The Wadi Rum is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Coming from Wadi meaning valley and Rum meaning high place, it forms a unique and wondrous biome in southern Jordan. The red dunes and towering sandstone cliffs have played pivotal roles in movies such as Lawrence of Arabia, Red Planet, Prometheus, the Martian, and many more.
Even though there were camels, sheep, rabbits, birds, and foxes tracks everywhere, it was obvious that this was a difficult environment to survive.
We spent two days, two nights at a Bedouin Camp exploring the area by jeep and foot.
After the Wadi Rum village, the pavement disappeared and there was only sand. Jeep, camel, and food traffic only.
There were several brick structures – A kitchen, and bathroom. Each tented area had a small cemented stone foundation, tile floor, and canvass walls wrapped once on the outside, and the inside walls and roof were colorful carpeting. Our host Aaliyah, told us that women made these by hand.
The silence of the desert was absolute. From time to time a rock pigeon could be heard cooing in cliffs. Small larks, finches, or sometimes even a raven could be heard, but there were no babbling creeks, crashing waves, hum of traffic, or even the how of wind, rustling of bushes. Just silence.
I was looking forward to a starry night; however the glow from Aqaba to the West and Ma’an to the north provided some light pollution keeping the starry night from being as amazing as the Flores Islands. It was beautiful, just cold!
The cold was heavy and oppressive. During our stay the temperature hovered around 1-2C in the evenings and early mornings. Day temperatures climbed to 5. However, the numbers don’t describe how cold it was. At sunset the chill would creep through our shoes, then socks, then slowly chill our feet. In minutes, I was shivering.
Even though the wind was not strong, its steady stream washed all warmth from our ears and hands and within a few minutes our bones ached from being so cold. We would emerge from the cold of the shade and hit the sun, then withing minutes be too hot for a blanket or jacket.
Atiq grew up moving with his father from place to place within Wadi Rum every 10-12 days. He shared his knowledge of the desert with us and guided us to many of the special locations within the area. He routinely pointed out old Bedouin camps and talked about being a child in the Rum. He was enthusiastic and even at times giddy showing us places. This was not just a source of income for him, he genuinely loved his home and loved sharing it with others.
“In the old days there no watches, Bedouin still pray.” In order to meet their religious obligations they would take a stick as long as their fore arm and plant it in the sand to use as a sun dial. From there Atiq showed the location of the sun and shadow and when the praying times would be based upon how many hands or fingers in length the shadow was.
After guiding us up an uncommon path, he pointed us in a direction and told us to hike. While we hiked he harvested Zafra plant for tea.
He took care to find a great lunch spot for us. Our favorite was the spot below.
Part of what made lunch so great was Atiq was a phenomenal cook. He collected twigs and made a small fire. Threw two egg plants in. He chopped tomatoes, peppers, garlic and stirred in a pot with canned legumes and tomato paste. Viola, instant stew. Need salt? No problem, this whole area used to be the bottom of an ancient ocean. Atiq when over to the cliff wall: “Look Salt”. He chipped away and removed a small pinch of ancient salt. The eggplants were cut open and their hot pulp squeezed into a bowl, some tahini sauce and lemon added for some delicious baba ghanoush.
During lunch we ate well! We asked him how he ate when he was a kid. “No vegetables then, just goat and camel milk, and their meat. Sometimes vegetable if trading in town.”
Anfashieh Inscriptions (Ancient Writing). In some of the petroglyphs camel caravans were painted. Atiq explained that this was a major route between Petra and Mecca. Some of the petroglyphs portrayed warnings of snakes, and difficult camels. There was also a map to a spring.
Other sites, like Khazali Canyon, showed writing that predated Arabic. Some petroglyphs showed gazelles and others show the birth of a child. It made me wonder about what we leave behind. What event in our lives would be so important that we would immortalize in stone? If we could write one sentence and draw one picture what would it be?
Four types of writing could be found in the canyon:
- South Safaitic: 4th century BC to 1st century BC
- Thamudic E: 200 BC
- Hismaic: Old Arabic dating back to 1st century AD
- Kufic Arabic: Preferred script for the Koran
The Kufic script referenced a verse in the Koran. The Thamudic E script was someone who wrote their name. There was a glyph of a woman giving birth, gazelles, and a pair of feet.
Just outside the Wadi Rum village we visited an ancient mountain spring (Ain Shalaaleh). It was a short hike up the mountain. However, its history was what was captivating. This was the spring where T.E. Lawrence and Faisal watered their camels while preparing for their attack on Aqaba fort. This was a real piece of history (Source). We also visited “Lawerence’s House” which was depicted in the movie, but he never actually spent time there.
Nearby at the foot of Rum Mountain lie an ancient Nabatean temple. It was built on the ruins of an older temple. Later the front was re-purposed into a Bedouin cemetery. All of this was old. The Nabatean temple was built by King Aretas IV to worship the goddess ALLAT. However, it was built on the ruins of Allat temple of AAD Tribe.
The dunes in much of Wadi Rum are dark red. Atiq stopped at a giant dune and gave us a snow board. “You go like this.” He squatted on the board and demonstrated a surfing position. Excited to proceed, the girls ran to the dune. About a fourth of the way up they stopped, panting, “This is hard to climb.” In deed walking in deep sand was hard enough. Walking uphill on freezing cold sand was particularly hard. For every step, our feet would sink in and slide down half a step. Progress was slow. Regardless, we made it and we tried our luck at sand boarding
There was plenty of adventure to be had here. Kylie couldn’t get enough of this. Whether rock scrambling to a hidden spring, traversing narrow Siqs over desert pools, squeezing through narrow passages and under boulders, or just scaling steep sandstone walls, she was in her element. No nook and cranny went unexplored.
There were several rock bridges to explore. We made it to Um Furth and another that was unnamed. Atiq showed us the starting point for the Burdah rock bridge: “It is at least 2 hour hike from here.” However he drove us to another canyon around the way and said: “This is another way to the rock bridge. Maybe 1 hour for adults, hard for children.” We went nearly half way up and spent most of our time looking at rocks. Nana had trained us to look at pebbles well! One of the highlights of this trail was smashing sandstone. Atiq said: “Hurry hurry, this way look” and he heaved a giant white sandstone clod at a boulder below. A satisfying POOF and a white cloud of sand emerged. Alyssa and Kylie were especially fond of this destructive activity.
The desert shifted from red to yellow to gold sands depending on the location and the time of day. The vistas were awe inspiring and unnerving. From a vantage point looking over this vast land, it mystified me how anyone could survive here. I was having enough trouble with the temperature and I didn’t even have to worry about food or water.
The fantastic beautify was not limited to the sweeping views, but also in the small things. Small flowers and interesting formations were everywhere.
Atiq showed Kylie how to use the colorful sandstone to create paint and makeup. She was in creative heaven.
The sunsets were amazing. Instead of the sky lighting up with the oranges and reds, the entire landscape exploded with deep rich color.
There was evidence of Bedoin lifestyle all around in Wadi Rum. We drove past a man herding camels. While Atiq talked to the herder (as they obviously knew each other), Kylie made a friend.
I certainly had my preconceptions about the Bedouin, but I was glad to spend time talking with Atiq, Aaliyah, and Saleh (Aaliya’s husband).
I learned that their lifestyle was disappearing. Many of the families have settled into housing in the village. They have a house of brick for most of the year, and then they have a tent camp. Many rent these out to tourists like us to supplement their income.
“I started by giving camel rides to tourists. I then earned enough money for a jeep. After a while I earned enough to add some permanent tents for renting,” Saleh explained with pride at his self-made status.
“In the summer we take our goats to graze near our tents.” Aaliya said.
However, the valley is changing. “There are only 10 families that still live full time in the desert. There is no longer enough grass because less rain. People cannot pay too much to feed their sheep,” Saleh was explaining one effect of Climate Change in the area. Even though he and his brother Atiq did not go to school, they explained very well what was happening in the area. Less rain over their lifetime meant less grass. Less grass meant less grazing area for sheep. Less grazing meant it was no longer possible for many families to depend on the natural processes to provide what has been provided for centuries. A combination of tourism and climate changes has redirected their trajectory.
“My daughter, she goes to University next year, she will not live off the desert.” Saleh stated flatly.
Tourism was also a mixed blessing. While it provided income, it also was a cost. “Some families buy tents from China and glass balls and charge a lot of money. The government has seen this, now we all have to pay money to government.”
I was still confused about what exactly Bedouin were, especially after a side comment Saleh made: “The people living in Petra are not Bedouin, they are gypsies.”
“How do you identify a Bedouin?”
Aaliya claimed: “We are nice and welcoming. We can look and see if we doing nice things.” Saleh’s definition was slightly different. “My father lived in the desert, so I am Bedouin.”
Changes are happening in the area. As modern pressures and climate change push the nomadic lifestyle out of existence, more and more will adapt, and the definition of Bedouin may continue to change.
As we exited Wadi Rum, Sharleen looked down at Kylie’s pants that were filthy.
“I’m glad your pants are so dirty, it means you lived life well and had a lot of fun.”