In the late afternoon, we found ourselves on the threshold of Wadi Rum. Known also as the Valley of the Moon (“Wadi Rum” 2020), this magic land is located in the southern part of Jordan, close to the border with Saudi Arabia, and about forty kilometres east of Aqaba (Chabińska-Ilchanka et al. 2015:265).
Lawrence from Arabia
Today, Wadi Rum is a home to Jordan Bedouins, who are Arab semi-nomadic people inviting visitors to their fairy-tale kingdom. One of the most famous guests to Wadi Rum was undoubtedly T.E. Lawrence (1888–1935), also known as Lawrence from Arabia (Biography 2014-2015). He was a British military officer and archaeologist greatly involved in Middle Eastern affairs and in the Great Arab Revolt (Ibid.). In the years 1917-1918, Lawrence travelled through Wadi Rum several times describing his enchantment at the entrance into the Valley as follows (“Wadi Rum” 2020):
“The hills on the right grew taller and sharper, a fair counterpart of the other side which straightened itself to one massive rampart of redness. They drew together until only two miles divided them: and then, towering gradually till their parallel parapets must have been a thousand feet above us, ran forward in an avenue for miles. The crags were capped in nests of domes, less hotly red than then body of the hill; rather grey and shallow. They gave the finishing semblance of Byzantine architecture to this irresistible place: this processional way greater than imagination.”Lawrence, T.E. 1935:351
Iram of the pillars
We climbed onto one of the three off-road cars and started our journey through sandy and rocky oranges of the desert. The sun was still hanging high but the night falls there in the nick of time. It automatically brings a sudden cold that replaces the daytime sun heat. In such conditions warm clothes are a must.
In its fascinating past, Wadi Rum must have been inhabited by many various cultures whose distinctive traces are still visible today (“Wadi Rum” 2020).
It is likely that it receives its name from Iram of the pillars, which is usually described as a lost city, region or tribe mentioned in the Quran (Ibid.). Cut into the sandstone and granite rock, it includes an area of approximately seventy-four thousand hectares of amazing landscape, distinguished by extraordinary natural and cultural value (Chabińska-Ilchanka et al. 2015:265; “Wadi Rum” 2020). The natural environment consists mainly of the typical though stunning desert landscape with a varied topography (Chabińska-Ilchanka et al. 2015:265). There are sandy plains, cliffs, gorges and even caves and rocky landslides (Ibid.:265). An interesting diversification of that landscape are natural rock formations in the form of arches, bridges and arcades (Ibid.:265).
Within this area, groups of pre-historic petroglyphs have been found at several sites (Chabińska-Ilchanka et al. 2015:265). The rock drawings most likely come from twelve thousand years ago and prove the existence of settlement in this desert area since prehistoric times (Ibid.:265). Due to cultural landscape and its natural values, in 2011 the protected area of Wadi Rum was entered on the UNESCO World Cultural and Natural Heritage List (Ibid.:265).
Among the rock carvings that were found in Wadi Rum, there are twenty-five thousand figurative representations and twenty thousand characteristic signs looking like inscriptions that could constitute the first attempts to create a writing (Chabińska-Ilchanka et al. 2015:265; Mohammad 2015). The former usually represent people and animals, whereas the latter show North-Arabian scripts: Nabatean, Islamic (Kufic), Arabic and mostly the so-called Thamudic inscriptions (Chabińska-Ilchanka et al. 2015:265; Mohammad 2015; “Wadi Rum” 2020; “Thamudic” 2020).
The Thamud belonged to ancient Arabian tribes occupying the north-western Arabian peninsula between the late eighth century BC and the fourth century AD (“Thamud” 2020). “They are mentioned in contemporary Mesopotamian, Classical, and Arabian sources” (Ibid.). It does not mean, however, all the petroglyphs from Wadi Rum were made by that tribe (“Thamud” 2020; “Thamudic” 2020). Actually, the name Thamudic was invented by nineteenth-century scholars for major part of inscriptions covering a huge area from Syria to Yemen (“Thamudic” 2020). “[Such inscriptions belong to a large group of] Ancient North Arabian (ANA) alphabets which have not yet been properly studied” (Ibid.).
Many petroglyphs from Wadi Rum, however, are ascribed to Nabateans, an ancient nomadic Arab people who emerged between the fourth and second century BC and held their independence till the annexation of their territory to the Roman Empire in 106 AD (“Nabataeans” 2020). Nabateans are also said to be creators of Petra and although they surely inhabited the site, there is much doubt regarding the original builders of the city. It is, however, another story …
In tranquil and shaded Ain Shalaaleh, on the south side of Wadi Rum, there is the head of a Nabatean rock-cut aqueduct, which is close to Rum village and the remains of the Nabatean temple (Mohammad, “Confusion (….)” 2015).
Lawrence wrote that “[on] the rock-bulge above were clear-cut Nabathaean inscriptions, and a sunk panel incised with a monogram or symbol. Around and about were Arab scratches, including tribe-marks, some of which were witnesses of forgotten migrations: but my attention was only for the splashing of water in a crevice under the shadow of the overhanging rock. I looked in to see the spout, a little thinner than my wrist, jetting out firmly from a fissure in the roof, and falling with that clean sound into a shallow, frothing pool, behind the step which served as an entrance. Thick ferns and grasses of the finest green made it a paradise just five feet square.” (Lawrence 1935, p.355).
Images for communication
“Petroglyphs are images created by removing part of a rock’s surface by incising, pecking, carving, and abrading with something like a stone chisel. Inscriptions are characters [created just] in the same way as petroglyphs. Most petroglyphs [in Wadi Rum] were made on cliff faces, [large] rocks, and boulders” (Mohammad 2015).
The content of the petroglyphs and other artifacts found in the area are a source of knowledge about the social change and lifestyle of prehistoric desert tribes in the Arabian Peninsula (Chabińska-Ilchanka et al. 2015:265). “The illustrations of people show human figures holding bows and arrows” (Mohammad 2015). By their side, there is a large number of drawings representing animals, such as camels, ibexes, and horses (Ibid.). “[Alongside] all these figures are [enigmatic] symbols like lines and circles. Experts [assume] that they are instructions and messages left by [prehistoric] people [to communicate]. Some of them [may be] about giving directions to find hidden springs, [whereas others] about updating each other on things like who visited the area last. Altogether, these engravings [are believed] to provide an insight into the development of human thought [as] a pattern of pastoral, agricultural, and urban human activity” (Ibid.).
Scorpions were already asleep
We got off the car and approached one of the multiplied rocks. Its reddish surface was carved with intriguing images.
At first sight I could discern some animal figures, mostly camels. Yet some were rather difficult to guess. Whereas some camels were depicted in movement with funny forked tails, others were standing still and the one had an inscription inside its body. The biggest one with its long neck looked like a giraffe. Only its single visible hump indicated that it was a dromedary after all. There were also a few primitively drawn human figures with outspread arms and legs, who may stand for Neolithic members of a nomadic tribe. Those were quite similar to Neolithic human representations from northern Africa. Most intriguing, however, were strange symbols depicted around the recognized characters – one looked like a mountain peak – and inscriptions accompanying the whole scene. ‘I wish I could stay here longer and make drawings’, I thought while taking a thousand of pictures. Pushed by curiosity and in search of further images, I slipped under the rock ledge above the carvings. After a while I found there some traces of petroglyphs but mostly fragmented inscriptions. ‘You are a peeping type of a person’, said our Bedouin guide smiling. ‘It’s good that scorpions are already asleep’, he added.
It was pitch-dark when we finally reached back our camp. The electrical lamps illuminated a row of large tents waiting for tired visitors. We had just arrived to Jordan and Wadi Rum turned out to be our gate to its treasures.
Featured image: Wadi Run – petroglyphs. Copyright©Archaeotravel.
Faculty of History of Art and Archaeology
Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University in Warsaw, Poland
University College Dublin, Ireland
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