WADI RUM, Jordan — It’s funny how movies shape our sense of place in the modern world. And perhaps no place has been so indelibly captured for movie-goers in the West as the deserts of southern Jordan in the 1962 masterpiece “Lawrence of Arabia.”
Alongside the film’s ridiculously charismatic leading men, Omar Sharif as Sherif Ali and Peter O’Toole as British army officer T.E. Lawrence, the desert itself is the third character, and just as charismatic.
Dry, hot, endless and windblown, it seems an unlikely bucket-list destination, yet who after seeing the film would not want to go there?
The story in a nutshell tells how Lawrence helped the region’s Arabs revolt against the Ottoman Turkish empire during World War I, clearing the way for the political states of the Middle East we know today.
It’s also a story of eccentricity, cross-cultural cooperation and man against the elements. The movie is one of the classics of wide aspect 70 mm cinematography and a shot early in the film of a primal sunrise over the desert is one of the great images in film history.
I got a chance to see how the real thing stacks up to movie magic on a trip to Jordan for Travel Leader Network’s 2019 International Summit. Instead of camels, we rode in the back of pickup trucks to an evening spot where we sipped champagne, listened to music from a baby grand piano and watched the sunset.
The 90 or so Travel Leaders Network owners that came to the summit agreed it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
But on our twilight pickup caravan, we could see camels being marched in strings of four or five through the dusk by Bedouins. A nearby encampment of Bedouin-style tents is available for booking for anyone who wants to extend their stay beyond a single happy hour.
Scenes from the movie were top of mind. On the way to Wadi Rum, several times we crossed the railroad laid through the desert by the Turks to connect Istanbul to Medina. In the film, Lawrence detonates the tracks, bringing a Turkish military train to a crashing halt. Today, the tracks haul ore from Jordanian phosphate mines to Aqaba.
In another famous scene, Lawrence and Ali pull off an impossible crossing of scorching Wadi Rum to attack Aqaba from behind in a camel charge for the ages. On a trip earlier in the day into Aqaba, our guide pointed out the ruins of the 1917 Turkish defenses.
Other movies inform us about Jordan. Would the stone city of Petra be as well-known had it not been featured in the climax of “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade”? More recently, the 2016 Matt Damon film “The Martian” was filmed on the red sands of Wadi Rum.
I suppose travelers of an earlier, pre-cinema, era developed just as keen a desire to travel from literature of the 19th century. But to relive a bit of history through the lens of director David Lean and the able acting of O’Toole and Sharif, find a way to see “Lawrence of Arabia.” And then see if you can resist coming to check out Wadi Rum, Aqaba, and the rest of southern Jordan for yourself.