(CNN) — In the 100 years since British army officer T.E. Lawrence traversed Jordan’s desert and the half century since David Lean set out to capture it for his cinematic epic “Lawrence of Arabia,” the blood red landscape that entranced both men has scarcely changed.
Still “vast, echoing and God-like” — as Lawrence wrote in his account of his war experiences “Seven Pillars of Wisdom” — the desert’s hidden gems are now accessible to all.
Today, Jordan is one of the Middle East’s safest tourist destinations and plays host to an endlessly varied landscape. Fifty years since the film crews left, following in Lawrence, and later Lean’s, footsteps can still reveal some of Jordan’s finest desert jewels.
When Lawrence, as a junior officer, was first sent out into the desert to locate the Hashemite rebels who he would join in revolt against the Ottoman Empire, he found himself in a vast gorge, where red rock monoliths rose more than 800m into the air around thin sand corridors.
It’s a very evocative place, the sound is echoing off the walls around you…
Travel writer Matthew Teller
He was inspired to write of the granite and sandstone cliffs “sheering in like a thousand-foot wave towards the middle of the valley.”
In the south of modern day Jordan, 300km from capital city, Amman, near the border with Saudi Arabia, the landscape appears unchanged from the scenes described by Lawrence — the same landscape which Lean used as the backdrop for the Englishman’s first encounter with Alec Guinness’ Prince Faisal — in what is now a protected UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Click on the pindrops above to trace Lawrence of Arabia’s Jordan. All photos courtesy Jordan Tourism Board
The natural wonder remains awe-inspiring, says travel writer Matthew Teller who authored the Rough Guide to Jordan: “It’s a very evocative place, the sound is echoing off the walls around you, you’re looking up and down this broad desert canyon with sun coming down and the blue sky above.”
The desert dunes
Lawrence’s masterplan of leading an army across the arid brick-red sand of the desert to launch an attack on the coastal town of Aqaba — an idea considered so perilous that the Ottomans had not bothered to defend against it — became his defining act.
Those wishing to follow in Lawrence’s footsteps can take camel treks from Wadi Rum, says tourism expert Yousef Zureqat, who has worked with Jordan’s Dakkak Tours to develop their Lawrence of Arabia adventure trails. More leisurely tourists can explore the wild terrain from the comfort of 4x4s with air conditioning.
“[The Zalabia Bedouin] make the desert come alive”
Travel writer Matthew Teller
The real treat, agree Zureqat and Teller, is connecting with the culture of the Zalabia Bedouin, the descendants of those tribesmen who joined Lawrence in revolt and participated in the filming of Lean’s movie.
Eating lamb cooked slowly in a Zarb (sand oven) in the company of the Bedouin, camping out under the stars in black goat hair tents and seeing the sunset “make the desert come alive,” says Teller.
At the other edge of the desert lies in the far south of the country, lies Jordan’s tiny Red Sea coast and the coastal fortress which would make Lawrence famous.
In 1917, this was where Lawrence claimed credit for uniting Bedouin tribes to mount a surprise attack, emerging from the desert to defeat Ottoman forces whose artillery pointed out to sea.
In David Lean’s film, Lawrence lures Anthony Quinn’s mercenary tribal leader Auda Abu Tayi to join the attack with the promise of a “great box” of gold in Aqaba.
Since then the fortune of the country’s only sea port has only grown: Aqaba now boasts 5* luxury seaside resorts, beach hotels and a marine park.
Amid this modern day opulence, the historic 14th century fortress is still there, though damaged by Lawrence’s attack and an earthquake a decade later, and is open to visitors.
In “Seven Pillars of Wisdom,” Lawrence described the harsh winter of 1917 when — as he and Faisal prepared to lead their troops north to capture Damascus — they stopped to rest at the oasis and ancient fort of Azraq.