The Desert, The Hero and The Movie

A trek through Wadi Rum makes clear why T.E. Lawrence was captivated by the vast desert valley.

Our van pulled into the seedy-looking village of Rum a bit after noon, passing the signature Seven Pillars of Wisdom with little notice. Named after T.E. Lawrence’s—Lawrence of Arabia’s—autobiography, that’s what they now call the towering multi-fluted rock mass at the entrance to Wadi Rum, a desert valley cut out of the sandstone and granite rock in the southern part of Jordan. That day, however, those undulating, Gaudi-esque columns seemed flattened and bleached out by desert haze. This was my teaching spring break—one week of trekking, rock scrambling and exploring the canyons and mountains of Wadi Rum with a side visit to Petra, organized by KE Adventure Travel and complemented by a congenial group of nine Brits, one Canadian and a delightfully comedic Frenchman.

In Rum, our group of twelve was ushered into a colorless concrete box, one of fifty or so drab, featureless structures constructed to house increasing numbers of resident Bedouin. This mishmash of buildings stood in stark contrast to the spacious woven goat-hair tents sprinkled in the desert—traditional dwellings for these once nomadic shepherds. The Zalabia Bedouin of Rum village are now guides, cooks and camel drivers as well as agents of tourism, economic development and environmental administration in this, the 300 square-mile Wadi Rum Protected Area, one of eight specially designated sites in the Kingdom of Jordan.

Stepping inside this concrete box, however, was like being hit upside the head with a slice of haute Bedouin chic, an unexpected visual paradigm shift. Leaving our shoes on the threshold, we shuffled into a long room transformed into a plush desert-like tent—walls lined in damask, ceiling draped in burgundy satin, a rust-colored ‘Oriental’ carpet completely covering the floor and edged with red and black hand-woven seat cushions. Introductions were brief—guide-Omar, cook-Mohammed—then we slouched into the cushions grazing on heaps of fresh tomato, cucumber and grain salad, hummus, yogurt (jameed) and olives on pita while drinking small glasses of sweet tea.

After a brief snooze, we moved back outside into the glare, pulled on our packs and walked down the pavement toward the end of town. The asphalt road stopped, and there it was: Wadi Rum stretched before us like a gigantic runway of salmon-colored sand flanked by massive molded stone hulks, just like the movie, just like T.E. Lawrence described it in Seven Pillars of Wisdom: “The crags were capped in nests of domes, less hotly red than the body of the hill; rather grey and shallow. They gave the finishing semblance of Byzantine architecture to this irresistible place: this processional way greater than imagination. The Arab armies would have been lost in the length and breadth of it, and within the walls a squadron of aeroplanes could have wheeled in formation. Our little caravan grew self-conscious, and fell dead quiet, afraid and ashamed to flaunt its smallness in the presence of the stupendous hills.”

This was Lawrence of Arabia, ground zero. As we filed into the desert, I couldn’t help whistling the movie’s theme song while channeling the majestic scene where Peter O’Toole (Lawrence), in flowing white thobe (Arabic robe), and Omar Sharif (Ali), starkly clad in black, come barreling down this valley, red sand flying, leading legions of camel soldiers between these rock monuments, chests out, rifles raised. Whereas in real life Lawrence was only 5 feet 5 inches tall, this ‘super’ man was credited with coalescing the Arabs in revolt against the Turks during World War I—and for a very brief time Wadi Rum was his command center. He loved this place. His legend, however, was made even greater by the 1962 film classic, Lawrence of Arabia, a magnificent epic that won seven Oscars. Steven Spielberg has said it’s his favorite movie of all time and his inspiration to become a director and producer. Wadi Rum did not disappoint.

Omar led us south, scrambling up a rock way, past Nabataean inscriptions etched onto sandstone boulders and toward Wadi Shelaala to visit Lawrence’s spring, a lush little grotto carved by seepage and lined with ferns and mint. Lawrence wrote in Seven Pillars of Wisdom, “From this rock a silver runlet issued into the sunlight. I looked in to see the spout, a little thinner than my wrist, jetting out firmly from a fissure in the roof, and falling with that clean sound into a shallow, frothing pool, behind the step which served as entrance. The walls and roof of the crevice dripped with moisture. Thick ferns and grasses of the finest green made it a paradise just five feet square.”

Our group climbed down the red rocks of Jebel Rum (at 5,788 feet, the second highest mountain in Jordan) toward the valley floor, catching glimpses of vast canyon landscapes beyond Rum. At the bottom, a couple of retrofit antique trucks waited to ferry us around to essential tourist sites. After speeding across the desert, wedged in the bed of a pick-up, we stopped first at a huge sand dune and got permission to climb up and ‘ski’ down, our feet almost knee-deep in moving sand. Then we sped off to see more petroglyphs before finally arriving at what was dubbed “Lawrence’s house”—the spare remains of a block wall structure sitting on top of a Nabataean temple. It may have been a spot where T.E. Lawrence stayed while in Wadi Rum, but its designation likely owes more to tourism marketing than the fact that he stayed there for very long. The trucks returned to Rum village, leaving us in the desert.

With the sun’s angle now low enough to extract the saturated rose, rust and orange colors from the rocks, we walked for a glorious hour to our campsite in the valley across from Jebel Burdah, our next day’s climb.

We sat on straw mats, nestled against a rock face, like a dozen rag dolls on a shelf waiting to be fed. Festive luminarias—bags with candles in them, weighted by sand—lit our dining area. Omar and Mohammed prepared a chicken mansef, an aromatic stew with carrots, onions and raisins; a delicious celebration of our first day. Though tents were provided, I decided at the onset to spread my mat out in the open valley, away from the others, and sleep under the Crayola blue sky, stars and last quarter moon.

The next morning, after an omelet, fry bread, jams, yogurt and tea we headed across the valley to Jebel Burdah and hiked up 1,000 feet to the famous Rock Bridge. This was scrambling at its best. A bit like open-air caving, we ooched and wriggled through crevices, slid along ledges on hands and knees and shimmied up onto rock plateaus only once roping up over an exposed wall, topping out on a spindly slab of rock above a 260-foot-high arch straddling a ravine carved away by weather and time. After savoring the circular view of the whole of Wadi Rum, we scooted down a different way—hopping, sliding on our backsides, and having just plain fun.

For the next four days, we settled into a routine of climbing and scrambling in the morning (one day to the top of Jordan’s tallest mountain—the 6,092-foot Jebel Um Adaami on the Saudi border), and trekking across soft sand valleys into canyons in the afternoon. At day’s end, we ate stews, fruit and roasted chicken and struggled up tall dunes to witness flaming sunsets. Under Omar’s guidance, we discovered fig trees growing in rock crevices too tight for passage, blue-green Agama lizards, desert floors covered with blooming purple flowers and weird fat onions growing in the middle of the desert floor. Most importantly, we came to enthusiastically concur with Lawrence’s euphoric fondness for this area. He wrote: “We wheeled into the avenue of Rumm, still gorgeous in sunset colour; the cliffs as red as the clouds in the west, like them in scale and in the level bar they raised against the sky. Again we felt how Rumm inhibited excitement by its serene beauty. Such whelming greatness dwarfed us…”

Bidding our goodbyes after five superb days, we left Wadi Rum and crossed over the narrow gauge Hejaz railroad tracks, made first to carry pilgrims from Damascus to Mecca. They were part of the infrastructure that Lawrence and his ragtag Arab forces blew up to foul the Turk’s supply lines. The tracks are used nowadays to transport phosphate to the docks in Aqaba, a coastal town 30 miles to the southwest. Then we drove up the Desert Highway, north to the UNESCO World Heritage site of Petra.

Petra is a whole other cup of tea. This absolutely must-see-before-you-die treasure is a vast 2,000-year-old Nabataean and Roman complex carved from rock bowels—the gorges along Wadi Musa—although it extends to many more valleys and mountains: It is much grander than anyone could possibly digest in a day.

There are few visual surprises more gasp-inducing than the exit from Siq, the dark, mile-long entrance path through the slit canyon gorge. Once out, we were met by exploding light seared on the front of the mammoth Greek-inspired Treasury—a temple-tomb carved from the rock almost 14 stories tall. As unexpected visual bombshells go, this is one of the best, made even more memorable by the loud shrieks and claps of fellow tourists. And it is only the beginning of a “city” comprising hundreds of tombs, mind-blowing classical architecture, churches, mosaics, theaters, caves, ongoing archaeological investigations, ancient dams and drainage systems, markets, palaces, the Monastery, the High Place of Sacrifice and on and on.

Built by the Nabataeans over a period of 500 years, Petra was their capitol while they controlled the lucrative Incense Route. It was captured by the Romans in 106 AD, then reduced to ruins by earthquakes in 363 and 551 AD. For centuries Petra was forgotten, a secret carefully hidden and protected by local Bedouin, only to be discovered by a Swiss explorer in 1812. The Bedouin have recently been resettled up the hill in a community called Umm Sayhoun. Needless to say with so much to cover, I never sat down the whole day and came perilously close to missing our bus to Madaba, but was saved by hopping on a tourist horse at the exit and riding him at a mad trot up the hill.

After the trip ended and most of our group left for the United Kingdom, a couple and I were sitting in the Dardasheh Coffee Shop, along a narrow street in Madaba, when we noticed the waiter out front stacking large speakers on the skinny sidewalk. He placed an old film projector on top of the speakers and hung a sheet on the balcony across the busy street. At dusk, he started running the movie, Lawrence of Arabia in Arabic with English subtitles, interrupted by the silhouettes of villagers as they headed to church or mosque or home from market.

There we were, watching through dirty glass windows a sputtering version of the film made in Wadi Rum, with faded images of the stunning landscape we had just experienced, all while enjoying a beer. It was an ironic, but somehow fitting farewell.

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