Australia's favourite blogger Not Quite Nigella, aka Lorraine Elliott, immerses herself in the history and spiritual traditions of Petra.
Travelling overseas with 25-odd travel writers is always an interesting experience. People break off and form groups while others wander off by themselves. In our circle we were discussing how travelling in a media group (which is how a lot of travel journalism is done) means we are busy dashing from place to place, often missing out on spontaneous interactions with locals.
The situation changes that very evening. We have arrived at Petra, location of one of the world's most incredible sights. It's a regular feature on travellers’ must-visit lists. UNESCO World Heritage-listed since 1985, the rose-coloured city was discovered by the Western world in 1812. It was the home of the Nabatean kingdom, which comprised traders and warriors.
Well preserved, the area was often subjected to flash floods. The kingdom took advantage of this and cleverly controlled the precious water supply via a system of dams, water pipes and conduits. Because of everyone's fascination with Petra, it is also considered one of the most threatened landscapes. The biggest threats are unsustainable tourism, collapse of structures and erosion, among others. Still, people can't help but flock in droves to catch a glimpse of the facades that reveal so much about ancient life.
During the evening, there is a Petra by Night event, which starts at 8:30pm. People take the all-terrain walk towards Al Khazneh (the Treasury building). The path consists of sand, smooth stones and rubble, lit by glowing red paper bag candles. The 1.5-kilometre walk takes around 45 minutes and is downhill towards the Treasury.
What greets us at the end of the walk is the sight of countless candles, which give off a faint illumination of the intricately carved Treasury building. Everyone takes a seat on the mats and is offered cups of sweet tea. A man sings plaintively. They're classic, traditional songs and he greets us warmly first before he sings with his rababa. A ney pipe player then plays five pieces. If only the people around us would stop talking. Conversations are being had all around us even though the singer had firmly asked for no talking. People get up in the middle of performances and crunch gravel heavily while moving away. Petra by Night is a spiritual and beautiful performance for some. For others, even among our group, it is not. I overhear someone from our group say: "If I had known this was it, I wouldn't have bothered."
After the performances we are invited to walk around. Because of its UNESCO world heritage status, the Treasury building cannot be illuminated. Visiting during the day will provide much more detail. A man approaches Vanessa and me. He tells us he is a supervisor there and we talk to him about the Petra by Night show. He is young but walks with a cane and is very friendly. He tells us that tonight, almost 1,500 candles were lit starting at 5:30pm. (Usually about 800 candles are lit.) They hold these Petra by Night shows three days a week and sometimes have private shows for wedding couples where the staff stand off to the side and the couple are given the area to themselves while being treated to these beautiful performances.
We suddenly realise that our group has disappeared. We thank the man and make our way back rushing because the crowds have dispersed and the long sandstone passages of the Siq still lit with candles seem almost eerie when there are just the three of us. He appears beside us. I'm surprised at his speed, given the cane. "Come over here," he says. "I want to show you something secret." He points to an area of rock where the ancient Nabateans had carved a caravan of camels and a single trainer into the rocks. It's a little like a 3D image and it's upon close, concentrated inspection that you catch glimpses of the camels and their faces and shapes.
Thanking him, we pick up speed as we want to make sure that everyone isn't waiting for us. It's late and everyone is likely to be tired and possibly cranky. "But I want to show you something else," he says. We look at each other. A part of us loves this special tour but another part knows that people must be wondering where we are and the siq is getting more isolated and dark. "It is very quick. Give me your water," he says to me and he splashes it into a small hole in the sandstone wall.
Read the rest of the post here.