Petra PDF Print E-mail
Written by Stephen Langfur
Article Index
The Siq
The "Treasury"
"Qasr al-Bint"
Civic Center
"Deir" ("Monastery")
High Place

High Place of Sacrifice

The ancients sought their gods in the sky, linking them to the sun, the moon, the stars and the weather (though they also found gods in the earth). Often they worshipped on mountain tops. For example, Zebulon and Issachar called the tribes to their mountain and made offerings there (Deuteronomy 33:19) . We read that Joshua built an altar to the Lord on Mt. Ebal above Shechem Joshua 8:30) . The Greeks looked to Olympus. On the mountains surrounding Petra, then, it is not surprising to find special places cut in the rock. Most of these, writes Jane Taylor  (p. 138), are small and intimate, probably intended for family use. By "family" we should probably understand the extended family, the clan. But three larger high places stand out. One, on al-Khubta, is quite extensive, with courtyards, altars, feasting areas, water basins and a big vaulted cistern. It is to be reached, writes Taylor, by "a long and tortuous flight of rock-cut steps." A second is on al-Habis, the massif overshadowing Qasr al-Bint. A third, the best known to modern visitors, is the High Place of Sacrifice on Mount Madhbah. This is the one we shall visit here.

There are two ways up. You can use the steps that begin on the south side of the theater, or you can take a trail that starts between the "Great Temple" and Qasr al-Bint. This leads through Wadi Farasa, enabling you to visit the "Tomb of the Roman Soldier" and its triclinium on the way. Steps then lead up from this (west) side. I prefer to use Wadi Farasa going up and later to descend with the steps to the theater. If you make the descent toward day's end, you may be accompanied by the music of the women who sell wares at various points and sing in response to one another.

The climb takes about an hour without side visits, and of course one must have plenty of water, best carried in the belly.

According to Taylor (p. 138), the Nabataeans had about eight processional staircases leading up. Cutting the steps into the rock must have been an enormous labor, undertaken for an important purpose. Near the top two obelisks come into view. The rock around them has been cut into a terrace. Then the remains of a structure appear (see photo, left). It probably belonged to the propylaeum, the ornamental entrance. For now we enter the high place itself, pictured here (looking south):

Petra: The High Place of Sacrifice 

Here is a frontal view:

The High Place of Sacrifice, looking west

The steps in the center of the photo above lead to a platform with a niche that held a stele . The steps on the left lead to a shallow circular basin that is cut in the rock (see photo, below); it has a narrow drainage channel. This may have been used in ritual washing, but it could have been for sacrifice. In that case, the blood would have been collected and sprinkled over the stele. To this we may relate the words from the Suidas about a large stele representing the god Dushara: "To this they burn incense and against it they pour the blood of the sacrificial animals. And that is their form of libation."  

Was there human sacrifice? Browning cites one Nabataean inscription from Hegra that refers to a young man being consecrated "to be immolated" to a god. But that is all we have on the subject.

Looking again at the picture including the group above, we note that the high place is arranged as a triclinium . Could this be related to the absence of triclinia in the royal tombs? The question leads to a hypothesis, debated by scholars since the late 1960's, concerning the main use of the high places. It is suggested that this one, as well as the other two major examples with their processional staircases, were appointed for the exposure of dead kings.
The Nabataeans, writes Judith McKenzie (p. 114) "appear to have included almost every variation in the treatment of the body, including ordinary burial, burial with lime, possibly burial after exposure, partial cremation, and cremation." Warwick Ball (p. 69) has suggested that the corpses of the kings, as well as other royalty, were carried up to high places on the surrounding mountains and there exposed until the flesh was gone. The bones would then have been placed in the niches that we noted in the royal tombs.
Ball's suggestion receives support from a curious statement in Strabo (Geography, Book XVI, Chapter 4, Par. 26). The ancient geographer's informant was a friend who had lived for a time in Petra: "They have the same regard for the dead as for dung…and therefore they bury even their kings beside dung-heaps." Nothing could be less true, as we know from the tombs. It has been proposed that Strabo confused a Semitic word for tomb with the Greek for dung, because the two have a similar sound. But it is also conceivable that his friend reported a Nabataean custom of exposing their kings on mountains, and Strabo, horrified, interpreted this as if they were disposing of the corpses like dung.

A possible Zoroastrian connection

We have already noted the Persian influence among the simpler rock-cut tombs at Petra. The Nabataeans had close contact with the Parthians, who had taken over the Persian realm. The religion of the Persians was Zoroastrianism, which was very strong in Mesopotamia and Iran during Petra's heyday. Zoroaster (also known as Zarathustra) viewed reality in terms of a battle between good and evil, light and darkness. He saw such strife in the composition of the human body as well. The sacred text of this religion, the Avesta, was already in existence. Its purity laws forbid burial in the earth, for it holds that the earth is sacred and that burial would contaminate it. It ordains instead that the dead should be exposed on mountain tops. The flesh is to be eaten by birds and dogs. The mourners should fasten the corpse with stones or other means, so that the beasts cannot drag pieces to rivers or towns, for this would sully them. The idea is to attain the quickest possible separation of the flesh, which is considered evil, from the bones, because the bones are permanent and retain the person's spiritual goodness. Having heard this instruction, the Zoroastrians ask their god, Ahura Mazda, what they should then do with the bones. He tells them to make a receptacle out of stone, plaster or clay, beyond the reach of animals and in which rainwater cannot gather.

A later Zoroastrian text, from the 9th century AD (which preserves ancient practices) describes the receptacles in greater detail, and here we seem to come close to the niches in Petra's royal tombs. The mourners are to elevate the bone-receptacle to a place high enough so that the animals cannot reach it, and they are to put a roof over it so that rain will not enter. Even better, says this source, the bone-receptacle should be a vault of solid stone, and it is to be covered by a single stone with a hole in it to allow light in.

Since the people of Petra buried most of their dead in the earth, we cannot suppose that they were Zoroastrians. It is possible, though, that the kings, whose tomb styles were so different from those of hoi polloi, may have adopted the Persian custom.

This may also help explain the fact that we find such large rooms behind the façades - but without burial chambers. We read in the Zoroastrian texts that the spirit of the dead remains on earth for three days, after which it must cross a bridge to reach the realm of the blessed. During those three days, the person's past sins attack in the form of demons, and if they prevail he will fall from the bridge into hell. The mourners (some no doubt victims of the dead man's sins) keep a vigil during these three days and bake cakes, offering them to guardian angels whose task is to expel the demons. These are three days of trial for the dead. It is hard to picture people doing such a thing for three days and nights on a mountain top in nasty weather. But perhaps they kept the body in the large room of the tomb (in an alcove?) during the days of trial, baking cakes for the angels, burning frankincense and carrying out the requisite ceremonies to help the dead king in his passage. On the fourth day they would have borne the body to the peak and held a ceremony, including sacrifice, there.

From the staircase to the High Place