Chasing Celluloid Dreams in Jordan

Jess Lee, author of Footprint's upcoming Jordan Handbook, gives us a cinematic tour of Jordan's biggest Hollywood stars - Wadi Rum desert and the ruins of Petra.

Wadi Rum, Jordan

Jordan is panoramic candyfloss cast from a cinematographer’s daydream. Plucked from obscurity to form the meaty filling of David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia the vast, empty desertscapes of this country have never looked back and have proved movie manna for directors ever since. Squeezed between the slash of the Great Rift Valley to its west and the endless rippling sands of the Arabian Desert in the east, scattered across this rugged country are landscapes captured for immortality by film. From the carnivore-toothed pinnacles of Wadi Rum, which rise up to bite the blue sky, to the mysterious monuments of Petra which lay hidden for centuries behind a solid veil of rock. In Jordan though, you don’t have to be a buff mountain bloke or solid adventurer type to follow in the director’s footsteps. Those grand vistas are easily accessible to all holidaymakers here.

Wadi Rum, Jordan

Wadi Rum – Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

After kissing the road goodbye in Rum village, where the sprawl of sugar-cube houses line streets half swallowed by sand, the bitumen trails off into the waves of the sand sea. David Lean, at his storytelling best, used the amphitheatre of sandstone cliffs here to dramatic effect in the pivotal scene of his Lawrence of Arabia epic when a blue-eyed Peter O’Toole as Lawrence and a smouldering Omar Sharif playing Ali advanced towards Aqaba to take on the Ottoman troops.

The Bedouin though were traversing the valleys and peaks of Wadi Rum long before the movie cameras moved in. This harsh land formed part of the important trading routes of the Iron Age and relics of the Thamudic and Nabataean tribes who once roamed through here can still be seen. The Anfashieh engravings form an open air gallery of petroglyphs where camel riding stick figures commence battle. At the mouth of Khazali canyon, where a narrow fissure slices through the rock and the red walls of the cliffs seem to ooze liquid stone in a candle wax drip, you can spy more ancient graffiti by climbing the ledge up into the cool, dank interior.

Wadi Rum, Jordan

Despite the stark environment, the air filled with sand which spools and spirals in the air kicked up by the wheels of jeeps probably as old as the movie itself, Wadi Rum is more alive than most imagine. Steppe Buzzards cartwheel overhead while camels stride in plodding steps across the red plains. For a panoramic shot that would do any budding cinematographer proud head to the sight of Lawrence’s house. Although England’s most eccentric hero most probably never stayed here (the site is home to the remains of a Nabataean temple though) the sprawling view of Wadi Rum, framed by colossal crags, is a fantasy of film location perfection.

Although facilities are primitive, the best way to capture the true Lawrence experience is to spend the night out here in one of the many Bedouin encampments that pepper the protectorate area. Watch the sunset slowly coat the cliffs blood-red before the dusk sets in and the sky fades to a credits-black broken only by the pinpricks of a million twinkling stars.

Wadi Rum, Jordan

Sampling a Bedouin barbeque

The traditional Bedouin zarb which you’ll be offered if you stay overnight at a Wadi Rum camp is one of the best foodie treats in Jordan. Slow-cooked underground till succulent, a typical zarb consists of chicken pieces blackened to crispy perfection with juice-dribbling perfect meat, baked potatoes, and whole onions cooked in their skins so that they’re melt-in-the-mouth creamy inside. At breakfast don’t miss trying the zaatar. This tangy spice mixture (a blend of oregano, thyme, sesame seeds, sumac and salt) is the perfect accompaniment to plenty of fresh pita bread. Toast your pita pocket over the campfire, spoon a generous dollop of olive oil over the bread and then press into the zaatar bowl to coat. The most delicious desert wakeup call you’ll ever get. 

Sleeping under the stars

Only members of the Zelabieh tribe (the traditional custodians of Wadi Rum) are allowed to set up camps within the Wadi Rum protectorate so you are guaranteed your money will be going to help the local people of the area. There are several to choose from all offering the same standard of facilities. What they lack in luxury they make up for with the boundless enthusiasm and hospitality of your hosts and the incredible opportunity of experiencing a vast star-strewn night sky then waking up to see the first rays of sunlight peak over the rocks.

Tip: If you book your itinerary through an outside tour operator make sure that your desert camp is in the protectorate area. Many of the big tour companies operate camps in nearby Disi which doesn’t have the same dramatic desert setting. It’s best to book your Wadi Rum overnight stay either directly through the camps or on arrival at Wadi Rum visitor’s centre.

Getting there

Wadi Rum is easiest reached from Aqaba or Petra which both have public minibus transportation to Wadi Rum Visitor’s Centre. There is no direct public transport from Amman. Be aware that there are only one or two minibus services (depending on demand) per day from Aqaba and only one from Petra. A private taxi can be easily arranged from Amman, Aqaba or Petra.

Petra, Jordan

Petra – Indiana Jonesand the Last Crusade (1989)

It may have got only twenty minutes of film time right at the end but that was enough to put Petra’s Treasury (known locally as Al-Khazneh) firmly on the movie-buff map. Found after weaving your way through the narrow siq (canyon), used in the dramatic shots of Indy’s exit from the Canyon of the Crescent Moon, the Treasury’s looming facade played home to the Holy Grail in this well loved Nazi-outwitting adventure classic. 

Much of Petra’s history and that of its Nabataean master’s remains shrouded by the passing of time and its inherent mystery make it perfect for Indy-style adventures. Despite the Treasury’s worldwide fame don’t be duped into thinking this is all that this ruin has to offer. Secreted within the valleys here, hidden by a labyrinth of sandstone mountains splashed by a palette of rose-hued rock, are hundreds of other tombs and temples carved out from the surrounding cliffs.

Climb the rough track up to the Royal Tombs, majestically placed along a high ledge, and crane your neck up to facades blending influences of Egyptian, Persian and Hellenistic design and art form which point to this empire’s famed tentacles of trade. In the valley below the tumbled columns of Petra Great Temple, which has an Odeon sitting in its temenos, has sparked a flurry of archaeological theory that has yet to be proven correct.

The real challenge here though is the hike to the Monastery (or Ed-Dier) found by slogging a spiralling staircase of rock-hewn steps. Although having no film credits to call its own this massive monument is the pinnacle of Nabataean architectural skill and is worthy of the sweat needed to reach it. Come for sunset when the imposing facade, which straddles a cliff face, turns orange in the dying embers of the light.

Petra, Jordan

Cooking like a local

Petra Kitchen allows you the opportunity to get your pinafore on and help prepare a Jordanian feast fit for a king. It’s not so much a cooking class as a unique dining experience (the chef and local female staff do most of the actual cooking) and the huge variety of traditional Middle Eastern staples laid out means you can sample the best of Jordan’s traditional home cooking.

Sleeping near the ruins

When booking any Petra accommodation beforehand take into account that the town of Wadi Musa (next to the ruins) is actually spread over two parts divided by a rather large hill. Entry to the site is at the foot of the hill along with a strip of tourist facilities. On top of the hill is the town of Wadi Musa proper. Both have pluses and minuses.

Petra, Jordan

Staying at the bottom means you’re only a stone’s throw from Petra but be aware that the restaurants and facilities here tend to charge premium rates. Up in town you have cheaper prices and also all the banks and services right next door but you have a rather long walk home in front of you when you’ve finished conquering the ruins. Luckily most of the hotels provide drop-off and pick-up from the entry gate to save your tired legs from walking though these usually run only at certain times of day or you can also choose to take a taxi. 

Getting there

By bus from Amman you can use the daily comfortable coach service run by JETT Bus Company which drops you off right beside Petra’s entrance gate. There are also several minibuses which depart from the capital’s Wahadat bus station throughout the day.
This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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