One of the most spectacular natural environments in the Middle East, the desert scenery of WADI RUM (rhymes with “dumb”, not “doom”) is a major highlight of a visit to Jordan. The wadi itself is one of a sequence of parallel faults forming valleys in the sandy desert south of the Shara mountains. They are oriented almost perfectly north–south, shaped and characterized by giant granite, basalt and sandstone mountains rising up to 800m sheer from the desert floor. The rocky landscape has been weathered over the millennia into bulbous domes and weird ridges and textures that look like nothing so much as molten candle-wax, but it’s the sheer bulk of these mountains that awes – some with vertical, smooth flanks, others scarred and distorted, seemingly dripping and melting under the burning sun. The intervening level corridors of soft red sand only add to the image of the mountains as monumental islands in a dry sea. Split through by networks of canyons and ravines, spanned by naturally formed rock bridges and watered by hidden springs, the mountains offer opportunities galore for scrambling and rock-climbing, where you could walk for hours or days without seeing another soul.
Although an arid, open desert, the Rum area is far from depopulated. Aside from the tents of semi-nomadic bedouin scattered in the desert, there’s a handful of modern villages in the area, including Rum itself in the heart of its eponymous wadi, and Disi, a few kilometres away.
However you choose to do it – and the best way is to book in advance for a one- or two-day tour with a local guide (see Arabian oryx in Rum) – you should clear at least one night in your schedule to sleep in the desert. The sunsets are extraordinary; evening coolness after the heat of the day is blissful; the clarity of the desert air helps produce a starry sky of stunning beauty; and the tranquillity of the pitch-dark desert night is simply magical. It’s an unforgettable experience.
Wadi Rum has extensive evidence of past cultures, with plenty of rock-carved drawings and ancient Thamudic inscriptions still visible (the Thamud were a tribe, cousins of the Nabateans, who lived as nomads in the deserts of northern Arabia between about the eighth century BC and roughly the seventh century AD), as well as a single, semi-ruined Nabatean temple.
T.E. Lawrence (“of Arabia”) waxed lyrical about the Rum area, describing it as “vast, echoing and godlike” when he passed through in the years either side of the 1916–18 Great Arab Revolt. Appropriately enough, much of the epic Lawrence of Arabia was filmed here in the early 1960s, prompting tourists to visit in dribs and drabs during the years after. But until the late 1980s, Rum village was still comprised mostly of bedouin tents at the end of a rough track, with a single radio-phone serving the lone Desert Patrol fort.
The growth of tourism
In 1984, a British climbing team led by Tony Howard and Di Taylor requested permission from the Ministry of Tourism to explore the possibilities for serious mountaineering in and around Wadi Rum. With assistance from the bedouin and the backing of the ministry, a pioneering guidebook resulted, which brought the area into the forefront of mainstream tourism for the first time.
Since then, the local Zalabia and Zuwaydeh bedouin – sub-clans of the great Howeitat tribe that is pre-eminent in the area – have established co-operatives to organize tourism. With the proceeds, the Zalabia of Rum village built breezeblock houses and a school, and bought buses to link the village with Aqaba and Wadi Musa. The mid-1990s saw a tourist boom that has shown few signs of abating.
Wadi Rum today
Now, during the peak months of March, April, September and October, the deserts around Rum can be thronged with visitors, a strange mix of budget backpackers, well-heeled groups bussed in on whirlwind tours, and serious professional climbers. Of the 5500 people who live in the area, including Disi and outlying villages, roughly forty percent make their living from tourism. However, if you take the two thousand people who live in and around Rum village itself, that figure rises to around 95 percent. Almost everybody has given up keeping goats, and now survives by providing guide and driving services to visitors.
Rum is a Protected Area under the control of ASEZA, the Aqaba municipal authority. Controls are in place to limit environmental degradation while supporting sustainable tourism – though bureaucratic disputes hamper efforts. Some observers even question the benefits brought by “protected area” status, amid claims that the core area of Wadi Rum has seen accelerated decline in recent years, caused by (at the time of writing) 1200 4x4s and exemplified by the presence of 65 tourist camps within the Protected Area alone, 28 of them unlicensed. Nonetheless UNESCO declared Rum a mixed natural/cultural World Heritage Site in 2011. New ASEZA management teams installed shortly thereafter may start to turn things around.