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.