sarah walton

The Magic and Majesty of Petra at Night

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I’m in a womb, with three hundred siblings. It’s dim, warm, quiet. All I can hear is the rebab, as its melancholy wail reverberates off the walls surrounding us, and the occasional murmur of one of my twins. I can see just the golden pinpoints on the cool sandy floor, and diamond shards in the night sky above. The sky is close, curved unnaturally around us in this eerie atmosphere. And to my left, a looming relic. So totally enormous I feel like I am no longer a person, but a tiny tiny thing – a mouse, a lizard, a speck of caviar. A breeze joins us from a hidden aisle, and I close my eyes. The music encloses on me. My son nestles into my lap, fetal. He’s completely afraid of the dark, and yet here, in a cavern, with no unnatural light, in the middle of nowhere, he’s asleep.

Soon the silence is broken, ironically, with the cessation of the music. All the other mice clap, and I open my eyes and remember that I’m not alone. Chatter, the strobing of flash, and clashing applause bring me back to today. I’ve put my camera away with my voice, I might regret it later. I am at one of the seven wonders of the world, a tourist destination of the highest order, and to my surprise, even the cringing cynic in me is spellbound. The camera just can’t capture this, and I miss out if I stick myself behind the lens. My husband grinns like a loon. My eldest son is gobsmacked, frozen in gape – a miracle, I believe. We are at ancient Petra. At night.

The mewing strings of the rebab give way to a flute – open and woody, breathy and piercing. The musician weaves his way through the people and the candles, his long Bedouin garb swaying and stroking the sandy floor as he goes. The 300 people are so quiet, even with my eyes closed, I can tell exactly where he is. Another man serves mint tea or qahwah sweetened and mild for the tourist palate – even my son enjoys it. Then begins the story.

“Wake up my son!” he cries. Again and again. His accent is thick, and the echoing chasm makes a mockery of him. “What am I doing here?” he asks, pacing before us with questioning arms open wide. I’m not entirely sure. I can’t understand him. I think he is personifying the Treasury, waking it from its two-thousand year sleep, asking it what it is, what purpose it may have. I can’t find the answer, nobody can. Like Stonehenge, this monument will baffle all those who attend it. Who made it? Why? How did they survive in this dusty corner of Maan? Why would they want to live out here anyway? Is it faintly possible what some say about Petra being the true birthplace of Islam?

All I know is that sitting here, in this secluded nest, I feel magic around me. If God was to visit me anywhere, it would be here.

— xx —

Forget what you read elsewhere about the tackyness of Petra by Night – it’s no Pyramids light show. Go, but BEFORE you see it during the day. With all experiences in the dark, the mystery is gone if you know where you are going. And without the mystery, it’s simply 1800 candles in paper bags on the sand with more than the faintest whiff of donkey poop in the air. Walking the winding siq however, without knowing which corner will be the one that reveals the two-tousand year old face of The Treasury creates such alluring butterflies of anticipation.

The rate is 12 JD per person, with kids under 12 free, so considering the day rate of entry is usually 50, it’s not so bad, especially as entertainment is provided, which although meagre, is perfectly apt. We went at peak season (spring), and although crowded, there was ample room to sit in comfort, and the audience were perfectly behaved – perhaps it is the awe, or maybe the fearful candle-lit masks of the bedouins leading the event?

The walk is not difficult, even our 5 year old made it all the way down. But there are no horses or donkeys at night, so ensure you’re up for a trek – it’s a good kilometre – probably a little more. Some is gravel, some sand, some cobbles, some concrete, some flat, and some with a slight incline. Don’t even consider a stroller, and even if your child is older, pack a sling – we carried Goldilocks all the way back up, while he feigned sleep and seemed to weigh a further ten grams for every step we took.

For more information, visit and check out Lonely Planet’s Gallery for a few more night shots. If you wish to gain entry before the hoards, contact the park direct, and you might get couple of shots in peace with a tripod.

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