Petra on a Plate

Our writing teacher assigned us the task of writing about something in our home.  Here’s my response.

It is so, is it not, that we can find delight when we bring the inside out and bring the outside in?   In our homes, that is.  There are treasures in our world to explore and behold, and treasures to possess. And sometimes, we seek to cling to memories of the former, by retaining the latter.

In 2014, during a three-week visit to the Middle East, I traveled with my sister Laurie on a two-day sojourn to the ancient rose-red sandstone city of Petra. Its magnificent – even comically surreal – rock-carved edifices expand out for miles. It is approached and explored through a labyrinth of narrow passages and extensive thoroughfares. 

Originally, Petra was the urban center of a far-flung trade route between Africa, Asia and Europe which came into its first flowering of commercial supremacy somewhere between the 2nd and 4th Century BCE. It reigned as the trade center of the ancient Nabatean kingdom, an agglomeration of Arab tribes, with 20,000 souls filling its residential, commercial and religious sites, scraped out of tall rosy-red sandstone cliffs and traversed in broad dusty avenues.

Located in the Asiatic southwestern corner of present-day Jordan, it is just 20 miles as the Nubian nightjar (Caprimulgus nubicus) flies, yet a world away, from the modern and west-dominated state of Israel. Ebbing and flowing over the centuries, Petra was both conquered, expanded, and transformed by Greek, Roman, and Byzantine empires well into the 13th Century. And then, for no clear reason, it was abandoned and lost to the broader world culture until the 19th Century, when British explorers “found” the extraordinary ancient city both vacant and remarkably intact.

It is currently Jordan’s largest tourist attraction, with a pre-pandemic visitation height exceeding one million people in 2019. Listed by UNESCO as a “World Heritage
Site” and by a recent poll as one of the “New Seven Wonders of the World,” Petra is stunning.

The prime entrance to Petra is through a narrow passageway flanked by towering cliffs called the Siq. Laurie and I start our Petra journey in a cool and sunny spring morning.

The Siq is the main road, of sorts, for pedestrians, donkey pulled-carts, mounted horses, and Bedouin-guided sheep and goats. On the half-mile Siq walk, one busies oneself by listening to the clanky-clack of the carts, the banter of people speaking the languages of the world, the cruel lashings of the cart drivers, the smells of animal urine and feces, and the increasing evidence of a sophisticated engineered city entrance, filled with drainage controls and water piping stone structures.  And the end of the Siq opens up abruptly to the grandest bazaar – and bizarre mixture – of modern and ancient. Proudly presiding over the cacophony of human and animal sounds and smells is The Treasury – Petra’s most famous structure.

The Treasury

As Laurie and I exit the Siq, she gazes up and quiets down. “If you order a dish at an average restaurant in the States,” she explains, “the waitress will reply ‘awesome.’  Well, it’s not.  But this; Petra; is.”

“Awesome indeed,” I reply. “Crazy awesome.”

I am accustomed to archaeological sites managed with a certain pristine intent.  People are often kept from visitation or even knowledge of the most significant historical artifact-laden sites in the US. Not true with Petra.  And rightly so.  To understand the nature of this 2000-year-old trading mecca one must see trading. And as I strolled the main boulevard, trading there was.  Local Bedouin tribesmen and women selling clothing and food and beauty products. 

And the children were selling rocks – the distinguished and famous pink and rose-colored sandstone rocks of Petra. Want a handful of four rocks – pay a dinar (about $1.40). Want a bigger rock the size of an adult male’s hand – a dinar for that too.  I bought 10 smaller stones.

Back in the States, those Petra stones were distributed to State Parks archaeological colleagues. To friends and family. And two were kept by me. In our home. In a special place.

About a year before I retired, a colleague gave me the gift of beach-smoothed, variegated-colored pebbles assorted on a matte-tinted circular quartz plate, three inches in diameter. I found it strangely gentle and relaxing and quite lovely to look at. [1] 

Since retirement, that little plateful of Washington Coast tiny smooth stones, sits on the windowsill of my downstairs office. It is joined by my Petra stones. Stones which I look at, if not every day, very close to that. Stones which link two very different parts of our miraculous living globe.  Stones which reflect eons of geology and millennia of the extraordinarily diverse set of cultures that humanity has created, nurtured, upset, destroyed, and all too rarely, preserved.

Petra and the Washington Coast

[1] It was also almost certainly illegally gathered, for as all State Parks employees know – and that was both of us – one must “pick no take no” from any marine shoreline. There are exceptions of course. There’re always exceptions. Shellfish can be taken when in season and under permit.  There are driftwood permits too. But really that’s a weird little technical aberration designed for folks on “subsistence” firewood. The important distinction here is between the rule-breaking harvesting of shoreline pebbles and the culturally re-enforcing middle eastern rock trade.


5 thoughts on “Petra on a Plate

  1. Great entry! Do you at all feel not great that you took a piece of Petra or a piece of the area? A practice in national parks is to leave it in better or the same condition as you found it.


  2. Thanks again Daniel for the wonderful sharing of your and Laurie’s travels,always appreciated .Seems the human spirit and ability to think and build for the future is as old as the human race. Keep it coming. Love Le Clair’s.


  3. I don’t think you did much harm with the pebbles. Now a dump truck full would have been a different matter.

    I don’t want to comment back through your blog platform, but not sure if you see replies to the “Daniel’s Derekh” email address either. If you do see my comments, I will not include your home email address on my replies anymore.

    As an aside, the issue about the Olympia parks budget you were explaining last week came out in the newspaper. I assume you saw that. I felt like I had inside information when I saw the article.


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