Letters From Saudi Arabia: In Wadi Rum

This is the second part in series about travels in Saudi Arabia, along the line of the Hejaz railway.


The Hejaz railway crossing Wadi Rum (Wadi: the word associated with a valley or dried river bed; Rum: a nearby Beduouin village), where during the Arab revolt of World War I Lawrence and his cohorts often camped. The line of narrow-gauge track is faintly visible on the middle left of the picture. Photograph: Matthew Stevenson.

Arriving in Aqaba, I wondered if getting a visa “on arrival” in Jordan would be a problem, but when my turn came at the booth, the border guard simply opened my passport and stamped it. (I learned later that Aqaba is visa-free, while a visa is required if you land in the Jordanian capital, Amman.)

I shared a taxi into town with some other arriving passengers, but at my hotel I spent a half hour alone in the lobby, trying to find someone to check me in. Finally a sleepy clerk showed up. He had no advance word of my Booking.com reservation but showed me a few rooms, all of which (I assured myself) would look better in morning sunlight.

I took the one with a broken balcony and a distant view of the sea, and went in search of dinner, which was easy, as Aqaba has enough tourists to keep restaurants in business off-season.

Lawrence Crosses the Sinai Peninsula

By contrast, after Lawrence took Aqaba, he needed to get word to the British high command in Cairo, and the only way to do so, he concluded, was to ride and walk across the Sinai desert to the Suez Canal, which the British then held. Graves describes the epic ride:

Lawrence decided in the end to keep at a walk; if they could hold out, they would reach Suez in fifty hours. But in such cases the test of endurance is harder for the man than for the camel, and Lawrence was near the end of his strength, having ridden an average of fifty miles a day for the last month, with very little food. To make halts for cooking unnecessary they carried lumps of boiled camel and cooked dates in a rag behind their saddles….

At last in the middle of the afternoon of the third day they arrived at the Suez Canal. They had ridden for forty-nine hours without sleep and with only four short halts and had come a hundred and sixty-eight miles. When it is remembered that they were tired men before they started, and that the camels were exhausted too, this must rank as a good ride, though Lawrence surpassed it himself later….

At Suez, where he arrived verminous and filthy, with his clothes sticking to his saddle-sores, he went to an hotel and had six iced drinks, a good dinner, a hot bath, and a comfortable bed. He appreciated this dull hotel-comfort after having in the last four desperate weeks, though not yet recovered from a severe illness, ridden fourteen hundred miles on camel-back through hostile country. They were weeks of little sleep, poor food, frequent fighting and never-ceasing anxiety at the hottest time of the year in one of the hottest countries of the world. Later he found that he weighed only seven stone, nine stone being his normal weight.

In the movie, Lawrence is shown in full Arab dress pushing his way into the officer’s club in Cairo to announce that he had “taken” Aqaba, while in reality he landed back in British hands in the port city of Suez.

Aqaba by Night

I devoted some of my first evening in Aqaba (things were open late) to exploring with local travel companies how I might cross into Saudi Arabia and get to the Saudi city of Tabuk. I knew that in a car it would take about three hours to drive there, but in between was the border, and I wondered whether a Saudi e-visa would be accepted at such a remote border crossing (in some countries e-visas are for arrivals at the main airport).

At various kiosks and travel agents in Aqaba, I heard the same thing: at a roundabout near the old Turkish fortress (which Lawrence had claimed for Britain and the Arabs), there were mini-vans that, once they filled up, would head to the Saudi border and Tabuk. The cost of each crossing was about $260, divided by the number of passengers along for the ride. Local buses were not an option.

The next morning after finding breakfast (no easy chore in my ghostly hotel), I set out for the fortress and roundabout, where I found a fleet of new Chevy Suburban SUVs lined up in a small lot waiting for customers.

On each front door there was an embossed green emblem indicating that the car made the correspondence between Jordan and Saudi Arabia, and clearly in style. Since I wasn’t leaving until the next day, my driver negotiations were at the theoretical stage, but even from those I could tell that it wasn’t going to be easy to find fellow travelers to cross the divide.

Clearly, there isn’t much back-and-forth between Aqaba and Tabuk nor, in a larger sense, between Jordan and Saudi Arabia. Lawrence knew that better than most. He spent a large part of his campaigns in the desert arbitrating feuds among various tribes, and no dispute was more pronounced than that between King Hussein (whose heirs would sit on the throne of Jordan) and ibn Saud, who took possession of Nejd (central Arabia) and who wrested control of the Hejaz (and its holy cities of Mecca and Medina) from Hussein.

The Looming Syrian Civil Wars

In Lawrence biographies, Arab feuding is on every page. Here’s what Robert Graves wrote about Syria:

The six principal cities, Jerusalem, Beyrout, Damascus, Homs, Hama and Aleppo, were also each of them entirely different in character. The only possible bond between most of these pieces of the Syrian mosaic was the common language, Arabic, and though at this time there was much talk of Arab freedom, it was impossible to think of Syria as a national unity. Freedom to the Syrians meant local home-rule for each little community in its valley or city, but a freedom impossible in modern civilization where roads, railways, taxes, armies, a postal system, supplies have all to be maintained by a central government. And whatever central government might be imposed on Syria, even though Arabic were the official language, would be a foreign government; for there was no such thing as a true or typical Syrian. How to spread the Revolt up to Damascus over this chequerboard of communities, each divided against its neighbour naturally by geography and history, and artificially by Turkish intrigue, was a most baffling problem: which, however, Lawrence set himself to solve.

Perhaps because he was an admired foreigner who was brave, resourceful, and passed out a lot of gold, Lawrence became a rallying personality in the Arab revolt—in the Hejaz and up the railway line to Damascus.

In his presence, many tribal leaders overlooked their differences and decided to fight the Turks and campaign for independence under British (and Lawrence’s) leadership, although London (under the secret terms of the 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement) had other ideas about how to partition the Middle East, not always shared with its junior officers in the field.

When Lawrence left Arabia in 1918 at the war’s end, the fighting and feuding resumed, not just between the many Arab tribes, but also between the rival colonial powers (Britain and France) in the region. And all of these discordant interests, in turn, collided with the Jews who, under the 1917 Balfour Declaration, were beginning to arrive in Palestine.

To Wadi Rum

The car at the roundabout that I did engage was a local taxi, the driver of which, Ahmed, accepted $50 to take me to Wadi Rum, a desert preserve and now national park an hour from Aqaba where Lawrence often was encamped during the war and where much of Lawrence of Arabia was filmed.

The road from Aqaba to Rum climbs through a tortuous valley, through which Lawrence and his attacking Arabs navigated in 1917. At the head of the defile there were several military checkpoints, all of which made me glad I was in a taxi, not a rental car.

Before entering the nature preserve, I bought a ticket from the visitor center, and then the driver dropped me at one of many tent camps around Wadi Rum, where another driver with a jeep pick-up truck was waiting to tour me around the cinematic rolling valleys.

Lawrence and his Arab forces often used Rum as a base of operations from which to attack the Hejaz Railway and, on the way into the valley, we drove alongside some remaining stretches of track and stopped at a small stone station (now a museum), where rolling stock from the railway was parked. I got the impression that the line near Rum is used occasionally for freight and tourist trains.

There’s a passage in the Graves’ biography that describes Lawrence’s camp at Rum:

They rode for hours the next day through the valley of Rum, a broad tamarisk-grown avenue two miles wide between colossal red sandstone cliffs. The caravan felt awed and kept quite silent. Towards sunset there was a break in the cliffs to the right, leading to the water. They turned in here and found themselves in a vast oval amphitheatre floored with damp sand and dark shrubs. The entrance was only three hundred yards wide, which made the place more impressive still. At the foot of the enclosing precipices were enormous fallen blocks of sandstone, bigger than houses, and along a ledge at one side grew trees. A little path zigzagged up to the ledge and there, three hundred feet above the level of the plain, jetted the water-springs. They watered their camels here and cooked rice to add to the bully beef which the sergeants had brought, with biscuits, as their ration.

As much as I respect Robert Graves, this description does not do justice to the vast and imposing landscape around Rum, which is a mixture of lunar remoteness, vast tracks of sand, and rose-red rock formations that give the impression of the American Southwest and the Mojave desert.

Blockbuster Arabia

More than a dozen movies, besides Lawrence of Arabia, have been filmed here, and my driver listed those he had worked on, including some in the Star Wars series. For the Bedouin around Rum, filmmaking is a windfall (or perhaps a waylaid caravan?), as the likes of Stephen Spielberg spend millions converting the Jordanian desert into a distant galaxy.

On one rock formation in the valley, there’s a carved portrait of Lawrence; otherwise, the Arab revolt has moved on to Hollywood. Many visitors to Rum sleep in one of the tent villages that dot the edges of the wadi. Some have luxury accommodation and hot showers; others are more primitive. I was tempted to stay over, but lost that option when I missed my first flight.

After my jeep tour and some pictures of the Hejaz line, Ahmed and I headed back to Aqaba, where he said he could arrange my passage the next day across the border into Saudi Arabia.

Ahmed told me that his brother was licensed to drive one of those hulking white Chevy Suburban SUVs, and that he would be happy to deliver me to Tabuk. I said that would be fine, provided other passengers were found to defray some of the $260 cost. Already I sensed I was being fitted in the raiments of a mark or gull, but I agreed to meet Ahmed and his brother the following morning at 8:30 a.m. at the fortress roundabout parking lot.

Earlier installments can be found here. Next up: to the Saudi city of Tabuk.

Matthew Stevenson is the author of many books, including Reading the Rails, Appalachia Spring, andThe Revolution as a Dinner Party, about China throughout its turbulent twentieth century. His most recent books are Biking with Bismarck and Our Man in Iran. Out now: Donald Trump’s Circus Maximus and Joe Biden’s Excellent Adventure, about the 2016 and 2020 elections.