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Humeima, Disseh and the north of the Wadi Rum area
I met my friend Ahmed in the main street of Wadi Mousa and he stopped to talk to me. "In your website you say that Disseh isn't as beautiful as Wadi Rum. Just how well do you actually know Disseh?"
I admitted that I didn't really know that area very well, I had only touched the fringes. "So" he challenged me "I take people on day trips to there, why not come along with me and see for yourself?"
This sounded fine to me, and we made an appointment to go the following afternoon. We left at about 1 o'clock and started out along the southern part of the Kings' Highway, driving on the road past Taibeh that runs on the edge of Wadi Araba. On our right hand side was Jebel Haroun looming on the horizon with the little white mosque which, according to tradition, holds the tomb of Moses' brother Aaron, who under the name of Haroun, is considered one of the Moslem saints. The little mosque is a place of pilgrimage to the Bedouin, who are accustomed to take chickens or young goats and sacrifice them there in the name of Aaron. This is another popular excursion from Petra.
Jebel Haroun, formerly known as "Mount Hor" is one of the landmarks of the region. At 1350 meters above sea level, it is one of the highest mountains in Jordan, and certainly the highest outside the Wadi Rum area. You can approach it in a jeep (or in a helicopter if you happen to be the King of Jordan) but the last few kilometers have to be done on foot. When you reach the summit, if you have the luck to have good visibility you can see the Red Sea to the south and the glitter of the Dead Sea to the north. It might be a hard pull to get there, but you will feel amply rewarded.
In 1998 a Finnish university started an extensive archaeological exploration of the slopes of Jebel Haroun and found that a large monastery had existed there during the Byzantine era. Besides the monastery buildings, there were signs of numerous terraces where crops had been grown. These explorations still continue - see http://www.fjhp.info/Pages/content.html
Further on, we passed the village of Taibeh, with the very popular (and very expensive) hotel complex of Taibeh Zaman. The interesting thing about this hotel complex is that is has been built in and as part of the original village of Taibeh ("Zaman" means approximately "ancient") and the old buildings have been largely preserved. You can see here how the former houses have become the modern - and very comfortable - hotel rooms. The narrow alleys of the former village are now a fascinating labyrinth which can be explored by those staying there. The original owners of the land on which the hotel has been built receive a small sum as ground rent, which is very much appreciated. The view from the hotel complex over Wadi Araba and down as far as Petra is magnificent. The whole hotel has an atmosphere of the days gone by - which doesn't stop it providing a swimming pool and a Turkish Bath for its guests.
This experiment has inspired others: for instance the "Nawafleh Kanzaman" in Wadi Mousa/Petra which can be seen in the valley when you arrive there from Amman. The houses there still belong to the Nawaflelh tribe, and until very recently were mainly used as storage for fodder for the animals. Their owners have built more modern houses on the hill, which you can see as you approach Petra.
The next village on this road is Rajif where the Prince Hassan, the brother of the former King Hussein, has a palace overlooking the spectacular mountains of Wadi Araba. The palace itself is hidden behind a hill, but there is a place where one can stop and look at the view, which is truly grandiose. All along the way we had been looking down at the valley - this is its the best view we have of it, and it is well worth stopping here. As usual, I get frustrated at the impossibility of taking a photograph which conveys the majesty of the cliffs and the valley.
The road follows the ancient track used by the caravans during the summer when there was little water to be found on the western road through the desert. Try to imagine the prophet Mohammed leading one of his wife's caravans from Mecca to Jerusalem along here. There are still the ruins of several of the old caravanserais along here if you know where to look, mostly to the east of the road.
This is Bedouin country, and in the summer you will certainly see many of the black tents along the way. Often there is a semi permanent erection of blocks, where goods can be stored when the tents are not there. You need to have a sharp eye on the road if you are driving, the flocks of goats wander around here, in search of whatever fodder can be found.
As the old road joins the new Desert Highway, the road drops off sharply from the Ma'an plateau and you can see the magnificent panorama far below. The road from Ma'an to Aqaba was only built for the first time in the sixties, before then the vehicles driving here - all 4x4's - picked out their own way and there were often very serious accidents on this part of the road! It is by no means accident free, even today, with its one in seven slope. This is the hill of Ras an Naqb.
Soon after the bottom of the hill, we reach the village of Humeima, and it is time to turn off the Highway into the desert. A good driver will let plenty of air out of his tires here, we shall be driving a great deal of the time on soft sand.
The first impression I had is that this part of the area is much flatter than in Wadi Rum. The massifs are pretty far from each other and the whole region is far more open than most of the Nature Reserve. Much of the scenery is that traditionally associated with sandstone rock; it is noticeably whiter here than in Wadi Rum, but Ahmed was right - it is beautiful.
Many of the rock features are dwarfed by their surroundings. This particular rock bridge appeared very small and unimpressive until Ahmed drove the car through it. I asked him to stand beside it so that I could get a better idea of the scale. This is in fact just one of the small rock bridges in the area, there are very many more, including some of the most impressive in all the Wadi Rum area - see lower down!
Much the same thing happened with the Mushroom Rock: it seemed quite small until we were right alongside it! Then I finally realised just how large it actually is. This rock has no equivalent elsewhere in the area - it is unique to the Disseh part of the Wadi Rum landscape.
Again Ahmed was willing to cooperate in letting me give you an idea of the scale of it. It is a remarkable formation, even if not really unusual in soft sandstone areas like this one. The weathering has produced a surprisingly graceful border to the top.
The arch shown in the photo above is not the best known of the arches at Jebel Kharaz, but for me it is the more attractive. The graceful curve against the sky is quite beautiful. Most people hurry past it to get to the better known "cave arch" although from time to time a brave spirit decides to climb it! In fact, you might often see Bedouin boys sitting on the top and surveying the world from this magnificent viewpoint!
We didn't stop here for more than a minute to so, but proceeded to the better known arch. To get there, just nearby, continue around the mountain in a clockwise direction. This is a cave style arch, very long and low as you see. The span is 18 meters long and the arch is some 5 meters high. All excursions will go underneath it, whether by jeep or, as you see, on horseback. Kharaz is about the limit of a day's horse-riding trip from the stables at Shakriya and Salhiya, and both the stables in Wadi Rum offer this excursion - see "Riding in Wadi Rum".
Jebel Kharaz is about 40 kms from the village of Rum. From there you would probably be asked for 40 or 50JD for the trip in a jeep.
Traditionally the Bedouin of this area have used the arch as a shelter in bad weather, and nowadays it is more than likely that you would see them still there, offering tea or coffee, or even a camel ride!
People before the Bedouin obviously found the arch a useful shelter and meeting place, and around Jebel Kharaz there are a number of signs of the Nabatean people. There are some very clear Thamudic style drawings which resemble the better known ones near to Jebel Anafishiya in Wadi Rum. They are a little bit further north east (still following the mountain clockwise around) and a bit further still there is an ancient cistern that I found most interesting.
On a small outcrop from the main jebel, there is a small basin with several rocky niches leading into it. Here the Nabateans dug out a cistern in the rock, perhaps 5 or 6 meters deep. In the stone of the outcrop they carved deep channels funneling any rainwater into the basin. This cistern has been maintained through the centuries, and is still used as a source of water. The channels have been deepened when necesssary, stones have been concreted into the edge to deepen them still further, and the deep ruts in the track leading to it show how much it is used.
You can see that the wall surrounding the cistern has a hole through which the water can run into the tank beneath. Before the first rainfall of the season, this hole is usually blocked and the early rainfalls scour out the sand and gravel which has drifted into the basin during the rainless months. Then the stone is removed and the cistern can fill from the rainwater. There is an overflow channel leading to a small trough from which animals can drink.
Although I was there in the month of November, and there had been no rainfall since the previous March, I was interested to see that the water in the cistern was at least two or three meters deep when Ahmed opened the cover. It is astonishing how long water can be preserved from evaporation in these circumstances. Water flowed into this dip in the ground from an surprisingly large area, trust the Nabateans to choose the best place!
As we were leaving, a dilapidated pick up arrived with a hose pipe and barrels in the back - some Bedouin were coming to collect more water. We exchanged greetings as we went on our way - I was just another tourist, sightseeing!
From Jebel Kharaz we headed south towards the dune country, leaving behind the northern flood plane and the range of mountains leading to Ras an Naqb and the Ma'an plateau. The dunes of the Disseh area are well known to the jeep specialists who tear up and down them "having fun". The marks of tyres are to be seen in rather too many places - but I have to admit that when one is with a good driver, it IS rather fun rushing down vertically.... The Bedouin in the Nature Reserve are fiercely protective of their dunes and the fragile ecology, but the dunes in Disseh have no such defenders and are being exploited extensively. A very great pity! I'm talking about the ones nearest to the roads, now; the dunes further inside are, on the whole, still pristine.
Ahmed drove me to "his" place: a corner high up on a dune and behind a cliff. We had a wonderful view to the south, looking over the cliffs which are starting to resemble Wadi Rum - but much more craggy. The afternoon was wearing on by now, and the clouds were starting to gather.
We were going to drive across the dunes and through the "pass" between the two jebels you can see. This would bring us into the area east of Shakriya and close to Wadi Rum.
From "Ahmed's place", beyond the crags, I could see the familiar sight of the peaks of the "protected area". We could also see the tents of the Jebel Rum Camp and the site of Bait Ali at Shakriya. We were heading into the area where they are accustomed to bring their clients. These two camps are probably the most comfortable places in which to spend the night around here. They are still camps, but with beds, sheets and reliable hot water supplies. (See the web page on Wadi Rum - where to sleep)
We crossed a fairly large area of dune and sand, seeing several other pick up vehicles along the way. Some were driven by Bedouin, but there were a number carrying tourists. These are some of the dunes where people bring their 4x4's to "play" but we were on our way to one of the "sights" of the area.
The Palace in the Desert
This very impressive looking castle is nestled under a ridge of rock - a very unlikely place really for a fortress like this one. Only when one gets close and gets a really close look at it, does one realise that in fact it is starting to show signs of aging under the weather and the sand storms of the area. The notice in front of the imposing archway entrance says "No Admittance" in Arabic and in English.
At least nine guides out of ten will tell you that this castle was originally built as part of the set for the film Lawrence of Arabia, filmed near here in 1960. I'm sorry, but no. It was in fact built for the television game "Desert Forges" which was diffused on various TV channels in 1999-2000. I watched a couple of episodes in France and was bored stiff - even though my interest had been initially aroused by the name "Wadi Rum"! I wasn't the only one, and in fact only three episodes were ever broadcast in France. Britain did rather better and an entire series appeared on the screens there, but the following series planned were never filmed, and the castle has been slowly decaying every since. If you are interested, it is available as a film location! You can find out more about the series if you check Wikipedia for the details.
A number of local people helped, took part or just watched the filming, and a family is still paid to act as keepers of the castle. Ahmed drove me round to the back of it, which was much less imposing. I should have quite liked to have a look round inside, but Ahmed said this was very difficult to manage. In any case, today there was no sign of the guardians, and I had to content myself with taking photos from the outside. Various doors had notices indicating that they housed the Production Department, the Lighting Department or the Wardrobe.
During the game, this was the dwelling of the "Poetess". If you hunt down the web you can find some photos of her on several blogs. The Wardrobe Department did her very well, with filmy floating garments in various shades of green and blue!
The Castle was the final stop on our afternoon tour. Nearby we passed the pillars which played a part in the game as well, although I am sorry, I am quite unable to tell you exactly what. If you look at the Wikipedia site I have quoted, they give a list of the games with a short description - frankly they sound quite horrendous to me! You can see that compared with the photo I found on the Internet of the pillars when they were originally built, they have also suffered through the years and the weather. They are even more exposed than the castle, being about a kilometer away and completely out in the open, with the Disseh equivalent of Jebel Qatar nearby. (It really does look VERY much like Jebel Qatar, doesn't it!)
We passed quite rapidly the impressive drawings on Jebel Um Rathah. I had been here before, so we didn't stop to look more closely. There are many drawing/carvings here, but the best known ones are of a meter high man and woman. A number of legends are current about them; the most pervasive is that they are there to guard a treasure that is buried nearby. Over the years a number of optimists have tried to find this treasure, and if you walk about here, be careful not to fall into any of the numerous holes that have been dug! Few of these holes seem to be deeper than a meter or so - I don't know if people just gave up rather early, or if the blowing sand filled the holes in. In any case, history tells us no stories about the treasure having been found, so people still come and dig - nowadays they are often armed with a metal detector.
Our way home from here led past Jebel Kharaz again, and I was interested to see that several people had climbed that beautiful curved arch to watch the sunset which wasn't far away now. I should not myself like to come down again in the dark, but no doubt they had that problem solved, and certainly there was a splendid view from there. This is one of the great points of the Disseh area: the wide panoramas which are largely inexistant in the Wadi Rum area to the south. We were heading back to Wadi Mousa after a wonderful visit!
All along the route we passed several other four wheel drive vehicles with tourists, nearly all from the Wadi Mousa area! A number of people from there have started offering these trips, to the extent that in Wadi Mousa they are generally known to the local as the "pick up brigade". I was in fact struck by just how many there were - a good half dozen in a couple of hours. This was all the more striking since the next day I visited friends in Wadi Rum and we went down south for two days. From the moment we left the immediate vicinity of the Rum Village until we came back the next day we saw absolutely nobody, neither local nor tourists! All the Bedouin families had brought their tents closer to the village for the winter. The desert towards the south was completely empty!
Ahmed told me that one sees a lot of pickups working from Disseh as well, bringing the tourists from the big tourist camps there to visit the desert. What I dislike about this is that so often these tourists are told they are visiting Wadi Rum! I have even heard of the Kharaz Arch being identified as "Um Fruth", the great half circle arch as the Burdah Arch and just about any mountain as Khazali. I have no problem with people being taken to visit the Disseh desert - as long as they know where they are going!
I should like to say a big thank you to Ahmed for a lovely afternoon in an area which was largely new to me. I have known him for nearly twenty years. When I first met him, believe it or not, he was the manager of the local branch of the Housing Bank in Wadi Mousa! Tired of the "rat race" he took early retirement a few years ago, but got bored and reconverted himself into a driver for tourists. He can take you to a number of places near to Petra, and indeed would drive you all around Jordan if needed.
The price he charges for this particular outing seemed very reasonable to me : around 20 or 25JD per person for a half day trip to the Disseh desert area and back again to Petra, with a minimum of two people. Obviously he also does full day trips and would take you into the Wadi Rum Nature Reserve on your request, although this, he explained apologetically, would be more expensive because of the charge levied on all jeeps coming into the Reserve from outside.
Here are Ahmed's contact numbers : Ahmed Shaban PO Box 12, Wadi Mousa Jordan. Tel +9126.96.36.19993 mobile+962.777.728.767 email firstname.lastname@example.org. I don't think it is necessary to comment on his utter honesty and trustworthiness, since all the people I recommend can be trusted absolutely in all circumstances.
As I have indicated above, he is far from being the only driver in Wadi Mousa who would do this kind of trip for you. Your hotel can certainly find you somebody on your request.
So, which area is the more beautiful?
Well, you know, I am afraid that I haven't changed my mind. Disseh is beautiful, yes; an afternoon there was a wonderful experience and the desert there is most definitely worth visiting. But as I said, we drove south the next day and at about the end of the day, I took a photo of a completely anonymous and unimportant valley far inside the Protected Area. Just look at the view compared with those further north. I am sorry, Ahmed!
©Ruth Caswell 2002