Posted by: Bob Fisher | May 8, 2009

The Silence and Serenity of Wadi Rum

Road Notes from Jordan

Wadi Rum. I awoke this morning having slept well on my cot outside the goat-hair tents provided for us by our Bedouin hosts, who by the way also served us an amazing meal last night. It was cooked three feet under the sand of this vast, silent, and private space known as Wadi Rum. And one of them even serenaded us with traditional Bedouin and modern music on his oud, a balalaika-type instrument. In the total silence of Wadi Rum, the notes seemed to hang in the air like droplets of water.

The more I travel, the more I think this planet is quite small. And then there’s Wadi Rum, where time and space seem endless, almost irrelevant. I slept well out here in this limitless space, despite the luminescence of the sky. How can I describe a star-filled sky in which there is zero light pollution from any human habitation? In Wadi Rum, the night sky is multi-dimensional; layer upon layer of stars literally ad infinitum, at least in terms of human time. We reclined on our cots and tried to take it all in, identifying constellations, specific planets, various points of reference. Mars was red, truly red. The moon was as full as the camel’s belly; the female I saw this afternoon still nursing her youngster.

At six in the morning I walk barefoot out into rose-red Wadi Rum as the others begin to stir, soon to emerge from their sleep. I need some time alone, away from human voices. The sun is just starting to rise behind me; its morning palette begins to spread a reddish glow from behind one of the monolithic sandstone mountains that punctuate the vast spaces of Wadi Rum. I wander aimlessly until I come to a small herd of camels just doing their thing … in Wadi Rum. They see me coming in my long thin North American whiteness. The older female checks me out as I approach. We sniff each other. She sends a silent message to the others that this guy is no big deal. (No one is a big deal in Wadi Rum.) And then each of us gets back to minding our own business; both of us grazing, she on Allah-knows-what vegetation, me on the solitude of Wadi Rum.

I move silently among the camels, stepping softly through the varying and subtle shades of red and brown moving across the sands of Wadi Rum. The silence makes me want to sing, and so I do … to myself … to the camels … to Wadi Rum.

Four strong winds that blow lonely, Seven seas that run high, All these things that don’t change, Come what may. But our good times are all gone, And I’m bound for moving on. I’ll look for you if I’m ever back this way.

Our time here is brief, but it is time enough to know that there will always be a sunrise in Wadi Rum.

Being alone in Wadi Rum, however briefly, is a reminder of the luxury of personal privacy; the kind of intense privacy that only complete solitude can create. It is also an environment that can bring out the romantic in you; in the truest sense of that word. It certainly seems to have done so with T.E. Lawrence (“Lawrence of Arabia”) whose alter life happened in just such an environment. David Lean’s famous film of the Arab Revolt of 1917-1918 was shot here in Wadi Rum. It is still considered an epic film, a “thinking person’s” film. It is clear how landscapes such as Wadi Rum can alter perceptions and intensify a person’s conceptual frame of reference. But for the sound of gentle breezes or winds, the soundlessness of Wadi Rum can be intoxicating; the stuff of epiphanies.

The Arabic word wadi refers to a dry riverbed or rocky water course that contains water only during a rainy season. It has come to refer to large desert-like areas that are quite different geologically from deserts such as the Sahara or those in Arctic or Subarctic regions. Wadi Rum is actually one of five wadi systems that run from north to south along parallel lines. The high mountain ridges and formations with their steep sides create a channel-like topography of generally flat-bottomed wadis, desert dunes, and their sparse vegetation. As is the case in many desert ecosystems, Wadi Rum is also a fragile environment, especially since the presence of humans and internal combustion engines (tourism) became an “issue” in the region. In 1997 the government of Jordan declared Wadi Rum a protected area. Funded through World Bank Projects, this 560-square kilometre ecosystem is now managed by the Jordanian Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature. Focussing on sustainable and environmentally sound tourism, the Society has set goals of increasing tourism revenues in the area while at the same time maximizing economic returns to the local community, conserving the ecological and archeological resources of Wadi Rum, and providing economic benefits to Bedouin women in particular through various cooperatives.

Wadi Rum’s geological history is part of what makes it unique and entrancing. Out of the desert sands rise monumental dramatic mountain blocks, what in New Mexico or Arizona would be referred to as mesas. These great rock formations were formed by a network of intersecting faults in the Earth’s surface. Through the vastness of geological time, the soft sandstone rose into great sculptured blocks. Concurrently, erosion by wind and water began to shape the landscape even more. The fault lines first became gorges and eventually wide valleys filled with the by-products of that erosion — the sands of Wadi Rum. Some of the mountain tops reach over 800 metres. And these great rock formations of Wadi Rum were laid down over the eons in strata of various types of sandstone and granite.

Wadi Rum is also known for its cultural treasures. A transit area for traders of all kinds, Wadi Rum has shown evidence of human occupation for over 4000 years. Ancient drawings carved into the sandstone rock date from as early as the Paleolithic and Neolithic periods although most of the prehistoric imagery (often of carnivores like lions, leopards, and cheetahs) dates from the Thamudic period between the fifth century BCE to the seventh century AD. Today, Wadi Rum is home to Bedouin tribes, many of whom still lead a semi-nomadic and pastoral life style. Others, however, have become part of the burgeoning tourism industry in Jordan, and in Wadi Rum in particular. At one point during our stay in Wadi Rum, one of our hosts produced a cell phone. Already feeling blissfully unplugged, I didn’t notice if he was getting any reception from the outside world.

slideshowiconTo view a slideshow of Wadi Rum, click here.

This article is part of a series on Jordan. For more in-depth information on other specific travel sites in Jordan, please see the following:

Cultivated Amman

Amman is a vibrant and modern city but one that, at the same time, has preserved many historical and cultural treasures.

The Many Lives of Jerash

One of the best-preserved Roman ruins in the Mediterranean area, Jerash is notable especially for its openness and visual beauty.

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