Lawrence of Arabia

Mr. Dryden: "Lawrence, only two kinds of creature get fun in the desert - Bedouins and gods, and you're neither. Take it from me, for ordinary men, it's a burning, fiery furnace".

T.E. Lawrence: "No, Dryden, it's going to be fun".

Mr. Dryden: "It is recognized that you have a funny sense of fun".

– Lawrence of Arabia, 1962
Not only was the iconic film Lawrence of Arabia shot in Jordan in the 1960s but the protagonist, Captain T.E. Lawrence, also fought his real life battles against the Ottoman Turks on what is now Jordanian soil. That was a century ago, a time when British and French forces were sent out to support King Hussein bin Ali, from the Hashemite monarchy that ruled the Kingdom of Hejaz as the region was known at that time. This battle for independence from Ottoman rule went on for two years, between 1916-1918, with the Council of the League of Nations recognising what was then called Transjordan as a state under British supervision in 1922. This period was known as the Arab Revolt, and it was one that changed the face of the region forever.

Jordan has come a long way in a hundred years. This same Hashemite monarchy still rules the country and, although the more recent Arab Spring revolt of 2010/11 did spread into Jordan, the current King Abdullah II took immediate action and sacked the government in response to protests, promising Jordanians to “to strengthen democracy,” and provide Jordanians with the “dignified life they deserve.”
What hasn’t changed, however, is the dramatic and ever alluring desert landscape where these battles were fought by Lawrence of Arabia and many more. Nor has the Bedouin Arab’s relationship with the desert changed much either, and although visitors from the past may have seen their gorgeously gaping landscapes as a place to fear, as portrayed in the quote above, tourists are now embracing it as a place to experience wilderness at its most wondrous. A place where they can take on an odyssey through what feels like infinitesimal space, as so well portrayed by David Lean in his iconic movie.

In the film of Lawrence of Arabia, the captain describes the desert as ‘an ocean in which no oar is dipped.’ And one way in which travelers can cross this ‘ocean’ today is in a caravan of camels or donkeys, which retrace the footsteps of Lawrence of Arabia in the Central Highlands and eastern deserts of Jordan. Rather than taking two years, they can take on a weeklong expedition, camping in a different place every night. This type of tourist camping in the desert was pioneered by enterprising Bedouin communities where, in modern times, although they still lead very traditional lifestyles, maintaining a livelihood can be challenging. And tourism definitely fills that gap.
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Bedouins are famously some of the world’s finest hosts and far from providing glamping-style, Champagne camping, you will experience traditional home-cooked dishes, such as zarb, marinated lamb, usually from the Bedouin’s own flock, which is then cooked in a sand oven. Over coffee, a traditional ceremony that involves three cups, you have plenty of time to hear Bedouin tales and elder wisdom. Wisdom that comes from forefathers, many of whom fought alongside Lawrence all those years ago. Although what’s a hundred years in the desert, when you and your landscape are constantly on the move?

Travelers certainly lose all sense of time when they immerse themselves in these wadis and wild, arid places. The most famous of these is the UNESCO World Heritage Site, Wadi Rum. Sometimes nicknamed the Grand Canyon of the Middle East, its name comes from the Arabic and translates as ‘High Valley’. The largest wadi in Jordan, the otherworldly reds and oranges that bounce off the sandstone and granite rock that has been eroded to this magnificent natural state, is also sometimes called Valley of the Moon. Whatever you call it, when you lie down at night and look at the stars shooting all around, the moon beaming a spotlight on stark natural features, or the faces of your Bedouin hosts, you realise that you don’t need a cast, credits and costumes to bring this star studded part of the world to life. You just need a camel, and some very welcoming hosts.
Photo credits: [Page banner: Pocholo Calapre] [Intro: Lowell Thomas] [Lawrence of Arabia Spring: Hiking in Jordan Website and Guidebook] [Bedouin: Hubert Stoffels]