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Petra: The Definitive Guide

Petra Monuments
Text from "Petra Book" by Jane Taylor

High Place of Sacrifice View in Photo Gallery

Of all the Nabataean high places, the most important seems to have been the High Place of Sacrifice on the summit of Jabal Madhbah. Once it was reached from every direction by a multitude of rock-cut stairways, but today only two of these are restored and passable. One starts from near the theater and climbs up Wadi Mahafeer; the other runs through Wadi Farasa on the western side of the mountain. The Wadi Mahafeer route is the grander of the two, a stately processional ascent, for which whole rock-faces were sliced to make way; but both stairways show the monumental labour performed by those early Nabataeans to provide safe access to their main cult center.

The High Place occupies the crest of the mountain which was levelled by Nabataean chisels. Just beyond a rock-cut rainwater cistern is a large rectangular court, roughly 14.5 by 6.5 metres, cut into the rock to a depth of about 40 cms and aligned on a north-south axis. Around it on three sides are the remains of cut benches, very much like the feasting triclinia found throughout Petra. Near the center of the court, a small raised platform, possibly used by the officiating priest, points towards a raised plinth on the west. Four steps lead to the top, on which there is a rectangular depression, perhaps the slot in which stood the betyl, or block of stone representing the deity – probably Dushara, and perhaps al-'Uzza too. An altar, also reached by four steps, lies immediately south of it, a round basin carved into the top with a channel running from it, perhaps for the blood of the sacrificial victim. Small cisterns carved into the rock below it may have contained water for ritual ablutions.

What form the Nabataean cultic rituals took is unknown; so, too, is the purpose of the sacrifices – to atone for sin, to appease an angry god, or to court the god's blessing? It is thought that the Nabataeans, like most of their Semitic neighbours, sacrificed animals and birds, and also grains, oil and milk, and the whole performance was doubtless accompanied with the burning of frankincense, one of their most precious trading commodities. Perhaps the surrounding benches, with their triclinium-like aspect, indicate that the rituals culminated in a shared feast in honour of Dushara and al-'Uzza.

Near the High Place, poised on the edge of a rock, some broken walls are all that remain of a Nabataean building – perhaps a fort guarding their most holy place, or a look-out post. It seems to have been put into renewed service by the Crusaders, but its tumbled stones have never been excavated.

Below the High Place is a large, flat terrace. Standing about thirty metres apart on it, and aligned exactly east-west, are two tall obelisks, part of the bedrock. To create them, the Nabataeans performed the prodigious task of slicing some six metres off the top of the mountain; but whether the rock was cut specifically to form these obelisks as representations of Dushara and al-'Uzza, as many people believe, remains an open question. It may have been merely a quarry (for the stone to build the fort-like structure), and the obelisks simply quarry-markers. Or, since the Nabataeans combined both practical and spiritual qualities to such a striking degree, it is not impossible that they decided to transform their quarry – so close, as it was, to their most important cult center – into an aide-mémoire of the divine.

Lion Fountain View in Photo Gallery

Also part of this water system was the Lion Fountain, carved into a rock-face further up the path to the High Place of Sacrifice. The head is now missing, but water once poured through the lion's gaping mouth into a basin below – a welcome respite for pilgrims on their way to the High Place. Lest religion should be forgotten in the joy of refreshment, a handy wayside altar is cut into the rock nearby.