Accompanied by a good-natured, handsome young Bedouin guide named Mohammed, we had the good fortune of visiting Wadi Rum, the “Valley of the Moon,” a protected desert wilderness area in southern Jordan.
In our humble estimation, it is the most beautiful place on earth, featuring huge, dramatic sandstone formations.
For millennia, Wadi Rum served as a route for large caravans traversing the vast desert. The flat topography of the valley floor and the availability of water from mountain springs made it a practical highway for long-distance travelers.
With its dramatic landscapes, Wadi Rum was the place where the desert scenes in the 1962 Hollywood movie “Lawrence of Arabia” were filmed.
Our guide Mohammed’s family originated in what is now the northern reaches of Saudi Arabia. They have occupied the valley for the past 200 years or so.
Mohammed showed us the sights, transporting us from location to location on the back of his pickup truck.
He was a self-employed businessman, and this is his business. At age 28, with four small children at home, he had achieved a good measure of success.
Most importantly, in the course of guiding us through the desert, Mohammed gave us an introduction to the legendary hospitality of the Bedouin people.
We enjoyed mild weather. It was sunny and warm, but not hot. Overnight it got quite cool. October is the best time to visit Wadi Rum. We dodged the extreme heat of summer.
Mohammed followed a pretty simple routine, as did the other guides we encountered along the way (all of whom were his cousins or at least his fellow tribesmen).
He drove us to special spots selected for some outstanding feature — a dramatic vista, a massive sand dune, a twisted, curvaceous narrow canyon with petroglyphs. He would park the truck and direct us where to walk.
“No hurry, no worry,” Mohammed would say as he sent us exploring.
While we explored, Mohammed and the other guides would sit on carpets in a tent, sipping sweet hot tea from small glass cups. “Bedouin whiskey,” he called it.
The Bedouins are masters of conversation. When we returned from our hike, we would join them for tea. They made us feel very comfortable and welcome.
After a few minutes, we would hop back into the pickup and head to our next destination.
Mohammed complimented us on the fact that we never asked him where he was taking us. We just went along, confident in his driving and his knowledge of the desert.
A few times, at our request, Mohammed accelerated the truck up to very high speed. We whooped it up in the back, holding on tight and watching the desert race by.
Mohammed spoke excellent English. He learned it as a child when an English-speaking American woman moved in with him and his family after coming to visit Wadi Rum. Something about Wadi Rum captivated her. That was 20 years ago. Now in her 80s, she still lives with Mohammed’s family. Mohammed and his siblings grew up speaking Arabic and English.
At mid-day Mohammed prepared us a nice lunch, cooking beans over an open fire. He was quite a good host. The food was delicious.
It was like meals at a campground — food always seems especially good when cooked and served in the great outdoors.
We spent the night in a Bedouin camp built specifically for tourists.
There was only one other couple staying there that night, a husband and wife from China.
It was very quiet and everyone went to bed early.
We shivered in the cold under thin blankets. The night sky was full of stars.
“I want to sleep with you in the desert tonight, with a million stars all around.”
– “Peaceful, Easy Feeling,” song by The Eagles,
The Ancient City of Petra
In the morning, Mohammed returned to our camp in his pickup truck. He took us back to the village where he and his extended family live, at the entry to the Wadi Rum protected area. We bid him a warm farewell.
We were transferred into the custody of a Jordanian driver and an English- and French-speaking tour guide, a woman who had earned a graduate degree in France and who spoke in a rapid clip.
Her style was very different from Mohammed’s.
Our destination was Petra, the ruins of an ancient, pre-Islamic city in the desert.
Like Wadi Rum, the terrain at Petra features dramatically carved sandstone mountains and narrow gorges. The city of Petra was hidden away inside one of those gorges, protected by its natural features.
With our guide in tow, we spent the day trekking down the long road into mysterious Petra.
Its extreme antiquity, reinforced by the fact that it is concealed inside a vast sandstone gorge, makes Petra seem to visitors as if they are in an action movie about a swashbuckling archeologist’s adventure.
Nothing contributes more to this impression than the final stretch of the long road that winds through the steep-walled canyon down into Petra.
The pass through the gorge is dramatically beautiful.
As we passed through the final portion of the gorge, our tour guide had us close our eyes before we got to the opening. She led us by our hands until we got to the right spot. They she told us to open our eyes. There before us, visible through the steep gorge, was an ancient, monumental structure known as the Treasury.
We were sure our tour guide had done this a thousand times before, but it was a nice trick.
We had a memorable Indiana Jones moment, for sure.
Yes, Petra is understandably popular with tourists.
We were duly impressed with Petra, and we were very glad we went.
In many ways, though, Petra served as a counterpoint to Wadi Rum.
Whereas Wadi Rum was a peaceful desert paradise, a place of immense solitude, in Petra we encountered throngs of tourists.
Also greeting us in Petra was a barrage of local hustlers offering rides on horses, camels and donkeys, and hawking trinkets.
We were a little distressed at the large number of young children employed among them. Why, we wondered, are these kids not in school?
In the ancient days of the old caravans that passed through through Wadi Rum from what is now Saudi Arabia, Petra was often their destination. It was the largest city in the region.
Surprisingly little is known about the original founders of the place we call Petra — a Greek name given to the city long after it was abandoned and rediscovered.
They were a pre-Islamic people. They carved elaborate buildings and sculptures into the soft sandstone, most of them burial chambers for their dead.
Centuries after those early people disappeared, the Romans built their version of a city at Petra. Almost all of the Roman works were thoroughly destroyed by earthquakes. Curiously, the much older structures sculpted into the sandstone walls of the valley are far better preserved than the Roman ruins.
After two days in Petra, we shook the sand off our shoes and headed north on the bus to Amman.
Brief Sojourns in Aqaba and Amman
Our visit to Jordan commenced with at the Yitzhak Rabin Border Crossing, named for the late Israeli Prime Minister in honor of his achievement in negotiating peace between Israel and Jordan.
Rabin tragically was assassinated in 1995 by a fanatic who resented his peacemaking efforts.
His counterpart, the late King Hussein of Jordan, is also widely admired and respected in the region.
We walked across the border from the Israeli city of Eilat to the Jordanian city of Aqaba. It was quiet and effortless. There were dozens of Jordanian workers coming across the border, heading home for the night. We witnessed peace between Israel and Jordan, literally.
We spent only one night in Aqaba, but were impressed. It was a large, clean and seemingly prosperous city.
From our hotel room we had a view of the Red Sea. Both Aqaba and its neighbor Eilat are busy port cities.
Views of the Red Sea from our hotel room in Aqaba – twilight & morning
After our adventures in the Jordanian desert — Wadi Rum and Petra — in the company of travel guides, we traveled on our own by bus to Amman, Jordan’s capital city.
Having experienced the austerity of the desert, we decided to go upscale for our final night in Amman.
We booked a room at a futuristic, round-shaped tower hotel, surrounded by armed checkpoints.
From the rounded windows in our luxurious room we had an expansive view of Amman.
Perhaps it would not be fair to say we really experienced life in Amman.
Our hotel was to Amman what a cruise ship is to a port of call — it was there, but not really there.
Still, we enjoyed the view, and the cab ride through the city out to the airport. Amman was certainly the biggest, most modern city we have visited in an Arabic Islamic country.
The next morning, at Amman’s very beautiful international airport, we caught a flight to our next destination — Athens!
Next stop, Athens!