The lights fantastic

Petra-fied ... lanterns make the Treasury building glow.
Petra-fied ... lanterns make the Treasury building glow. Photo: Chris van Hove

Shaney Hudson is awed by the ancient grandeur of Petra by night, but appalled by the crowds.

An elderly couple walks arm-in-arm in the candlelit darkness, the woman's cane clicking on cobblestones laid more than 1000 years ago. Too slow for the crowd that has surged ahead, their conversation drifts in and out in a language too softly spoken for us to catch, before falling into a courteous quiet when they notice us.

A little way down, however, the old lady begins to hum to herself. She does it so softly it's almost indiscernible, but I recognise the tune. She's humming the score from the film tied forever to Petra, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. My partner and I look at each other and grin. No matter what age, the spirit of adventure Petra evokes is infectious.

Crowds of tourists enter the Siq.
Crowds of tourists enter the Siq. Photo: Alamy

The Siq, the narrow sandstone gorge that protects the entrance to Petra, holds a special fascination for most visitors to Jordan's No. 1 attraction. Pinkish sandstone walls soar up to 150 metres high along the narrow route, which stretches for 1.2 kilometres and today is the only way into and out of the site.

The Siq was shaped by nature, but the Nabateans made it their own, carving small temples, niches into the walls, and water channels along the side. Like something from an Escher drawing, stairs seem to lead up into nowhere. Although weathered by wind, rain and time, what remains hints at the grandeur that met visitors to the site 2000 years ago.

By day it is impressive. Seeing it at night, the trail lit by candles under a ceiling of stars, is spectacular. However, the thrice-weekly Petra by Night tour through the Siq to the Treasury is not quite the experience we had imagined.

Tonight, 335 people have shown up for the supposedly silent walk to the Treasury through the Siq, sweet tea, and a performance by Bedouin musicians. The guide at the gate tells me it's a quiet night - as many as 900 people attend in the high season. While we take the numbers with a pinch of salt, we're dismayed by the size of the crowd - and its mob mentality.

Despite the yellow hue of the lanterns providing enough light, most people carry flashlights or mobile-phone torches, or wear headlamps, indiscriminately shining them into strangers' faces and along the walls. One person plays music at full volume from their mobile phone. A group starts singing rowdy songs at the top of their lungs so it echoes through the gorge. Others scream and yell to listen to the echo of their own voice in the gorge.

Dismayed by the crowd, the couple behind us turn back. Taking in the large noisy horde, we narrow our options. We can turn back too, grit our teeth and bear it, or wait out the crowd, lingering until the human wave has passed.

We decide to wait. It's the promise of a candlelit journey through the mysterious Siq that has lured us here, not the Treasury.

Eventually, our patience pays off. The screams, yells and whistles have disappeared and we are engulfed in eerie silence. The Siq is empty by the time we enter, lit by candlelit shadows that dance on the walls.

It is isolated, mysterious and spooky to be down here alone. Part of the Siq's mystery is driven by tragedy. It is susceptible to flash flooding and, in 1963, 23 French tourists and their guide were swept away to their deaths.

I had witnessed flash flooding a few days earlier in Wadi Dana, where dry riverbeds had become gushing rivers in a matter of minutes. While the Siq has since been dammed, the steep gorge is less than two metres wide in sections, and it's hard to imagine where you could go if water was surging towards you. There's nowhere to escape to.

While my partner takes a long exposure shot with his camera, a stray cat suddenly appears, weaving through the paper lanterns like a ghost before jumping into my lap for a cuddle.

As we walk deeper in, we hear gentle flute playing, and turning a corner glimpse the Treasury through the cliffs. Lit by a chequerboard of at least 100 lanterns, the light makes the dusty orange hues of the sandstone glow.

We have arrived too late for music and tea, and just in time to see the compere bidding the crowd goodnight. We have arrived exactly at the end of the program and, while it's not the experience we expected, we got the experience we wanted.

Shaney Hudson travelled as a guest of the Jordan Tourism Board

FAST FACTS

Getting there

Emirates has a fare to Jordan for about $1945 return from Sydney and Melbourne, including taxes. Fly to Dubai (about 14hr) and then to Amman (3hr 40min); phone 1300 303 777, see emirates.com. Petra is two to three hours' drive from Amman.

Touring there

Petra by Night runs each Monday, Wednesday and Thursday from 8.30pm to 10pm and costs $JD14 ($19.20). Daytime entry to Petra is $JD50 a day, rising to $JD65 for a three-day pass. Tickets at the gate.

More information

visit.jordan.com

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