Petra offers many extraordinary sights. It’s not possible to visit this ancient city without feeling at least a little awed by the majesty of your surroundings, and the skill of Nabataean architects. Standing in the centre of Petra on the floor of Wadi Musa, the towering mountains of red sandstone carved with Nabataean tombs are spectacular and make you feel spectacularly small.
Make the trek to one or more of Petra’s High Places, sacred sites where the Nabataean’s prayed and sacrificed to their gods, and you get a view over the city and its surrounding landscape that can compete with any panorama anywhere in the world.
I walked along a ridge opposite the Great Temple that took me past a former royal palace and a Byzantine-era church with an exquisite mosaic floor. The views back towards the ancient city centre were fabulous. Passing a couple of Bedouin souvenir stalls I crossed an old water channel and climbed upwards towards the wondrous Royal Tombs.
On the far left of the Royal Tombs is the start of a trail that leads sharply up hill towards Al Khubtha, a sacred site where the Nabataeans would have sacrificed sheep, goats and even camels to their gods. There is an alter here and channels where the blood of the sacrificed animals would have run into a basin. It offers tremendous views over the city and the amphitheatre.
The track descended towards my final destination, a viewing point perched precariously 200 metres up on the cliff edge overlooking the Treasury. It was a slog to climb up the mountainside but the views really were extraordinary. This is not a place for those with vertigo, looking down on the Treasury is dizzyingly perpendicular.
It’s fascinating to stand here and watch the comings and goings below. People ride camels, tour groups pass through, conversations, amplified by the canyon below, resonate upwards. There are a couple of Bedouin tents at the viewing point, but when I arrived there was no one there. After a while a donkey carrying an Australian woman and led by a young Bedouin man arrived.
We had a quick chat and then the young Bedouin did something inexplicably risky. He jumped down the rocks and sat on the very edge of the cliff and started to play a flute. If I hadn’t felt quite so anxious for his safety I might have enjoyed the flute playing a bit more. There is something unsettling about watching someone dangling their legs over a vertical drop to certain death.
I left him to play on, whether the people in the wadi below could hear the music I couldn’t tell. I hope so. He was clearly a modern day Bedouin Pied Piper because, after not seeing anyone else on the mountainside, on my way down I met several people and small groups on their way up.
I passed a goat herd along the trail. I’m not sure why, but they decided, en masse, to follow me down the mountain. I stopped to let them pass, they stopped and stared at me. I carried on walking, they followed behind. I started to feel like they had malicious intent, like they might be about to avenge the many goats that had been sacrificed to the Nabataean gods. They seemed unconcerned by my concerns.
Near the bottom of the trail they finally overtook me and disappeared. It was touch-and-go, but I’d survived a close encounter with homicidal goats, probably descended from forebears sacrificed on this very mountainside.
*Line from the poem Petra by John William Burgon