We pulled into the town of modern Petra late Wednesday afternoon, Jordanian time. "You must see Petra for the first time by night!" insisted the driver of the van that had hauled us from Aqaba. "They light it by candles and perform a show. It's magical. When you come the next day, you think you were in a dream the night before."
By the time I received this advice, my faith in the driver - never high - had been diminished by his insistence on a stop at a roadside snack bar and trinket shop with whose owners he seemed on suspiciously cordial terms.
Still, the busload of Japanese tourists in our hotel all seemed to have signed up for the Petra by Night show. These bus tours usually know what they are doing. We subscribed too.
Sure enough, the experience did start magically. The path to the ancient site winds through a narrow, deep crevasse between the famous red rocks. The path is lit by a long row of candles, shielded from the wind by small burlap sacks. They cast immense shadows upon the cliffs - the same cliffs that frame the starlit sky into a sharpening spike. At the end of the long trail, suddenly the path opens into a great plaza, lit by hundreds of the small sacks. And there looming up above the plaza, much bigger than you expect, is the famous Treasury carved into the rock wall, beneath the bright light of Venus, the Big Dipper, and the belt of Orion.
The view is magnificent, almost unearthly. Local men in Bedouin costume serve hot, sweet tea in tiny plastic cups. Then, after a long wait, a man begins to play a song on a zither-like instrument, singing an exotic, warbling tune. "Well, this is a promising start. And isn't it interesting how the high cliffs create wonderfully resonant acoustics?" The song goes on. And on. And on. And on. The desert air gets colder and colder and colder. At last it ends. A man with a set of pipes plays a song, also very long.
At this point, my little group was getting worried. This introduction was getting tedious. When would things start? Orchestra? Son-et-lumiere? Sabre dances? Something?
When the piping finally concludes, a third man steps forward. He launches into a flight of oratory on the past greatness of Petra. "Imagine this square filled with hundreds of camels, carrying the wares of caravans: ivory, silks, and spices from the east, etc. etc. etc." Then he invites the audience to produce their cameras and all snap a flash photo at the same time. Snap!
Wait a second … that was the light show? Tourists shooting their cameras all at once? Yes, that was it.
I'm not suggesting that Petra needs to swing all the other way to the Walt Disney opposite extreme. (Voice over: "Hi! I'm Nabe - the Nabatean. 2300 years ago, my dad was the high priest here in Petra. Come join me on my exciting adventure through time!")
What I am suggesting is that if you do find yourself in Petra in the evening, you should follow the candles to the great plaza - and then immediately turn around and follow them back out again.
Serious historically minded touring commences in the morning.