Monday, 18 March 2013

Petra by Night

I first visited Petra 19 years ago, when Narrelle and I were living in Egypt and decided to take a holiday overland through Syria and Jordan.

Almost two decades on, much has changed in the region - Syria is deeply enmeshed in a tragic civil war, while Jordan seems to be more skilfully navigating the labyrinthine twists and turns of the Arab Spring.

Much is different in and around Petra too. The neighbouring town of Wadi Musa has ballooned since 1994, with many new hotels and businesses serving the travellers who flock to see the ancient city. The site also seems better managed, with well organised refreshment stalls and a good restaurant, the Basin.

Candle power

Another innovation is Petra by Night. Taking place after sunset, this event allows visitors to see part of the city in a literally different light.

After the usual closing time, The Siq - the long winding canyon which is the entrance to Petra - is lit only by candles, neatly spaced all the way along its length. At its end, walkers enter the large open space in front of the Treasury, the famous building carved from stone which featured in the third Indiana Jones film.

It's a brilliant concept, and there was a touch of magic about the experience as our group started walking along the path on our first evening at the site. The sky was clear, abundant with stars and a sharply-defined crescent moon. It was pleasantly cool with a dash of humidity, attractive walking weather.

Watch your footing

However, a couple of potential negatives became quickly evident.

Firstly, I found it hard to look up at the craggy beauty of the canyon walls or the stars above them, because the dimly lit surface was uneven enough that I had to constantly watch my footing. In the daylight it's no challenge at all, but by night I was wary of twisting an ankle.

Perhaps a partial solution to this issue would be to provide soft additional illumination of the canyon walls at strategic points. This would also highlight some of their interesting features, such as the distinctive wall carvings which appear along the route.

Talkative travellers

Secondly, humans were being, well, human and talking all the way down the Siq. Silence would have aided contemplation, but instead I was immersed within a sea of chat about itineraries and tonight's dinner and where you could get some washing done (truly!).

My Amsterdam-based colleague Shaney Hudson wrote about this issue a few weeks ago for Australia's Fairfax Media - you can read her article here.

To be honest, I didn't mind the chat so much. Niebuhr's Serenity Prayer begins with the line "God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change"; and no-one assembling this many excited people in one place could realistically expect them to walk in silence. In its heyday, too, Petra would have been a noisy, bustling place, and an echo of this human messiness seemed not out of place.

Gaps and lights

However, because I was pausing occasionally to brace my camera and mini-tripod against the canyon wall in a doomed attempt to capture the scene, I unwittingly drifted toward the back of the line. Before I knew it, I suddenly experienced moments where I was the only person in sight along a stretch of canyon. That was pretty special.

Then I arrived at the Treasury and was plunged back into the masses who were seated on long stretches of matting, some standing and smoking at the back.

Between us and the Treasury was a magical scene: hundreds of candles within their crinkly containers, a sea of light below the ghostly outline of the facade which the Roman-era Nabateans carved out of the rock. This was seriously atmospheric.

Music in the dark

What followed was a short cultural performance. First an oud player struck up, barely visible. He was succeeded by a flute player, who moved toward us among the candles. After him was a vocal performer who spoke some stirring lines about the site. After this the event was over, and we walked back up the Siq.

Although the music was beautiful, the performance seemed too short and the vocal section too difficult to clearly hear. It would be good perhaps to see more components added, with a contextual link to the city's past.

Also, I think we were all half-expecting the Treasury to be illuminated at some point; to suddenly floodlight it at the end of the event, even for a moment, would make for an impressive climax.

The night before the day after

Having said all that, Petra by Night was a memorable experience. If taken before a daytime Petra visit it could act as a teaser, revealing a little of the site and sparking a desire to return during the day and see what lies beyond the Treasury's plaza.

Hopefully the concept will develop further over time, making it more of a must-see event.

Petra by Night costs 12 dinars ($16); for more information on Petra, see the Jordan Tourism Board's website.

Disclosure time... on this trip I was hosted by the Jordan Tourism Board.