Thursday, April 16, 2015

Thursday, April 16, 2015 - No comments

Journey to Jordan #7: Petra By Night

Indiana Jones was speechless when he first laid eyes upon it in The Last Crusade.  The characters in the Agatha Christie novel “Appointment with Death” (which I’d brought on the trip for “ambience reading”) found it to be a perfect backdrop for murder.  My own first glimpse of Petra’s Treasury was no less full of awe.

Upon our arrival in Wadi Musa (the town just outside the ancient site) we purchased tickets for Petra By Night.  Trip Advisor reviews had prepared us for “a mediocre performance of traditional Bedouin music” and “lukewarm mint tea”, but the allure of the Siq (the long rock-walled passageway leading into the city) aglow with candlelight far outweighed the potential for disappointing entertainment, so we bundled up and off we went.

We arrived just after dark and, joining the thin crowd (“War is not good for tourism,” our taxi driver had said), were led in a hushed procession through the tight space.  A desert-sky thick with stars was visible through the narrow opening between the cliff-faces overhead and the pathway was lined with thousands of “lanterns” made from candles set in paper bags.  The ground was muddy in some spots, thanks to that morning’s rain, but with the help of the candlelight, we managed to avoid stepping in any horse poop left behind by the day’s explorers.  

1.2 kilometres feels like an eternity when you’re on an uneven path in the dark.  I kept expecting to see the Treasury around the next corner, and was continually rewarded instead with more candles and curves.  And then all of a sudden, when I’d stopped anticipating and settled into the walk, there it was, framed by a jagged slit in the rocks, positively glowing.  

The facade was illuminated by hundreds of candles arranged at its feet.  Our Bedouin hosts, barely visible in the flickering light, arranged us in rows on mats, and I closed my eyes to avoid getting a migraine from the frenzy of flashes as a hundred other people simultaneously recorded the beauty of the Treasury for posterity.  

The magnificent building, carved directly from the sandstone surrounding it in the first century AD, was originally used by the Nabataeans as a mausoleum.  Its pillars are crowned with figures related to the afterlife, including four eagles said to carry away the souls of the dead.  It is said that the Treasury earned its name due to an urn on the second level where a pirate hid his substantial treasure.  Apparently the urn is full of bullet holes from when a group of Bedouins tried to shoot the urn open to uncover the loot.  Imagine their disappointment when they found out that inside the urn was....solid rock.  

When everyone was settled, our silhouette of an emcee appeared, his shadow swelling and swaying against the candlelit backdrop, and he welcomed us in an impressive string of languages.  His accent was tricky and I couldn’t hear him very well, but I caught wisps of what sounded like “traditional music of the desert” and “sit back and enjoy the show.”

For the next half hour, various solo musicians treated us to an assortment of Bedouin tunes.  From their places in different corners of the stone gallery, the lively voice of a flute, then a stringed instrument, then another flute rang out in the darkness.  With each performer, lights positioned a little ways up the back cliff wall caused the Treasury to brighten, sharpening its shadows and defining its details.  The scene before me was mesmerizing, but when I leaned back on my elbows and looked up, that was when the show really took off for me.

That sky.  Stars - millions of them on display in a visual concert of their own.  Barely aware of the narrator’s comments, I drank in the beauty on the canvas overhead, and when I joined in the audience’s applause, it was more for the Artist than anyone else.  

When the music had finished, men brought around trays of hot tea (that Trip Advisor commenter must have hit them on an off night) and we sipped ourselves warm in the chilly night air.  Picking our way back through the candle-lined passageway, I watched the light dance on the soaring rock walls overhead, catching mysterious glimpses of a grave carved out here, a statue in a niche there.  As the path broadened at the mouth of the Siq and we made the climb up the last hill, the candles on the path ahead seemed to merge seamlessly with the twinkling lights in the night sky.  

And it's hard to say which shone brighter.