In the moonless pitch-dark night, we took on the pilgrimage route to the summit of Jebel Musa (2285m). Commonly known as Mount Sinai, Jebel Musa is believed by many to be the spot where the legend of Moses receiving the Ten Commandments from God actually took place. The night was so dark that I could hardly see my own fingers without a flashlight. In the dark, the sound of cowbells worn by camels carrying tourists and elderly nuns was essential for us to keep a safe distance. On the narrow path, tourists rubbed shoulders with Jewish, Muslims, and Christian pilgrims, racing against time to reach the summit for the spiritual sunrise.
At 23:00, the tour minibus came to pick us up at our guesthouse in Dahab. After 2.5 hours on the desert highway in complete darkness (except occasional street lamp at road intersections), we finally arrived the trailhead of Mount Sinai at 01:30. In the middle of the night, groups after groups of tourists and pilgrims gathered at the parking lot, getting ready to climb the sacred mountain for the spectacular sunrise. Our guide walked extremely fast. We soon lose sight of him as clusters of locals and camel vendors gathered in front of us to sell their guiding or camel riding services. A German tourist from our minibus was interested on riding the camel, but immediately rejected the idea after he asked for the price. The camel vendors soon became aggressive, and led their camels to block our way. Our guide came for our help, but failed to get rid of the vendors until a tourist police came over to stop the vendor.
The climb was not a walk in the park due to the darkness. Between my friend and I we shared one small flashlight. We made four rest stops along the way and reached the end of the path in a little over two hours. Then came the last challenge: the 700 uneven steps to the summit. It was sweaty and exhausting but we eventually reached the top at 04:30. On the summit there was a small chapel and a few vendors renting out blankets and mattresses. It was quite chilly up there as we stood in front of the chapel to wait for the magical sunrise. I soon discovered a better spot on a east facing rock. The rock surface was a little slippery, and if we fell over it could be fatal. The sky turned white at around 05:30, and the sun finally came out at 06:00. I felt much warmer just by watching the rising of the sun over the rugged terrains. Not until the sun was out that I came to realize how crowded the summit actually was. Visitors and their sleeping bags were everywhere: on top of the chapel, on roof of distant mud houses, on the stone path, on the paved terraces, etc. Under the golden light, Mount Sinai and its surrounding scenery was spectacular. Rocky, dry, bare, not a single tree or a cluster of grass could be seen. At 06:15 we began the 2-hour descend to St. Catherine’s Monastery, one of the oldest Christian monasteries in the world.
On our second day in Wadi Rum, we had a small breakfast when we get up. Soon after, our guide came to the camp and brought along three camels. The camels were skinnier than I imagined. It was our first time to ride a camel. We were kind of excited but also worried since we had heard enough negative experiences about camel riding. The guide made a “shuzzz” noise and made the camels to lower their bodies. One by one we climbed onto the camel. It turned out that my camel was actually the friendliest, relatively well trained and disciplined. Forgot how long we were on the camel back, maybe an hour, or an hour and a half, in the open desert. As the morning went by the desert was warming up quickly. On the camel back, I often adjusted myself to find the “best” position, balancing myself while taking pictures and preventing the numb feeling on my thighs. Every time we passed by a cluster of plants (looked pretty dried up), at least one of our camels would deviate from the group, lower their heads and pulled out a bunch of leaves to enjoy some causal snacks. This always caused a stir among all camels since all of our camels, including the one rode by the guide, were tied together one after another with ropes.
From time to time, we would get off the camels for some short walks, or climb a rock mount to check out the distant view. We ended up riding the camel for around three hours, and it really wasn’t the most pleasant experience. Perhaps because of the heat or lack of good bush around, one of our camels was a little grumpy at a point that it went on a strike by refusing to walk and kneeing down all of a sudden. I was glad that at least my camel seemed content and calm. Every time we got off the camel, we could hardly walk. The “desert mountains” near and far dominated the landscape everywhere we went. At last we were led to the Khazali Canyon. We didn’t have time to venture deep into the canyon, but far enough to see the dramatic sunlight shone through the narrow gap high up and reached the canyon floor in a dramatic way.
After the Khazali Canyon, our Wadi Rum experience was almost over. We did a bit more camel riding, had a brief lunch, a short nap, and rode back to Rum Village. While we waited for our hired taxi at the Visitor Centre, we went into the official Wadi Rum shop. I bought a black T-shirt with the Rum-art (ancient rock carving of animals) printed on it. In late afternoon, we reached Aqaba at the southern tip of Jordan right by the Gulf of Aqaba/ Red Sea. For some reason, we ended up having Chinese food for dinner. It was a decent size restaurant on the second floor of a commercial building. We weren’t the only table there but of course it was not full. I wondered if it would ever get a full house.
In June and July 2008, a retrospective screening of David Lean’s films took place at BFI (British Film Institute) London Southbank. We picked an evening show of Lawrence of Arabia as an after work treat. Watching the 1962 classic on the big screen was a fantastic experience, especially for the majestic desert scenes that reminded me of my brief stay in Wadi Rum back in 2006. Wadi Rum, an UNESCO World Heritage site acclaimed for its desert landscape, is a popular filming venue for epic movies from Lawrence of Arabia of 1962 to Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker of 2019. Wadi Rum also put its mark in modern history when T. E. Lawrence passed through the desert numerous times during the Arab Revolt of 1917-18. Together with the iconic red dunes and rugged plateaus, the memories of T. E. Lawrence has made Wadi Rum, also known as Valley of the Moon, the most well known tourist attraction in Jordan after Petra.
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At around 09:00 we arrived at Wadi Rum Visitor Centre where our guide Attayak greeted us at the ticket office. After we got the admission tickets, Attayak drove us into Rum Village and stopped at the Resthouse Cafe, where we met Shaba, our desert guide for the day. The first thing we did with Shaba was to get bottled water and the red and white keffiyeh. We put on the keffiyeh with Shaba’s help before hopping onto his Toyota Land Rover. Our first stop was the Spring of Lawrence. Story has it that the spring was the spot where T. E. Lawrence bathed and relaxed himself during his stay in Wadi Rum. Reaching the spring was a 15-minute climb up a slope of boulders, about 200m high. We were a little disappointed to find the spring was no more than a tiny pool, perhaps an outlet of underground water. Though we were rewarded by the magnificent panoramic view of the desert.
Our second stop was a cliff of ancient petroglyphs, where figures of camels, goats, and humans were found. Petroglyphs and inscriptions could come from the ancient desert nomads 12,000 years ago, or any desert dwellers thereafter, including the Nabataean caravans 2000 years ago when Wadi Rum was situated in the crossroad of caravan routes between Saudi Arabia and Damascus. In the shade of a rock plateau, we got off the Land Rover once again for our first desert lunch. Shaba took out canned tuna, fresh tomato, mixed beans, cheese, and bottled orange juice. He then started a fire to make our cups of mint tea, a common practice for the nomadic desert Bedouins, who have roamed the Arabian desert for centuries. Despite circumstances after World War II that led to mass sedentarisation for the Bedouins, the carefree lifestyle of the desert nomads continues to inspire literature and cinema, consolidating the cultural heritage and promoting tourism of the Arabian Desert. Today, most Bedouins have moved to houses or apartments. The few Bedouin tents remaining in the desert are erected mainly for tourists. As globalization continues to reach the different regions of the Middle East, nomadic traditions of the Arabian Desert are becoming a collection of romanticized stereotypes reconstructed solely for the commercial value of tourism.
After Yaprakhisar, the tour took us for a brief stop at Agzikarahan (Black Mouth) Caravanserai. The ancient complex was built in the 11th century as an inn for travel caravans on the Silk Road. Caravanserais, literally means “place for caravans”, were popular along the Silk Road and other ancient trade routes across Central and South Asia, Middle East, North Africa, and Eastern Europe. A Caravanserai provided a safe place to accommodate the traveling merchants to stay the night, have meals, pray at an in-house mosque, store their merchandises, and rest their animals. These ancient inns were often rectangular in shape centered at a large open courtyard. Merchant caravans would arrive at the caravanserai from the only entrance. Merchants would rest their animals and store their goods in niches around the courtyard, before retreating to the rest chambers behind.
On our way back to Goreme, our tour made a brief stop at a site full of spectacular fairy chimneys. The guide Shalif described the formation of those mushroom-like rock towers as a product of volcanic actions and rain erosion. The surreal curvatures of the rocks looked even more dramatic under the late afternoon sun.
The courtyard of Agzikarahan (Black Mouth) Caravanserai was dominated by a small mosque.
The entrance to the Summer Sleeping Quarters of the Agzikarahan Caravanserai must have witnessed uncounted caravan merchants passing through.
The main gate of the caravanserai was highly decorative.
We didn’t have time to tour the entire complex, especially the dark labyrinth like system of chambers.
Before returning to Goreme, we dropped by a site with wonderful fairy chimneys.
In the late afternoon, the lighting was just perfect.
Similar to the Love Valley, the rock towers were created by erosion of volcanic rocks.
Because of the special qualities of the rocks in Cappadocia, many carved out small dwellings in the fairy chimneys.
The abandoned caves at the fairy chimneys reminded us the area was once occupied by inhabitants.
The moon came out already by the time we visited the fairy chimneys.
The cave dwellings of the fairy chimneys looks like a scene from movies such as the Star Wars.
Some of the old caves could only be reached by ladder.
We had a moment of freedom to wander around the caves of the fairy chimneys.
A cave with a perfect view.
The fairy chimneys were located in the middle of nowhere.
It was pleasant to watch the surrounding shadows moved across the land in front.
Some chimneys looks like they may collapse anytime.
A camel was placed among the fairy chimneys for tourists to pay a small tip and take photograph with the animal.