In the Footsteps of Lawrence of Arabia in Jordan
By Barnaby Conrad III
Photos by Barnaby Conrad/Deb Stock
You know how it is in Wadi Rum when the sword of the sun strikes the desert and the Bedu appear out of the heat mirage like black ghosts? Well, that’s the way it was when our guide, Ra’ed Saleem, turned to me and said, “Your camel is ready, sir.”
How long had I waited for someone to utter that phrase? Since David Lean’s epic film Lawrence of Arabia first seared my ten-year-old brain in 1962? “Aurens, it is written…” warns Omar Sharif as he tries to dissuade Peter O’Toole’s “Lawrence” from a foolish rescue. “If you go back for Gassim, you will die in the desert….”
“Nothing is written,” says El Aurens, the man T.E. Lawrence became.
Now I was actually swatting flies in the Jordanian desert, kitted out in a traditional red and white checked keffiyeh with black headband, a would-be T.E. Lawrence ready to capture the port of Aqaba and ride my camel on to Damascus and ever-lasting glory. (“No prisoners!”) At any rate, I was game to make my way by four-wheel-drive, donkey, and camel in a 10-day Abercrombie & Kent-led hegira from Amman, the capital of Jordan, to the Dead Sea. Allah be praised.
My designated camel, Fatima by name, lay supine, neck out-stretched like a sleeping turtle on the sand. As I knelt she swung her head until it loomed just two feet from my face and her long-lashed liquid eyes opened and closed. That bisected upper lip moved menacingly over brown teeth, while a strange guttural whine issued from her long throat. Was I friend or foe? Fatima charmingly nuzzled my fingers and allowed me to scratch her forehead. Love at first sight in the desert is a wondrous thing.
Then my camel handler, Ibrahim, a tiny, wizened troll with a long white moustache and a nearly toothless grin ushered me into the saddle and urged me to cling tightly to the six-inch wooden pommels forward and aft. With a whisper and a flick of his small whip he commanded Fatima to rise. First her haunches flexed, then her knees locked, and upwards she hoisted me in jointed installments until my eyes were eleven feet off the ground. I moved the reins and Fatima turned. Soon we strode across the desert of Wadi Rum in a rolling gait smoother than any thoroughbred’s. Fatima’s thick, spongy feet padded over the sand as if she were in bedroom slippers.
My five traveling companions also mounted camels with much giggling. Four days prior we had arrived by British Air to be regally coddled at the Four Seasons Hotel in Amman, capital of Jordan. While other Middle Eastern countries rumbled with political dissent and gunfire, the A & K journey, titled “Following the Footsteps of Lawrence of Arabia,” would peacefully take us eastward to Azrak, hundreds of miles south through the deserts of Wadi Rum, on to the port of Aqaba on the Red Sea, then back up to Madaba and the Dead Sea. Our “extreme adventure,” would turn out to be an extremely good time.
The first morning our guide Ra’ed Saleem and three drivers, Khalil, Khaled and another Khalil, drove us in three Korean-made SUVs to the old Amman station for the Hijaz railway, built by the Turks to carry pilgrims from Damascus to Medina and Mecca. It was this line that Lawrence and his Arab guerrillas repeatedly dynamited from 1916-1917 to cripple the Turks who had aligned themselves with the Germans. We happily accepted coffee and sweets in the petite royal railcar of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, and admired photographic portraits of the late, much- revered King Hussein and his very popular son, King Abdullah II.
“It was King Hussein’s great-grandfather, Sharif Hussein bin Ali, who encouraged his sons Abdullah and Feisal, along with Lawrence to free the Arabs from the 500-year-old tyranny of the Turks,” explained Ra’ed. He spoke admiringly of the current king’s efforts to turn Jordan into the Switzerland of the Middle East. “We have some noisy neighbors,” he said, “and deliberately remain neutral.”
Heading toward the Syrian border, we stopped at Umm Al-Jemal, “Home of the Camel,” a large ruin of a city carved out of black basalt that had been at the center of ancient trade routes run by Nabateans, then Romans, then Ummayads. From the underground aqueducts to the roofless sixth-century churches, the sense of layered history was enthralling. It was also here in September 1918 that Lawrence set out for his final assault on Damascus, thus ending World War I in the Middle East.
The ground at Umm Al-Jemal was littered with what appeared to be ancient potsherds, and I was tempted to drop down and dig for archaeological treasures. Instead, after a picnic lunch under a pitched tent that bucked in the cool desert breeze, we rolled on to the fortress at Qal’at al-Azraq, built by third century A.D. Roman legionnaires.
In this desolate place, stone is the major decorative element. The front gate is a solid block, seven feet high and a foot thick, and it must weigh three tons. War horses once noshed at solid stone feed troughs inside; Feisal and Lawrence often inhabited a stone chamber in the south tower while planning the Arab Revolt.
That night we stayed in a former British Field Hospital in Azraq that had been converted to a guest house. The walls of the lobby were covered with photographs of Turk-fighting tribal heroes with marvelously desert-worn faces. I particularly liked the picture of Howeitat tribal leader, Audu Abu Tayi, who Lawrence called the greatest fighting man he ever met. Audu married 28 times and claimed to have killed 75 Arabs during inter-tribal disputes; he never bothered to count the Turks.
We ate a delicious supper of chicken, but alas, there was no alcohol on offer. The next morning we were up early, sucking down Nescafe—a popular drink in Jordan—and went off to bird-watch in the middle of the famed Azrak wetlands.
The wetlands were actually quite… dry. Although still home to water buffalo and migratory birds, the place has suffered as water was pumped out to serve the needs of Jordan’s growing population. The spoonbills have disappeared, and the white pelicans, and the Jordanian crocodiles. Apparently the young king Abdullah II (who prepped at Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts), is conservation-minded and hopes to reverse the environmental loss by creating new nature reserves.
The long desert drive to Wadi Rum in the south was made palatable by our driver Khaled’s CDs of Bulgarian rock music, but night fell before we could reach our camp. We left the road and took off cross-country. For an hour we bumped blindly across the sand dunes and fishtailed through the darkness, our headlights bouncing off the scrubby brush.
I was beginning to lose faith when lights appeared in the lee of a rock formation and Ra’ed said, “There is Abu Yousuf’s camp.” Let the ululations begin! Four enormous Bedouin tents flanked a campfire. All the men greeted with embraces. Our outfitter was Abu Yousuf, an elder of the Howeitat, the tribe Lawrence relied on most closely during the Revolt. Dressed entirely in immaculate white robes he was regal of bearing and ever gracious. “Ahlan wa sahlan,” he said shaking our hands, “A warm welcome!”
Dinner that night was a sumptuous feast of lamb with rice, yogurt, goat cheese, fresh salads and way too many delicious Arabian sweets and….and wine! Christians only make up six percent of the Jordanian population, but they produce an excellent white and red wine under the Mount Nebo label. (Mt. Nebo being the place where Moses passed his last days.) That night I stayed up late, gazing at the stars, dreaming of a bottle label depicting the Parting of the Red Sea for a wine with “a prophetic nose and a hint of salty sandal leather in the finish”. Then I headed to my enormous tent and crawled into clean sheets and warm blankets on a real mattress, glad that the desert hyenas were scarce.
The next morning I awakened early and went for a stroll. Our camp stood in a valley surrounded by rock formations like giant surrealist sand castles. Wadi Rum was once a vast sea basin and its bulbous, thousand-foot escarpments were carved out by water and wind. Lawrence described them in Seven Pillars of Wisdom: “The crags were capped in nests of domes, less hotly red than the body of the hill….They gave the finishing semblance of Byzantine architecture to this irresistible place.”
For the next two days we roamed the area in the SUVs as our drivers nosed us expertly down thirty-foot sand dunes and raced at 75 miles an hour across the hard-packed desert. The Arab sense of humor is highly under-rated. Khalil, Khaled, and the other Khalil were good company. With a couple of beers, we guests felt like teenagers again. We hiked a four-hundred-foot sand dune and slid down it like skiers in powder snow; the winner was the person with the most sand in their shoes. A high point for me was seeing the rock formation called Jabal Al-Maqraz, with its seven pillar-like rocks, a place where Lawrence often came to gather his thoughts and write his dispatches.
Our camel ride on the second day in Wadi Rum was a welcome respite from the fishtailing SUVs. An almost dream-like peace settled over me as Fatima—my lovely camel—cruised across the reddish sand. We had been riding for an hour when a herd of nearly a hundred riderless camels spilled out of a rocky gorge. It was a sight as magnificent as a herd of buffalo swimming the Yellowstone. A large white bull, clearly the alpha male, swaggered towards us with menacing bravado. To underline his disdain—or perhaps to show off for the ladies—he suddenly swiveled and voided himself in spectacular fashion. Ibrahim cackled at the spectacle, then pointed to lovely Fatima, pulled her bridle close and kissed her full on the lips. Who loves ya, baby?
Camels are still the lifeblood of the nomadic desert tribes here. Depending on your bargaining skills, a good camel today will cost you about 8,000 dinars or $12,000, but higher prices are paid for racers. “There used to be 60,000 camels in Jordan,” said Ra’ed wistfully. “Now there are only 13,000. The Bedouins are settling in towns and driving cars and trucks.”
As the sun began to dip, we stopped in the shade of one of the valleys where our ever-patient guide Ra’ed waited for us with one of the SUVs. He pointed to ancient pictographs on the rock wall depicting horsemen attacking a caravan of camels. “This was carved over two thousand years ago by the Nabateans, possibly to warn nomadic traders about brigands. There are over 2,800 pictograph sites in southern Jordan alone.” Most of them involve camels, but I wondered if the next generation would include SUVs.
It was dark by the time we dismounted at our Bedouin camp and I said goodbye to Fatima. There’s a Bedouin expression that essentially says your relationship with Allah may be defined by how you treat your camel; I found it poignant, but Fatima trotted away into the darkness without a backward look.
That evening a Bedouin singer came into camp with his guitar. Ra-ed, Abu Yousuf, and all the drivers began to sing and clap. Before we knew it our whole group was dancing and clapping in a Bedouin hootenanny. Luckily we had wine to make everything…better.
It was chilly that night. Going native, I happily slept in my keffiyeh. The next morning we were all up early, sad to leave the desert of Wadi Rum, but after three days without a shower, the waters of Aqaba beckoned. Nearing the coast, we passed through a massive new security checkpoint and below us lay the city and the glistening Red Sea. Aqaba is now an enterprise zone and hundreds of new condominiums are under construction. We toured the ancient fortress that Lawrence and Auda abu Tayi captured from the Turks in their famous surprise attack across the desert, thus convincing the English generals to send Lawrence more guns and money. An hour later I was scuba diving among clown fish, moray eels, lion fish, and octopus at 50 feet. I recognized quite a few political factions in their gulping jaws and lidless stares.
The next morning we were off to Petra, which deserved to be ranked as the 8th wonder of the ancient world. We hiked for a mile down the twisting gorge that had protected the city against generations of raiders (in fact, a scene from “Raiders of the Lost Ark” was filmed here). Seemingly out of nowhere, we came upon an astonishing four-story stone edifice,“the Treasury,” carved out of a solid rock cliff by Nabatean and Greco-Roman artisans almost two thousand years ago. A half-mile later we tramped down a Roman road flanked with columns, learning that this sprawling city had collapsed in an 8th century earthquake, never to recover.
After buying two ancient Roman coins from a sleazy dude for twenty dollars, I asked Ra’ed if they were real. He smiled. “Yes, this one is from Taiwan and this one is from Beijing. Actually every year during the rainy season people do find hundreds of coins in the mud. I myself once found a perfectly intact pot over 1,500 years old. They haven’t even begun to reveal the architectural treasures of this valley.”
After lunch overlooking the ruined Romans baths—food good, flies bad—we exited this lost world on the backs of donkeys. That evening, we treated ourselves to a dry martini, sheik-en, not stirred, sitting in the beautiful lobby of the Petra Mövenpick Hotel. With its intricate carvings and filigreed lattice-work, it looks like a palace from the Arabian Nights. It worked for me…but where was lovely Fatima?
Our last two days passed quickly at the extraordinary 600-room Kempinski Hotel Ishtar on the Dead Sea, located 450 meters below sea level. The salty water was so buoyant I could easily float on my back to read a newspaper without getting it wet. On shore I joined a pod of whale-like Russians who were covering their faces and bodies in the famously curative black mud.
That evening we drank the last of our Mt. Nebo wine and smoked a hookah pipe. The international luxury of the Kempinski was lovely, but we all missed the wild desert of Wadi Rum, with its camel herds moving in the distance. Would I visit the place again and again in my dreams? No doubt: it is written.
Barnaby Conrad III, a former Editor-at-Large at Forbes Life, has written ten books of non-fiction including Absinthe: History in a Bottle (1988), The Martini (1995), and The Cigar (1996). After living in Paris for five years, he wrote an acclaimed on-the-road memoir Ghost Hunting In Montana (1994), followed by PAN AM: An Aviation Legend (2000), which was reprinted in 2014. Born in San Francisco, Mr. Conrad graduated with a B.A. in Fine Arts from Yale University. He was a founding editor of Art World newspaper in New York, served as senior editor of Horizon, and has written monographs on many twentieth century artists. His articles have appeared in Town & Country, GQ, Forbes, Sports Illustrated, London Sunday Times, and Smithsonian. An avid skier, scuba diver, bicyclist, museum-goer, and fly fisherman, he is a member of the Anglers Club of New York. He and his family live on a farm near Accomac, Virginia.