Petra and Wadi Rum: life in the desert

Way off the tourist trail, Paul Morrison discovers the real secrets of Petra and experiences life in the desert

8 mins

“Put away the map!” yelled Ali, gesturing at Adnan with one hand, whilst keeping a firm grip on the steering wheel. Adnan shrugged, Ali grinned and the Landcruiser lurched forwards and into the teeth of the sandstorm.

The map was no use anyway, even before the wind had transformed the majestic vista before us into a swirling, brown fog that penetrated every crack in the vehicle’s battered frame. The nearest road was way over the horizon and none of the remarkable landmarks around us were featured. We were exploring the northern region of Wadi Rum – the ‘Valley of the Moon’ – a surreal and humbling landscape where contortions of multicoloured sandstone rise out of the desert floor to be sculpted by the winds into fantastic shapes. To the south, clustered around the small settlement of Rum, daytrippers chartered camels and open-top jeeps for brief excursions in the footsteps of ‘Lawrence of Arabia’. But we were way off the tourist trail and needed a keen knowledge of the desert to find our way across this isolated landscape. Luckily for us we had Ali.

Ali is a modern-day Bedouin. He prefers T-shirt and trousers to the traditional robes and checkered head-dress, lives in a concrete house in the village of Diseh, and had recently traded in his camel for a 4-wheel-drive Toyota. His is story repeated throughout the deserts of the Middle East, for the nomadic lifestyle that once characterised the region is fast disappearing. But, camel or no camel, Ali is still every inch a Bedouin. “I like to keep moving,” he responded when I asked if he preferred his settled home to his mother’s tent. For all his modern ways, his heart is still in the desert, and still in tune with the dwindling number of nomads who make this hostile landscape their home.

The day before the sandstorm we stopped for lunch at a small oasis, and sat in the shade of a thorn tree, munching sandwiches of hummus and pitta bread. Gradually, out of the haze on the horizon, a line of black specks appeared. Omar’s goats picked their way along the valley, nibbling at the sparse shrubs as his dusty dog urged them on, whilst he brought up the rear on his donkey. Seeing us he broke off and rode over – in the desert no encounter is ever ignored. As he dismounted Ali went out to greet him, and I watched Omar’s small, dark face crack into a smile as they spoke. I walked over and shook his delicate hand, wondering what it must be like to spend a life in such a beautiful yet lonely landscape.

Omar was from Sudan...

The Bedouin’s nomadic range spans many modern-day borders, as far north as Syria and eastwards as far as Oman. After a few words of greeting he reached into his saddle-pack and pulled out a blackened teapot, which Ali took away to fill with water whilst Omar gathered sticks for the fire. Soon we were sipping a strong, sweet and aromatic tea, brewed from large black leaves that Omar kept stored in a jam-jar. And minutes later, with scarcely a word, he remounted the placid donkey and headed off in pursuit of his goats, who by this time were disappearing over the other horizon.

The principles of hospitality and the strength of character born out of a desert existence permeate this young nation. Again and again I found myself sipping tea or coffee with complete strangers, though this pleasing ritual has as much to do with survival as it does with goodwill. The Bedu codes of hospitality are strong – tradition has it that guests arriving at a tent can stay three days before anyone is allowed to ask a question, even to enquire of their names. Coming from the curtain-twitching suburbs, the quite genuine hospitality I encountered was almost shaming.

After Omar had left us we returned to the Landcruiser, which demonstrated an unnerving reluctance to start. Rather than reflecting on the possibilities of a tow truck happening by, we left Ali to tinker with the engine and wandered off to take a closer look at the surroundings. At first glance the desert looks featureless and uniform, but soon the eyes become accustomed to its subtle variations. To the north, where our journey had started, we had sped across a hard ground peppered with flint, but as we neared Wadi Rum the landscape softened to sand that shifted beneath the wheels. Throughout, the desert’s capacity to deceive was a constant – with no familiar objects to judge size against, all sense of scale seemed to disappear. We paused one lunchtime by a great mountain of flint and sand, and watched in awe as one of our small group proceeded to scale it in a couple of minutes. It turned out to be just a small hill – as much a surprise to Rachel as to the rest of us who watched her.

The fascination for the desert

It was moments like this that made me understand the fascination for the desert that travellers have reported, and why many feel drawn back again and again. Sleeping, eating and travelling in the desert brought a surprising contentment that grew as the days passed. Coming from a world defined by walls and fences, the stark openness of the landscape felt strangely liberating. I fell under its spell, enchanted by its tricks and surprises, and the golden hour at the end of the day, when the sun hovers over the horizon and saturates the scenery with a burning hue. Once set the night comes quickly, the air chills the skin and attention turns inwards to the campfire.

We camped one night in the shelter of Qasr Tuba, one of many ‘desert palaces’ that punctuate the empty landscape. We arrived after sunset to nestle against the crumbling walls of this 8th century complex that once offered a refuge to traders and pilgrims; now its skilful brickwork was being slowly reclaimed by the sands. Tuba was built by the Ummayed dynasty – a people who valued their luxuries in this harsh environment and left many such buildings, more accurately thought of as inns, along the ancient trading routes. At Qasr Amra we found a bathing house, where weary travellers could relax in hot and cold water and admire its candid frescoes. In London they are pulling down flats that were built in the 1960s – in the deserts of Jordan the 7th century brickwork of Qasr Amra looks set for another millennium.

As we camped in the splendid isolation of Qasr Tuba it took very little imagination to conjure up the spirits of visitors past. As the last glows of the sun faded, the sky was transformed into a great black blanket scattered with a million jewels, the ghostly trail of the comet, Hale Bopp, cutting a path through them. I stood away from the warmth of the campfire gazing up at the cosmos as bats the size of pigeons flitted like phantoms around my head.

Ali coaxed the engine into life the next morning, with the same kind of resolve that his forebears must have used to encourage stubborn camels to their feet. After breakfast we set off across country once more, to join a concrete strip that led southwards – the Desert Highway. At the dusty settlement of Al Jafr, a notorious crossroads for smugglers from Saudi Arabia, we stopped for fuel at what passed for a service station. An array of jerry cans were lined up outside the shop front, and a wrinkle-faced Bedouin sat in the doorway smoking a cigarette – which amused us greatly until the same fellow took it upon himself to fill the tank himself, with the lighted cigarette sticking stubbornly to his lips as he splashed the fuel around.

A sign of affluence

Gulf oil may seem like a precious commodity, but in a country where over 80% of the land is desert or semi-arid, there is a far more valuable resource. For centuries the routes across the Middle East were defined by the existence of water. Consequently the conspicuous use of water becomes a sign of affluence – even today the best hotels sport fountains and pools for the same effect. For the nomadic Bedouin, water remains a matter of survival, and their characteristic resourcefulness has not neglected this perennial problem.

One bright morning in the desert we came upon a Bedouin tent – a long, rectangular assembly of goat-hair rugs stretched over poles and held taut by ropes. Two chickens scratched about in a wooden pen, a scruffy dog stood up and watched us, and a woman in black sat on the ground pounding goat cheese. Yet just a dozen paces from this timeless image was an incongruous symbol of the 20th century. What looked at first like a petrol tanker was actually full of water – a well on wheels.

The tanker made me realise how life is still changing for the Bedouin. Thesiger estimated that at one time they made up a quarter of the population of the Arabian Peninsula, but only a small fraction of these are still living nomadic lives. In Jordan, Bedouin make up less than 10% of its four million people, and most of these are now settled. In fact they are outnumbered by Palestinian refugees who spilled over the border from the West Bank after the disastrous 1967 war with Israel. “But we are all one people now,” said Adnan with his characteristic tact.

Diplomacy has been one of the secrets of Jordan’s success and survival. Wedged between Arab nations whose only source of unity seems to be an opposition to Israel, Jordan should, by every term of logic, be crippled by divisions. Its early recognition of Israel brought it support from the West and contempt from its northern neighbour, Syria. Its long-term trading allegiance to Iraq cost it dearly in the Gulf War, including the enmity of its southern neighbour, Saudi Arabia. It would seem an impossible position to occupy, both geographically and politically. And yet the land that we now know as the Kingdom of Jordan is the most peaceful, stable and liberal in the region. Historians and political commentators debate how much of this is due to the skill of King Hussein, but what is certain for visitors is that Jordan offers an easy-going and enthralling introduction to a part of the world whose history continues to affect us all.

Let your imagination run wild

Jordan is a land so steeped in history and legend that the imagination can run wild on a desert night. From Moses to Lawrence, centurion to crusader – they all left their mark somewhere in these sands. Footsteps or tyre tracks last only as long as the next sandstorm, but if you know where to look there are plenty of clues to the past. Cut into the sandstone in a handful of places around Wadi Rum are images that date back to biblical times: depictions of hunting scenes, of people riding camels, and the shape of a hand or a foot. Whilst some of these stand proud and conspicuous, the sands and rocks of the Wadi doubtless hide many secrets of past visitors that we may never rediscover.

At one quiet location Adnan and Ali led us through a cleft in the rock to an opening beneath a rock fall. Before us lay a flat boulder some three metres long and on it a set of circular depressions – it looked like a massive board game. Adnan had been told of this place and was more excited than us when he found it. “This is a map!” he declared. The significance of the marks on the ‘Topographical Stone’ is still a matter of speculation, but this recent theory is certainly an exciting one. I took a closer look and tried to imagine a traveller pausing here to gaze across the sands, now obscured by the rock fall, and then fingering the holes as he plotted his journey. Wadi Rum lay on a trade route that brought silks and spices from the east, and the map stretched from the port of Aqaba, to the south, and charted settlements and refuges northwards to Petra – a city that, like the Stone, lay forgotten for centuries.

The story of Petra

The story of Petra is one that cannot fail to excite anyone with a spirit of exploration. It was here that the Nabateans – a sophisticated dynasty of trading people – started to build a centre for their kingdom around five centuries before Christ. From the soft multicolour sandstone they created one of the man-made wonders of the world – an intricate city carved out of the rock, nestling in its valleys and gorges. When the Romans took over in the 2nd century they made their own characteristic contributions, but an earthquake felled most of the freestanding buildings in 363 AD, and for centuries afterwards the site lay forgotten and eventually out of bounds to all but the local Bedouin. Gradually its existence descended into myth and legend, until in 1812 Johann Burckhardt, a Swiss explorer acting on rumours of the ‘lost city’, passed himself off as a Muslim Arab wishing to make a sacrifice at one of its sacred tombs.

Burckhardt would have entered along the siq – the twisting narrow gorge a kilometre in length with vertical sides that block the sun for most of the day. Along its length are hints of the splendours that await until, just a stone’s throw from the end, the classic sight that adorns most guidebooks to Jordan comes into view. In spite of its familiarity, that first view of al-Khazneh – ‘The Treasury’ – was as thrilling as I had imagined. The great walls of the siq were like theatre curtains that opened to reveal a scene as unlikely as finding Saint Paul’s Cathedral at the end of Cheddar Gorge. The great pink pillars and ornate facade of al-Khazneh are a triumph of human imagination. As I caught my breath and savoured the moment I wondered how Burckhardt must have felt and perhaps how the fear for his life had suppressed his impulse to scream with excitement.

Just an introduction

The beauty of Petra is that The Treasury is just an introduction. Whilst most of its freestanding buildings have long since fallen into ruin, the temples, tombs and even an amphitheatre that the Nabateans carved out of the rock have endured. Some of them are boastful and splendid, like the Royal Tombs, perched up on a cliff-side. Others are intimate creations, secreted away in gulleys and mountain tops.

I once met a Native American sculptor who carved magical stone busts of humans with faces of eagles. “The images are already within the rock,” he told me, “It is my job to find them.” I thought of these words as I sat on the mountain staring at the magnificent temple of ad-Deir – ‘The Monastery’. Carved out of the honey-coloured sandstone, its great columns emerged from the mountain as if they had always been there, awaiting discovery.

North of Petra we left the desert behind and joined roads that snaked through the mountains. At the crusader citadel of Karak, where hobbies soared about its battlements, we gazed down across the fertile plains and westward, to the shimmering haze of the Dead Sea. There was more to come, for every settlement and outlook seemed to boast a biblical or historical significance; but despite the splendour, I was missing the desert. Even at Petra I felt as if I was crossing back into the modern world, and was beginning to wonder how life in the desert had any relevance to 20th century Jordan.


And then one windswept morning we sat sipping delicious cardamom-flavoured coffee with Mohammed, who ran a small souvenir stall outside the crusader castle of Shobak. “British?” asked Mohammed, hearing us talk as he served us the coffee. “Yes,” I replied, to which he sprang to attention and mimed a parade-ground inspection accompanied by a comic flutter of his eyes that had us laughing out loud. “Army!” he grinned, stabbing his own chest with his thumb, and gave us a mock salute before collapsing into a chuckle that set us off again.

Mohammed refused payment for the postcards I tried to buy, and we left with the sweet taste of his coffee in our mouths. At the bottom of the hill we paused to take a photograph looking back at the castle, and I watched the unusual sight of a man in robe and checkered headdress tearing down the hillside on a motorbike. It was only when the rider pulled up beside us in a cloud of dust that I realised that it was Mohammed, who was reluctant to lose our company so soon and was insisting we follow him to his house for breakfast. And later, as we sat sipping mint tea and admiring his medals, I looked around at the spotless and spartan living room. An extract from the Koran looked down from a frame above the doorway; the only other decoration being a peacock feather and a brass jug. I began to realise that in effect we were sitting in Mohammed’s tent. His camel might be a Suzuki, and his water comes from a tap, but the principles of desert life have remained.

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