Ears pop and gears crunch as the road rises higher and higher into the mountains. The route is dream-like. Sharp hairpin bends lead on to steep (apparently vertical) hills. What’s beyond the horizon is anyone’s guess - it feels like we might be driving straight up into the sky.
Our rollercoaster-style ride levels off. Open plains stretch out in front of us. Frontier territory. Bedouin men dressed in jeans and headscarves gallop on horses like wild west cowboys, pick-up trucks stuffed with extended families rattle past. A donkey strolls out in the middle of the road for an impromptu roll around on its back.
The light is fading as we arrive into the centre of Petra. The famous Petra By Night experience kicks off in little under an hour’s time and there’s a palpable buzz about the place.
A visit to Petra in Jordan is the stuff of bucket list dreams. Along with Pompeii, the Taj Mahal and Machu Picchu, it’s one of those destinations we’re told to see before we die. Not only was the ancient city granted UNESCO World Heritage status in 1985, but it was also named one of the New Wonders of the World in 2007. Then there’s the Hollywood effect – anyone who’s seen ‘Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade’ will recognise Petra’s beautiful Treasury building from the final scenes of the movie.
Petra by day is a feast for the eyes, but Petra by Night promises a very special experience for all the senses.
Leaving the visitor centre behind, we set off on the downhill trek. Streetlights and the sound of chirping crickets dissolve into the background. As we enter the Siq, (the 1km-long gorge that leads to the Treasury), it’s pitch dark. That is, apart from the soft glow of candles flickering inside the small paper bags that line the route for as far as the eye can see. We follow the shadowy figures in front, their whispered conversations drifting in and out like ghosts. Underfoot, the ground is dusty and uneven, shifting from rocky grit to Roman-era cobbles, to sand. Glimpses of the moon and stars appear every now and again through crevices overhead. There’s the earthy scent of donkey poo too, but Petra by night is ridiculously romantic.
Located halfway between the Dead Sea and the Red Sea, Petra became the capital of the Nabataean empire in the 1st century BC and prospered through the trade of frankincense, myrrh and spices.
Such is the mystery surrounding Petra’s demise that it has been nicknamed ‘the lost city’. Nobody knows for sure why Petra lay dormant for centuries before it was re-discovered by Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burkhardt in 1812.
And what a discovery it must have been.
Carved from the top down into the dusky pink rock-face, the 40-metre high Treasury, or ‘Al Khazna' building is testament to the remarkable engineering skills of the Nabataeans. ‘Treasury’ may suggest some kind of precious vault filled with mountains of rubies, diamonds and other riches, but archaeologists say the site’s fanciest building was in fact a temple or tomb dedicated to ancient royalty. Today, the Treasury is Petra’s most photographed building and the centrepiece of the Petra by Night experience.
Back at the Siq, the haunting murmur of Arabic music tells us we’ve almost reached our destination. The path widens to reveal a first peek at the sea of candles in front of the Treasury (at least, we imagine it’s the Treasury). It’s so dark that the building is invisible, as is the singer and the assembled audience.
We take a seat on one of the rugs that has been laid out on the ground. Here and there, illicit camera flashes flout the photography ban, but the Treasury remains cloaked in darkness. There’s flute music - the hypnotic, snake-charming kind. The musician is somewhere close by, but unidentifiable. Cups of tea are served to us by anonymous hands. It’s warm, syrupy-sweet and lovely. Just as we’re falling into a trance of Arabic lullabies, a lone figure appears beneath a spotlight. In English, he asks the audience to close their eyes and make a wish. He bellows a countdown: THREE, TWO, ONE… We open our eyes. There’s a collective scramble for iPhones and cameras as the Treasury reveals itself. It’s nothing short of majestic.
A light-show follows, which gives us a chance to see the Treasury lit up in its daytime hue of rose-red.
The show winds down, the crowds depart and the lights dim once more. We stay to photograph the Treasury and its constellation of candles until we’re the last to leave.
And then we take one final look back. Magic.