hawking trinkets and guides offering their services.
This whole area was a thriving community in Nabatean times, and there’s evidence in almost every cranny of Nabatean occupation. Just before you reach the Siq entrance, there’s a particularly striking facade on the right, with a strange, narrow passage for an interior.
As you enter, you’ll realize why this was dubbed Siq al-Barid (the “Cold Siq”): almost no sun can reach inside to warm the place. It’s only about 350m long, with alternating narrow and open sections, and differs from most areas of Petra, firstly in the density of carved houses, temples and triclinia – there are very few blank areas – and secondly in the endearingly quaint rock-cut stairs which lead off on all sides, turning it into a multistorey alleyway that must once have hummed with life. Feel free to explore. In the first open area is what was probably a temple, fronted by a portico, below which is a little rock-cut house. The second open area has four large triclinia, which could have been used to wine and dine merchants and traders on their stopover in Petra. A little further on the left, stairs climb up to the Painted House, a biclinium featuring one of the very few Nabatean painted interiors to have survived the centuries: on the ceiling at the back is a winged cupid with a bow and arrow; just above is a bird, to the left of which is a Pan figure playing a flute. The third open area culminates in rock-cut stairs which lead through a narrow gap out onto a wide flat ledge; the path drops down into the wadi (Petra is to the left), but you can scramble up to the right for some excellent views.
Petra by night
Petra by night
In times gone by, a visit to Petra wasn’t complete without spending a night in the ruins, wandering the rocky paths by moonlight and sleeping in a tomb cave. This is now banned – which led an informal group of Wadi Musa tour operators to come up with a new approach to Petra that aims to recapture some of that romantic spirit of adventure (and largely succeeds). “Petra By Night” is an after-dark guided excursion into the ancient city that adds an entirely new dimension to your experience of the place; the candlelit walk, leaving the lights of Wadi Musa behind to enter the pitch-dark valley in silence (talking and mobile phones are banned), is magical. Nothing can match the atmosphere of walking through the Siq at night, with only the light of candles placed every few metres to guide the way. The climax comes as you reach the Treasury plaza, where candles throw flickering shadows onto the great facade as a bedouin musician plays on a pipe. The magic lingers while tea is served and you listen to a story told by a local guide.
“Petra By Night” runs every Monday, Wednesday and Thursday, departing at 8.30pm from the Visitor Centre (arrive 15min early to register), and delivers you back to the Visitor Centre around 10.30pm. Tickets cost JD12 in addition to your Petra admission ticket. You must book in advance – even just a couple of hours ahead is fine – either through your hotel or directly with a local tour company, such as Petra Moon.
The walk has become so popular that it’s not uncommon to have 150 or 200 people setting out together. The best advice in these circumstances is to linger at the very back of the crowd: that way, you avoid most of the chatter on the way down and will be walking through the Siq more or less alone in the moonlight. The bedouin piper keeps playing until everyone has arrived at the Treasury, so you won’t miss anything. Then there’s nothing to stop you heading back early, before the crowd, for another lonesome walk in silence through the Siq, beneath moon and stars.