There are places on earth so weird yet so beautiful, so forbidding yet so irresistible that in his efforts to describe them man runs out of commonplace similes, gives up on his earthbound metaphors and turns instead to the unknown. Such a place is Wadi Ram, a great valley in southern Jordan, a vast silent place, so wild, so strange that it came, eventually, to be called the "Valley of the Moon."
The Wadi Ram is actually a great fracture in the surface of the earth, the result, probably, of some titanic upheaval that cracked great slabs of granite and sandstone like so many shards of pottery and heaved them upward in the form of great cliffs. It runs northeast to southeast in what is roughly a direct line between the lower end of the Dead Sea and the upper end of the Gulf of Aqaba.
It is only 35 miles from Aqaba to Wadi Ram and much of the distance can be covered swiftly on the smooth pavement of the Desert Highway that links Aqaba, Jordan's sole seaport, to Amman, Jordan's capital. About halfway between two villages called Kweira and Khirbet al-Khalidi, a dirt track strikes off across the desert. This is the road along which, it is thought, Colonel T.E. Lawrence led his raiders in World War I and along which, 40 years later, an American film company made its way to recreate the life of that colorful man amid the actual desert in which he rode and fought. For those who take that track it seems as if they have suddenly entered another world. As in many areas on the Arabian Peninsula, the traces of the unknown forces that battered the earth back in the dim past are still plain and inevitably they evoke the imagined emptiness of lunar plains and mountains, and the dry cracked beds of ancient seas.
Most mountains from a distance are shapeless, drab and identical. Not those at Wadi Ram. There, drenched in pale purple, they rear up off the valley floor, instantly and vividly alive. As distance lessens, the purple gives way to the tawny hues of sandstone ridges that tower a thousand sheer feet in the air and are topped with dome's worn smooth by a constant wind. The skies are pale and colorless and the sand underfoot and the fragments of rock at the base of the cliffs are dry and crisp with age. All around is emptiness and silence, the silence, it seems, of a land that man has not yet set foot upon or, having done so, has trod with quiet caution. The sound of a Land-Rover is suddenly loud and the size of it presumptuous amid spaces so immense they dwarf man and vehicle into insignificance.
To penetrate to the heart of Wadi Ram takes but an hour. Yet it is so far in time from the Desert Highway that the sight of a small settlement is startling. It is a cluster of tiny buildings standing in the center of a vast plain that lies between Jabal Ram on one side and Jabal Um Ishrin two thirds of a mile away on the other. Both are great segments of the high cliffs that Lawrence described as "crags like gigantic buildings along two sides of their street." There is a fortress there manned by a sergeant and five patrolmen of the Jordan Desert Police. There are a school and two small shops to serve a small settlement of Bedouins who, more or less regularly, set up their black tents nearby. The Bedouins camp there for the same reason that dictates the location of all their encampments—water. Up and down the wadi in the shadows of the great escarpments are small springs without which the valley—with summer temperatures of up to 140° F and no more than four inches of rain a year—would be uninhabitable.
The policemen, in the tradition of the Bedouins, which most of them used to be, are friendly and hospitable to all travelers. Each of them is assigned to the small outpost for a minimum of a year and although each man has a short leave every two weeks, life tends, eventually, to develop into a pattern of repetition and monotony that is broken only by the biweekly truck roaring into the stillness to bring supplies and pick up a man due for leave, or the approach of the rare visitor who has come to see the Wadi Ram. Thus they welcome company, offer coffee, answer questions willingly and, obviously aware of their splendidly romantic uniforms and their dashing headcloths, pose with enthusiasm against a spectacular backdrop.
One cannot go far in Jordan without coming across antiquities, and Wadi Ram is no exception. Half a mile from the police post, on a small hill, are the remains of a small temple, probably Nabatean and probably built in the first century. Excavations on the site started in the late fifties, but came to a halt when other projects were given precedence. There are also slabs of rock throughout the valley with inscriptions in early Thamudic writing, mostly the names of travelers of long ago, who were apparently moved by what Lawrence called "this processional way greater than imagination," and who vowed to leave some mark of their passing before they dwindled away and vanished in the vastness of time and distance.
Jan van Os is Assistant Editor of Aramco World.