The Desert of Wadi Rum
The dramatic landscape of Wadi Rum is made of impressive sandstone rock towers surrounded by vast and flat sandy plains in a mineral harmony of beige to pink and orange colors. The ecosystem of this desert of mountains allowed men to live here for thousands of years, alternating nomadic and sedentary life. It is the territory of Bedouin Arab tribes, formerly nomadic breeders who welcome Wadi Rum visitors today.
The spectacular sandstone relief of Wadi Rum, Petra, Wadi Dana, formed 500 millions of years ago, form a layer of more than 700 meters thick, deposited on older granite and metamorphic rocks (which form the mountains above Aqaba).
3 millions of years ago, the Great Rift Valley (a vast fault that runs under the Red Sea, along the entire Jordan valley, up to Turkey) opened to form the Jordan valley, deepening depressions such as the Gulf of Aqaba and the Dead Sea, and elevating the neighboring eastern platform which is today’s Jordan. In Wadi Rum, a network of criss-crossing fault lines and the slow process of erosion of the sandstone, caused by rainwater runoff and the abrasive effect of sand storms, shaped the present landscape: initial faults became the gorges and broad valleys of Wadi Rum (literally the “valley” of Rum) and develop into a desert of sand valleys and mountains where the highest points of Jordan are located : Jebel Umm Ad-Dami (1850 m) and Jebel Rum (1754 m).
The sandy valleys of Wadi Rum are located on average around 1000 meters above sea level. That is why the temperatures are cooler than in the eastern desert plains of Jordan, the Red Sea and the Jordan valley. Wadi Rum is characterized by a dry climate and a high variation of the daily temperature range depending on the time of the year: in summer, temperatures range from 15C ° to 45C °, while in winter they range from 5C ° to 20C °. Annual precipitation is low (i.e. 50 to 100 mm) and concentrated in winter.
Fauna and Flora
The porosity of the sandstone naturally collects rainwater and feed hidden sources throughout the contact zone between the sandstone and the granite basement. In these tiny and uphill oases, palm trees, wild fig trees, white broom and several species of ferns grow in the shade. The narrow shaded valleys and the mountains are also home of many aromatic herbs (including thyme and mugwort) and, in spring, of a multitude of flowers, including crown anemone and iris lutescens. Many other plant species adapted to the arid environment, such as tamarix, are used by the Bedouins, as medicine and food for the animals.
Between the cliffs and in the narrow gorges, shaded and relatively wet areas are home to bats and other nocturnal animals, as well as rare species such as the "dab", a big vegetarian spiny-tailed lizard.
Wadi Rum is also home to a hundred of bird species, including vultures, harriers, eagles and the Sinaï Rosefinch (national bird of Jordan). We find also domesticated dromedarian camels, Nubian ibex, wolves, foxes, hares, jerboas, wild cats and the sinaï agama lizard. The Arabian Oryx, a variety of big white gazelles, was reintroduced in reserves.
The desert of Wadi Rum is inhabited since ancient times as evidenced by several archaeological sites and a large number of petroglyphs, the oldest probably dating back about 35,000 years ago. There are also several tens of thousands of rock inscriptions, dating from the 4-5th centuries BC up to the present times.
The most remarkable mention of Rum is in the Holy Quran, under the name of Iram, an Aramaic word meaning high. The Quranic text described the area as a place "who had lofty pillars, the likes of whom had never been created in the land". The Holy Quran mentions also the Arab tribe of Ad, who lived in Iram around the second century BC, as well as the Thamudic rock inscriptions that this tribe left on the mountain. At that time, the region was a center of trade and pilgrimage for many Arab tribes; remnants of pre-Islamic sanctuaries have been discovered in the foothills of Jebel Umm Ishrin and Jebel Rum.
The Nabataeans, an Arab tribe who established its main center in Petra from the fourth century BC, gradually took control of the important trade route linking the Arabian Peninsula to the Mediterranean Sea and, in the first century AD, strengthened the role of Rum/Iram as a caravan and religious center.
The region of Wadi Rum lost its importance in Roman times and the semi-sedentary population then returned to nomadic life. During the Islamic period, caravans continued to sporadically cross the region. Wadi Rum has remained the domain of nomads until late 1970s, when the Jordanian authorities have encouraged their settlement.
The British officer and author T. E. Lawrence uncovered the Wadi Rum to Westerners. He went there on several short occasions between 1916 and 1917 when he was the military adviser of Emir Faisal, commander of the Great Arab Revolt troops against the Ottoman occupation. Struck and inspired by its beauty, he dedicated to Wadi Rum part of his book The Seven Pillars of Wisdom. An important part of David Lean movie Lawrence of Arabia was filmed in Wadi Rum in the early 1960s.
The Bedouins Tribes
The Bedouin tent, called "house of hair" in Arabic, is weaved by the women with goats and camels hair and sheep wool. This tent is perfectly adapted to the desert life: it can be dismantled so Bedouins can move freely between areas of pasture; its multiple openings are adapted to the changes of wind direction; and it is biodegradable. Beautiful woven striped carpets furnish the tent and are the evidence of women's creativity despite the harshness of the environment.
Several small tribes inhabit the region of Wadi Rum and the surrounding area. Since the 1970s, the Bedouins find increasingly more convenient to settle, especially in order to send their children to school. The Zalabyeh tribe (also transcribed Al-Zalabih) now lives in the village of Rum; few families of herders of sheep and goats are still living in tents in the surrounding desert, thereby continue to supply the families with dairy and meat for the special occasions. Most families have also at least one or two camels, sometimes more, now used for touristic tours or for the popular camel races. Today’s younger generations live mainly from tourism as drivers, guides or tour operators.
The tourism and the absolute necessity to protect a fragile environment have encouraged the younger generation to adapt traditional activities and nomadic know-how while remaining faithful to the Bedouin values: courage, honor and hospitality. Ibex hunters have become world famous climbing guides; herders use their camels for tourist tours; women have created cooperatives and developed new crafts inspired by the environment of Wadi Rum; and families living in the villages or in the desert sometimes welcome the visitors around of a very sweet tea or a bitter coffee with cardamom, compulsory rituals of Bedouin hospitality. If you spend time in a Bedouin family, you will be welcomed in the part of the tent or the house reserved for the visitors. Out of politeness, you will not try to enter or take a look in the part of the house reserved for the family. Only women can ask to greet or thank their Bedouin hostess, which is always appreciated. In any case, never take pictures of people without their permission.
Sites to Discover
Wadi Rum contains a large number of natural and archaeological sites to discover. We will only mention the main ones here. Many other remarkable sites await the traveler who takes the time for exploration and immersion in these dramatic landscapes.
Several natural stone arches punctuate the desert including Um Fruth which is easily accessible and Burdah Rock Bridge which ascent is more athletic (average 3 hours).
For mountain lovers who are not so far experienced climbers, it is possible to climb Jebel Rum in 7 hours by a Bedouin route (meaning that it does not require climbing gear). The effort is rewarded by the view from the top where it is necessary to stay overnight before to descend by foot or belay.
Deeper into the desert towards the Saudi border, the sandy plain rises gradually, thereby making possible to climb Jebel Um Ad-Dami, the highest point of Jordan, in less than two hours. The view over Saudi Arabia and the Gulf of Aqaba is unique and you may see the hyrax, a small mammal, like a rodent, that lives under the rocks of the summit.
Many sand dunes, sometimes very high, and impressive steep walled canyons like Burrah Canyon can be seen.
Around the village of Rum, the temple of Allat, pre-Islamic goddess, was founded by the tribe of Ad and expanded by the Nabataeans, who added baths! The source of Al-Shallaleh, the most important of the region, dominates the village. In this green oasis, one can admire the carvings and inscriptions of the Nabataean period.
At 5 kilometers from the village of Rum, the gorge of Khazali, where, in spring, the Sinai Rosefinch nests. Throughout the year, it is possible to admire numerous rock carvings and inscriptions (figures, feet and hands, hunting scenes and Thamudic and Arab inscriptions, etc.).
Anfishiyeh at Al-Ameleh are two other major sites of rock carvings (camels, hunters, etc.) and inscriptions. If you're interested, ask your guide to show you other sites: Wadi Rum is an open museum with tens of thousands of rock carving inscriptions.
Scattered in the surrounding mountains, there are also channels and reservoirs (to collect rainwater) carved in the rock, water retention basins blocking narrow gorges and some stone dams from the Nabataean period. Most of these works are, at least, two thousand years old and, in many cases, they are still in use for watering livestock or irrigating olive trees in the desert near the Saudi border.
In the Seven Pillars of Wisdom, Lawrence of Arabia states that he drank and washed into the source of Al-Shallaleh located above the place where the Bedouin warriors of the Great Arab Revolt camped, as well as the Howaytat tribe whose Wadi Rum was the territory. By the way, it is the only place in Wadi Rum that Lawrence mentions precisely. Recently, several sites have been associated with his stay, like "Lawrence Castle”, which is actually a wall from a Nabataean dam, as well as the impressive mountain facing the visitor center, now named The Seven Pillars of Wisdom. These places’ names are recent inventions, but are, none the less today, part of the history and charm of Wadi Rum.
A Fragile Ecosystem
Wadi Rum is a protected area where it is forbidden to hunt, collect plants and damage the rock carvings. Do not litter and take with you in a plastic bag, or burn, the paper that you use to go to the toilet in the open (to this end, keep a lighter with you). The wood is scarce. Bedouins are only allowed to collect firewood but severely punished with fines if they gather unseasoned (green) wood. Therefore, the use of wood is limited to the preparation of tea and for the campfire while food is prepared with gas.