Five times a day, the mountains in Wadi Rum sing.
Not in full-throated harmony, you understand. Nor even particularly loudly. In fact at first, the startled listener may think the ethereal warble is an auditory illusion, the effect on modern ears of a silence so utter, it verges on the unnatural.
The trigger is the call to prayer. As Islam’s amplified appeal to the Almighty makes its way up the valley, the mountains of Wadi Rum reverberate in reply. The harmonic resonance that results begins as a barely perceptible hum but builds swiftly. By the time the muezzin is reaching the end of his call, the resonance has become a high-pitched electric keening, a little like the sound a finger makes as it circles the rim of an empty wineglass. Only here, that finger belongs to God and the wineglass is some 15 kilometres wide.
Like a well-trained opera singer, the song of the Wadi warbles and wavers in counterpoint to the call, its voice felt by the ears as much as it is heard.
An imponderable maze of canyons, sand dunes and towering rock massifs in Jordan’s southern desert, Wadi Rum is one of those places that are on the Earth but not entirely of it. A place of such overwhelming natural beauty, it is difficult to resist the urge to drop to your knees before it, mouth open in awe.
“Vast, echoing and godlike” was how British explorer-spy-political provocateur T.E Lawrence described the area in his memoirs. A hopeless romantic prone to bouts of hyperbole bordering on outright invention - especially where his own exploits were concerned - in this description at least T.E. cannot be faulted.
When he passed through this part of the world in the early 19th century, Wadi Rum was the middle of nowhere, sporadically inhabited by nomadic Bedouin from the Zuweiyda and Zalabiyeh clans. The only outsiders who came here, and even then infrequently, were the Ottoman soldiers guarding the Hejaz railway, which still runs through the desert just to the north.
Less than a century later, nowhere’s middle has moved elsewhere. The tarmac road that runs beside the railway tracks and into the Wadi now brings busloads of tourists, eager to see in real life what they have probably already seen on the Discovery Channel or in the pages of National Geographic.
Now at Ain al-Shalaileh, the fresh water spring where Lawrence camped, tourist tents flutter in the breeze. Pictures of the natural rock bridges of Khazali, Umm Fruth and Burdah are wedged in photo albums worldwide and the massive red sand dunes between Anfishiyyeh and Umm Alaydah have been scaled by the soles of many nations.
Despite its newfound popularity, Wadi Rum is still very much a wild place. In part, this is the result of careful management of the area by Jordanian authorities, who have placed strict limits on development but Mostly, it’s because Wadi Rum is just downright odd. The empty, rolling expanse of the desert. The sheer rock walls that rise up to 800 metres straight from the sands to end in pillars, domes and vaguely humanoid forms. The immense panorama of granite, basalt and sandstone massifs that stretch as far as the eye can see. The clusters of peculiar mountains, pierced by narrow, winding canyons, carved into architectural and organic shapes by millennia of wind and rain, simply don’t look real.
This is why your first impulse will be to sit and stare. Do so for long enough and almost as if they appreciate the attention, Rum’s mountains reward watchers with acts of trompe l’oeil, dissolving before disbelieving eyes into an endless parade of strange shapes and forms. The rock face that from one side of the valley appeared to be covered in balconies, on closer inspection looks more like it is melting under the sun. What from here could be a coral reef, from over there is clearly the top of a baked Alaska. Here, the valley walls are pitted and pockmarked while around the corner, the cliff face is so smooth, it looks more like an open book, its sheer surface covered in cracks that could be lines of text, written in an unknown script.
Bathed in a silence so absolute, it feels like it has a sound all of its own, mild visual bewilderment can easily give way to full-blown hallucination. Let yourself go and suddenly the hulking mountains could be misshapen hot-air balloons, lightly tethered to the ground. A sudden gust of wind might just send them flying. The breakdown of reality here is so complete and so sudden that anyone who ‘experimented’ in college may begin to fear that those dire government health warnings about the long-term effects of mind-altering chemical on the brain might not have contained at least a grain of truth.
In this case, the best solution is to picture the landscape differently. Imagine, for example, the melting mountains miniaturised a million times. The kind of breakthrough in understanding that results may normally be reserved for small children, shamans and the mentally unbalanced, but it does help put things into perspective. Obviously, these mountains don’t look real because they aren’t real. No, they were made to lie at the bottom of some city-sized fish tank.
As quickly as the thought comes it passes, but not before you think you may have seen the tailfin of some leviathan fish lurking behind one of the summits and a column of bubbles and a strand of towering pondweed out of the corner of your eye. Feeling giddier than before? Welcome to Wonderland.
And what a multi-hued place Wonderland is. From sunrise to sunset, the landscape changes by the hour, cart-wheeling through a kaleidoscope of colours. The washed out shades of midday, when even mad dogs seek shelter from the sun, become a blaze of oranges, reds, and pinks as the light fades.
But the Wadi’s light show doesn’t end with dusk. As the last streaks of colour disappear from the sky, the stars come out. Within an hour of sunset, the sky is again ablaze, this time with the light from millions of stars. It is awesome, this desert night sky. It is surely skies like this that must have tempted our ancestors out of the trees and engraved in their hearts the desire, one day, to fly amongst them. It’s a nightly display that has inspired a million poets and dreamers and billions of gasps of wonder but which in our increasingly urban existence is increasingly unseen, light which has travelled for millions, even billions of years to reach us, overwhelmed by the unforgiving orange glow of our cities.
It is this ability to transport that makes Wadi Rum so special. More than just some beauty spot, the landscape here makes the mind work. You find yourself paying attention to details in a way that modern life discourages. Here, the texture of sand, the play of light and the sweetness of the breeze are all that matter. Freed from the hubbub of urban life, your thoughts are free to wander wherever they like.
Often, the direction they choose is inward. The sheer spectacle of Wadi Rum encourages contemplation. Maybe this is what attracted its earliest inhabitants for despite the unforgiving climate and the harshness of the terrain, traces of human habitation can be found in most nearby valleys. Winding canyon walls are decorated with ancient pictographs of camels, warriors, even the odd pair of feet, painstakingly scratched and chiselled into the rock by pre-Islamic tribes.
Elsewhere, Thamudic, Nabatean and early Arabic inscriptions, the latter mostly from travellers offering thanks to God, are carved into boulders and rock faces. Though most are now centuries old, more recent scratchings, mostly of the “I Woz ‘Ere” variety, can also be found. These come in an array of scripts, including the occasional one in Hebrew - testament to less tense times, when climbers from nearby Eilat used to come here to practice.
Other more three-dimensional reminders of the past include two Nabatean temples. The one out at Jabal Anfishiyyeh, referred to locally as Lawrence’s House, is little more than a simple box-like building but a larger ruin in the valley behind Rum village, which is currently being excavated, is far more elaborate and come complete with the remains of a sacred enclosure, an altar and several priests’ rooms.
Though most visitors come only for a few hours, it’s worth spending at least a day and a night in the desert for as you settle into the silence, your senses attune to the beauty, your emotions calm and the valley begins to work its meditative effect.
Perhaps it’s the ferocity of the sun and the visually ravishing terrain. Perhaps it’s the silence and the utter isolation. Or perhaps the urge to prostrate oneself and beg forgiveness when face to face with such natural wonder is simply written into our genetic code.
Whatever it is, here, far from the madding crowds, atheist, agnostic or believer, you suddenly understand why it was from out of this desert that the three monotheistic religions emerged. In this empty immensity, the vengeful God of the Old Testament, the harsh morality tales of the Torah and the Qu’ranic injunction to submit to an all-powerful and wrathful deity, make perfect sense.
Of this insight, temptation is born. Why not spend a couple of months in Wadi Rum? For who knows, you may even emerge with a brand new religion of your own.
Originally Published in OBG
Photo © wikicommons