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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.