Setting off through the sandy deserts of Jordan; the mysteriously sand-etched monuments at Petra, biblical sites, baren dunes and starry night skies at Wadi Rum all bring me a step closer to understanding just what it was about this landscape that fascinated the man who became known as Lawrence of Arabia.
A hero to many, a traitor to some; a scholar, a warrior, a recluse, a friend of the Arab tribes or a simple marauding spy. All have been used to describe a larger-than-life character whose legacy has become mythical and sometimes controversial here.
Born Thomas Edward Lawrence, or T.E. Lawrence, he became legendary almost a century ago as he fought alongside Bedouin tribes against the Ottoman Turks during the Arab revolts of WWI. He fought these battles possibly believing that the epic clashes would finally lead to one unified Arab state.
It can even be argued that through his ferocious tactics, he was one of the first modern-day guerrillas to use ploys akin to terrorism as a tool of war. He gathered disparate Arab tribes, and with them blew up train after train that provided provisions for the Turkish army. He rendered his enemy paralyzed with fear.
“A thousand Arabs means a thousand knives, delivered anywhere day or night,” says a coy Peter O’Toole depicting T.E. Lawrence in the 1962 classic Oscar-winning film, Lawrence of Arabia, “It means a thousand camels. That means a thousand packs of high explosives and a thousand crack rifles.”
“We can cross Arabia while Johnny Turk is still turning round, and smash his railways,” he explains to Britain’s commander Edmund Allenby, played by Jack Hawkins. “And while he’s mending them, I’ll smash them somewhere else. In thirteen weeks, I can have Arabia in chaos.”
And against all odds he and the Arab tribes raced their way through blistering hot deserts to lay deafening blows on the much more powerful Turkish army.
But Lawrence of Arabia and the Bedouin tribes were not the first larger-than-life warriors who left their mark on the arid, unforgiving, stunning landscape that is today the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. T.E. Lawrence himself was familiar with the Rolodex of history, which shows many grand civilizations that have passed this way.
In 333 BC, Alexander the Great stormed through this desert before establishing the largest empire that the world had seen. But as empires were formed along these roads etched in the sand, so too they fell; be it Crusader or Islamic armies, Mamluks or Ottoman Turks. Each left their mark in archaeological sites, heavy rock forts, porous castles or mysterious monuments carved in the soft desert stones.
My journey through Jordan begins with less excitement and more comfort at the Mövenpick Resort and Spa overlooking the calm waters of the Dead Sea. This is the lowest point on earth, at 408 meters below sea level. The rays of the sun reflect like a mirror from these waters that are so infused with salt that I can magically float above the waters while reading a newspaper most comfortably.
This luxurious hotel in the Jordan Valley is made up of a series of traditional sandstone complexes landscaped into a village-like setting which leaves nothing to chance. Palm trees, lush tropical plants, blood-red hibiscus flowering all about, with pools and waterfalls topped off by the award-winning Zara Spa – recommended by none other than Condé Nast Traveller.
But in the desert things are not always as they seem. Every morning at dawn two massive water tankers deliver fresh water to feed the misplaced vegetation. Like a false-oasis it is a daily reminder that despite the palm trees and lush vegetation, this setting is something of an illusion. It is very much the dry and arid place that ‘Lawrence’ endured so deftly.
This desert landscape is not devoid of ancient historical roots. On the northern end of the Dead Sea I visit sites that date back to Biblical times. The trickling waters of the Jordan River and the Baptism Site are deceivingly ordinary in appearance; but this is reputed to be the place where the prophet Ilias ascended to the heavens.
Nearby is Mount Nebo and its winding cross overlooking the Dead Sea, the Jordan River Valley, Jericho and Jerusalem. This is where the prophet Moses is said to have first seen the Promised Land.
But moving south in this dry and sandy kingdom there is one site that puts Jordan on the map of the culturally curious. This is Petra. Voted in 2007 as one of the ‘New Seven Wonders of the World’, Petra is in Wadi Araba. The site is a living museum of ten thousand years of human history.
The hidden monuments of Petra are reached by an at times narrow road through a dramatic Siq, which is carved by nature in the rose-colored sandstone. During the day speedy horses drawing little carriages dart up and down the trail carrying tourists who hang on to their hats as they come perilously close to hitting pedestrians on their journey to the series of monuments that are disbursed along a vast territory.
The walk or trot ends at the Treasury, the most iconic image of Jordan today and believed to be the tomb of the Nabatean King Aretas III. On certain evenings you can even see ‘Petra by Night’, where this same walk is done silently at night on a romantic candlelit path which ends at the Treasury, which is also lit by the golden hues of dozens of burning candles and torches.
While the Treasury looks much like the architecture of the ancient Greeks or Romans, the columned facade carved in soft stone dates way back to 100 BC to 200 AD. Through a chance encounter, I learn that is was not until recent history that the many black-char caves were inhabited by Bedouin families.
“We are the rest of the Nabatean people, those people who came to Petra. We came from Yemen, from Saudi Arabia in caravans in the desert,” Ghassab Al-Bidul, a Bedouin who was brought up in the caves tells me. In 1985 UNESCO officials relocated the Bedouin to a small neighboring village where he was brought up.
While he has become a multilingual guide and adapted his life to the economy of tourism, he still retains some of the core traditional values of his childhood. When asked if he would write about his upbringing in the caves of Petra, his reply was simple.
“I have it in the mind so I do not want to write it. If you have it in the mind it is better because then you are not going to get old. But when you write it down then you must read it again. I remember everything in my life. Why write it in a book when I have it all?
T.E. Lawrence knew this mentality well, but also knew that western society needs the written word to commit great moment to memory and posterity. He did this in his recollections in the book “Seven Pillars of Wisdom,” which he wrote from his memories of the Arab revolts, and his part in them.
But it was in the heart of Jordan in the Wadi Rum where Lawrence of Arabia found both solace and tribulations. Before hopping onto the jeep to head out to the desert gorges, I buy myself a traditional red and white square scarf, a colourful garb that shelters you from the blowing winds, the sand and cold desert nights.
At the edge of the desert a convoy of jeeps driven by Bedouins pick us up – six to a vehicle – before we speed through the dunes towards the encampment. We whisk through the dunes leaving behind only a fine plume of sand. The only roads here are the faded tracks from previous expeditions which guide the drivers on the bumpy two-hour drive.
We camp at a vast desert expanse of strangely shaped rocks and peaks that poke through a landscape surrounded by nothing but a sea of sand. Here you can hear the echo of your voice as it bounces from stone to stone, and drones of stars dance in the cold evening sky. I am sure that it was the ambiguous feeling of both loneliness, exhilaration and personal freedom that led T.E. Lawrence to feel at home here.
The landscape is doted with tall rocky gorges that rise high above the brick-red horizon. Only the odd dry but very much alive bundle of shrubs breaks the tedium of the ripples in the sand. The brittle vegetation leaves a tail behind it, a wavy irregularity formed by desert winds or sandstorms.
“The Bedouin of the desert, born and grown up in it, had embraced with all his soul this nakedness to harsh for volunteers, for the reason, felt but inarticulate, that there he found himself indubitably free.” writes Lawrence in The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, “He lost material ties, comforts, all superfluities and other complications to achieve a personal liberty which haunted starvation and death.
Montreal-based cultural navigator Andrew Princz is the editor of the travel portal ontheglobe.com. He is involved in journalism, country awareness, tourism promotion and cultural-oriented projects globally. He has traveled to over fifty countries around the globe; from Nigeria to Ecuador; Kazakhstan to India. He is constantly on the move, seeking out opportunities to interact with new cultures and communities.