IN THE FOOTSTEPS OF LAWRENCE OF ARABIA
A Journey into the desert of Wadi Rum
By Laurie Cohen
Located in Southern Jordan, on a high plateau at the western edge of the Arabian desert, lies the desert wilderness of Wadi Rum. This spectacular landscape consists of a maze of monolithic rock rising from the desert floor, and is surely one the world’s most unique and captivating examples of natural beauty.
More than just a sand desert, Wadi Rum is made up of gargantuan rock formations formed over millennia by tectonic shifts. The whole area is a voyage through the geological evolution of the earth. It is this raw and primitive beauty that so enchanted T.E Lawrence as he described Wadi Rum in one of his memoirs as “vast, echoing and God-like”. I could not agree with him more.
Origins of a 12,000 year legacy
Evidence of early human habitation from the 40,000 petroglyphs and inscriptions dotted around an area of 720 square km that depicted humans and animals were an important guide for other travellers passing through. These amazing carvings would let others know of the locations of natural springs, hidden water sources, and even of those who last visited. The inscriptions were written in the 4 different Arabian scripts: Thamudic, Nabatean, Islamic and Arabic. These inscriptions and rock carvings date back to 12,000 years and are part of the reason that Wadi Rum was inscribed as a World Heritage Site.
Being at the early development of alphabetical writing, UNESCO declared this desert a critical site for the study and understanding of the evolution of aesthetics, writing and literacy. Combined together these engravings give an insight on the development of human thought. They show a pattern of pastoral, agricultural and urban human activity, and they tell us more about the climatic change. From the mildly humid climate to the semi-arid climate we have today.
A wonderland for landscape photographers
Wadi Rum [translated as Valley of the Moon] is a magical place. Even for the non-photographer, exploring the area by day, enjoying the Bedouin hospitality by staying at one of the desert camps overnight, and waking in the morning to experience such beauty outside your tent can be an unforgettable experience, where stripping your soul back to basics may just be the order of the day.
For the adventurous landscape photographer, Wadi Rum will not disappoint. Sweeping red sand dunes, huge towers of sandstone and granite, natural canyons, arches and rock bridges, caravans of camels passing through the valleys. Wadi Rum is the quintessential desert destination you have dreamed of, and more. This destination is all about the light. Sun-beams passing through canyons, sunrise illuminating the tops of the rock towers, and sand dunes shimmering at afternoon golden hour. Due to the harsh environment and unique geology, one will immediately be reminded of why many Hollywood science-fiction movies were shot here.
When the day ends and the stars come out, your day will not be over just yet. Grab your tripod and fast, wide-angle lens and experience night photography like no where else. A combination of amazing foregrounds of mountains and geological features, together will a complete lack of light pollution can create some stunning images. Look up at the sky on a new moon, and you will feel like you are part of a fairy tale.
A journey through human history
Wadi Rum has been inhabited by humans since prehistoric times, with remnants of the past found in rock inscriptions, temples and burial mounds. Despite the harsh desert conditions, water sources from its many springs and wells were a vital reason to inhabit the land, which created a meeting point of tribes and the possibilities for agriculture and hunting.
Looking at the arid landscape today, it is hard to imagine vineyards and olive groves flourishing here, though these were recorded by the occupying Roman and Greek empires. Around the 4th century BC, the Nabateans settled in the area. Known as master scientists, the Nabateans were extremely resourceful at channeling and storing water, and created astonishing structures that were cut out of sandstone, with fascinating examples found in the ancient city of Petra.
Today, virtually all the people living in Wadi Rum are from Bedouin backgrounds. Several tribes dwell here, such as the Zalabia, Zweideh, Sweilheen, Omran, Godman and Dbour tribes. Until the recent rise in tourism, The Bedouin typically led nomadic lives, relying on herding goats and the use and commerce of camels. In 1998 the government of Jordan declared Wadi Rum a protected area, with the aim of safeguarding the desert from an increased human presence.
In more recent times, the area was made famous due to international recognition of the connection of the area to T.E Lawrence, the British army officer known as “Lawrence of Arabia”. Spending a significant amount of time here during the Arab Revolt [1917-1918] against the Ottoman Empire – a campaign led by King Hussein bin Ali, against the Turks in a bid to establish an independent Arab nation. With the legacy of Lawrence, and the subsequent movie “Lawrence of Arabia” , Wadi Rum was placed firmly on the map for the location of film sets of renowned Hollywood movies and a steady flow of tourism.
This captivating part of the world has to rank as one of our favourite landscape destinations. You can check the PWA website for dates of scheduled trips to Wadi Rum including the unique 3 Amigos tour that runs in June 2020. In the near future, I will be posting a blog entry on the nearby “Lost City of Petra” which is also included in our Jordan itinerary, and can make for a memorable photography adventure when added as an extension to our Israel Workshop.