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In the Footsteps of Lawrence of Arabia Imprints of Wadi Rum

posted on: Jun 17, 2020

By: Habeeb Salloum/Arab America Contributing Writer

“Rum the magnificent… vast echoing and Godlike… a processional way greater than imagination… the crimson sunset burned on its stupendous cliffs and slanted ladders of hazy fire down its walled avenue…” 

These words were written by T.E. Lawrence in his Seven Pillars of Wisdom truly describe Wadi Rum made famous by the exploits of this legendary British officer and which became the setting of an unforgettable film that carried his name.

Only a three-hour drive from Amman, Jordan’s capital, Wadi Rum, deriving its name from the Arabic wadi (valley or dried riverbed) and Iram (high point), came to the attention of the world by the writings of the enigmatic Lawrence who made it his base during the Great Arab Revolt OF  1917 – 1918.  Here, along with Feisal bin Hussein, leader of the Arab forces, Lawrence became a legendary figure, who with Feisal led the Arab forces from this magical valley on to victory.  Subsequently, his name and Wadi Rum became synonymous.

Visitors traveling to Wadi Rum, one of Jordan’s main attractions, turn off the Amman to Aqaba desert highway near Al Quwayra and drive for some 30 minutes to the large and attractive Visitors’ Centre that has just been opened for the administration of the Protected Area of Wadi Rum and the neighboring locale – the heart of all activities in the Wadi.

Wadi Rum-In a Bedouin Tent

From here travelers can hire a guide, tents for the night, find good meals, rent a four-wheel-drive jeep with a Bedouin driver and guide for touring the Valley, and hire camels for short excursions or a desert trip to Aqaba  – some two-day camel ride away.

From the Visitors’ Centre, edged by seven naturally formed pillars of sandstone (two badly eroded) from which Lawrence took the name of his famous work, begins the fantastically shaped hills, overshadowing the Wadi from both sides.  The colors and contours, sculptured by weather and time into unbelievable shapes and sheer nakedness give them a unique type of majesty.

Archaeologists believe that the Wadi resulted from a great crack in the surface of the earth caused by an enormous upheaval that shattered mammoth pieces of granite and sandstone ridges from the mountains of the Afro-Arabian shield.

The Valley is a starkly beautiful world of silence, timelessness, and enchantment.  Stunning in its natural beauty, it lives in the heart of every Jordanian and epitomizes the romance of the desert.  As they drive through, travelers are reminded that they are hemmed in by a lunar panorama with strangely shaped towering sandstone mountains rising out of the rose-red desert.  The rock formations of Wadi Rum, Jordan’s answer to the Grand Canyon in the U.S.A., are undoubtedly the largest and most magnificent in the country’s landscape.

The paved roads end at the small village of Rum about 5 km  (3 mi) from the Visitors Centre.  The only town in the area, it has a population of some 2,000, consisting of the Arab tribes Mznah and Huwaitat of ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ fame.  Some still semi-nomadic, they live in goat-hair tents or concrete houses.  Noted for their hospitality, they live off their animals and the visitors who come, following the trail of Lawrence.

Should a visitor be lucky enough to be invited to share a cup of coffee in their black tents under the clear star-lit sky, it will be an experience not easily forgotten.  The Bedouin are the heart and soul of Jordan and are highly esteemed by the ruling authorities.

The village has a school, a few shops, and, above all, it is noted as being the headquarters of Jordan’s famous desert patrol organized by the British and handed over to Jordan when they left.

Humans have lived in the Valley since the pre-historic era.  Excavations have uncovered a Paleolithic settlement dating back to 4,500 B.C.  Subsequently, it became the home of a number of Arab tribes, chief of which were ‘Ad, Thamud, Lihyan, Main and later the Nabataeans – the builders of ancient Petra, an hour’s drive away.

At the foot of Jebel Rum, the second-highest mountain in Jordan, just a 10-minute walk from town, lies the Allat Temple, Allat the name of a goddess in pre-monotheistic times, originally built by the ‘Ad tribe. The Nabataeans rebuilt it as well as a nearby village in the first century B.C.  Thamudic inscriptions on the temple confirm the pre-Islamic involvement in the construction of the sanctuary.

A short walk up the hillside from the Temple is ‘Ain-Shallaleh’ also known as ‘Lawrence Spring’ from which gushes pure drinkable water.  Lawrence who played a key role in the cause of Arab independence became a fairytale figure among the Arabs. Among the Bedouin Arabs, his aura was so strong that folktales are related about his exploits until our times.

The best way that travelers can see the Wadi is to rent a four-wheel-drive jeep with a guide and spend a day or two roaming through the Valley.  All around are captivating vistas of ancient valleys and towering, weathered mountains overlooking the mostly and pink colored sands.

In the late afternoon, the weathered mountains with their sandstone rocks radiating black, purple and innumerable other hues cast their shadows on the white and pinkish sand.  Standing like foreboding sentinels, the desert-mountains are stunning in their natural beauty.  One can easily see why this part of the desert so intrigued Lawrence that he often mentioned it in his writings and why much of David Lean’s ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ was filmed in its enchanting atmosphere.  Here, modern-day visitors can still feel the romance of the Arabian Desert, stunning in its natural beauty.

On the other hand, climbers are attracted to Wadi Rum because of its sheer granite and sandstone cliffs.  For climbers, scaling these geologic wonders of nature is an inviting challenge.  Hikers are drawn by the Valley’s vast open spaces and towering rock faces.  The silence and grandeur of the sweeping vistas are best experienced on foot and camping.  A night under the dazzling bright stars in this land of tranquility is a thrill a camping hiker will always treasure.

The best time to travel to Wadi Rum is during spring when some 2,000 species of flowers bloom, covering the landscape with a carpet of colors.  However, no matter when one travels to this awe-inspiring Valley, the journey is worthwhile.

According to the Jordanians, the landscape at Wadi Rum is the most mesmerizing desert scene in the world.  All around in the emptiness and silence and magnificent desert scenery, man is dwarfed to insignificance.  In this epitome of the captivating moonlike landscape where Lawrence once hid his men, a visitor can truly visualize this legendary British officer coming alive from the pages of history.