Jordan—Lawrence’s Arabia

When David Lean’s cinematic masterpiece Lawrence of Arabia premiered in London on the evening of December 10, 1962, Peter O’Toole wasn’t the only star born that night. Also making its cinematic debut was Jordan, whose sweeping desert-scapes very nearly stole the limelight from the young Irish actor in the title role.

 The real T. E. Lawrence was a historian and archaeologist with a deep passion for the Middle East. His extensive travels throughout the region and his fluency in Arabic made him an obvious recruit at the start of the First World War, and he was dispatched to the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Empire. It was during these explorations that Lawrence fell in love with what is now Jordan.

 Half a century later, when filming began on the movie account of Lawrence’s exploits, Lean looked no further than the places known so well by Lawrence himself, and headed to Jordan. King Hussein I not only opened his country to the moviemakers, but even provided his military as extras for the battle scenes. Lean ended up with Oscar-winning cinematography, while King Hussein actually met his future wife—Princess Muna al Hussein—on the set: the mother of current monarch, King Abdullah II.

Some of the movie’s most memorable scenes were filmed at Wadi Rum, the country’s largest wadi—or valley—located 60 kilometres east of Aqaba. Also known as the Valley of the Moon, it was here that Lawrence and Prince Faisal established their headquarters for the Arab Revolt, and Lean eagerly followed suit. Lawrence described Wadi Rum as “Vast, Echoing and God-Like,” and its towering sandstone and granite cliffs treated cinema-goers to some of the most spectacular scenery ever to reach the big screen. With its blood-red walls, petroglyphs and vast open spaces, Wadi Rum remains as untouched and alluring today as it was to Lawrence and Lean.

Whether explored by hot air balloon in the still of dawn, on foot with Bedouin guides or in a 4 x 4, the valley provides some of the most breathtaking landscape in the entire Middle East. Visitors can make day trips from Amman or Aqaba, or opt for a five-day camel trek that follows in Lawrence’s hoof-prints. There are also Bedouin camps that offer the chance to sleep under the stars, drinking in the silence and staring at the very same night sky that so entranced Lawrence. 

In 1917, Lawrence and Sharif Hussein led the Arab forces in the Battle of Aqaba to oust the Ottomans from the strategic Red Sea port. The scenes of the battle were amongst the most stirring in the movie, and while the pivotal Mameluk Fort is amongst Aqaba’s most popular historic sights, most visitors spend their time indulging in some of the world’s best snorkeling and scuba diving. Surrounded by arid, sun-blanched peaks, Aqaba’s luxurious resorts overlook tropical blue waters, while its markets are always a bustling hive of activity. 

Although Jordan’s greatest treasure—the legendary rose-red city of Petra—never made it onto the silver screen, it was a favourite spot of T. E. Lawrence’s, who visited it frequently. Hewn from bare rock by the Nabataean people more than 2,000 years ago, it is rightly regarded as one of the Wonders of the World, and is largely unchanged from Lawrence’s day. Approached through a kilometre-long narrow gorge, upon his first visit to the site, Lawrence wrote to a friend that “ will never know what Petra is like, unless you come out here…till you have seen it you have not had the glimmering of an idea how beautiful a place can be.”

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