National Geographic

The Valley of Names

North of Wadi Rum, Jordan, 29°44'28" N, 35°32'18" E

Brick-red sands. Brittle shrubs—pale, ghostly, diaphanous, like puffs of artillery smoke frozen by a camera. Totems of sandstone. Of basalt. A cobalt sky marbled with cirrus. Silence.

We have left Aqaba far behind a seam of mountains. We have entered a colossal hall of space, a still wilderness of towering stone monoliths that Arab travelers once called وادي القمر—the Valley of the Moon.

Today it is better known as Wadi Rum, a timeless artery of migration.

Ancient footprints connote pilgrimages. Haz Ali, Jordan. Photograph by Paul Salopek

Ancient footprints connote pilgrimages. Photograph by Paul Salopek

More than 80 miles long, Wadi Rum links the sunburned desert extremities of nomad Arabia to the complex, rumpled, many-chambered heart of the Levant. Paleolithic hunters first drifted through when lions crouched in vanished grasslands. Cattle people arrived later, loose-limbed, elongated by protein, whistling and whooping on their wanderings, carrying new lactose-tolerant genes within their DNA. Proto Arabs from an empire called Nabataea, builders of spectacular stone cities before the age of Christ, once claimed this otherworldly place. Roman invaders displaced them. Jews and Christians rode caravans through Wadi Rum to the Hejaz before Islam. The Prophet Muhammad’s cavalry galloped the opposite direction, green banners rippling, to establish a vast Caliphate.

We establish meager squaw campfires. We walk.

There are four of us: two colleagues visiting briefly from America and our desert guide, Hamoudi Enwaje’ Salman al Bedul. Each leads by a chain a cargo mule. Soon, the stone messages begin to appear. Throughout its many roles as a valve of history—corridor, funnel, choke point—Wadi Rum remains, above all, a colossal scriptorium of human restlessness.

“There are literally tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands of inscriptions there,” says Glenn J. “Joey” Corbett, an independent American archaeologist who has surveyed the region. “There are few other places in the world like this for rock art. Australia. Maybe the American West.”

Some of the earliest depictions are of cattle—boldly carved bulls, looking surprisingly modern because artists such as Picasso cribbed their Neolithic style—perhaps 9,000 years old. The most recent work dates from a century ago: prayers hewn by Muslim pilgrims trekking toward Mecca in the twilight of the Ottoman Empire. There are numberless drawings of camels. Of ostriches and oryxes. Scenes of men at war. The most numerous inscriptions, through, are scratched out in Hismaic, a 2,000-year-old precursor to Arabic, etched painstakingly by the shepherds, mounted hunters, and caravaneers who wandered Wadi Rum for centuries. Many are names. They are inscribed, in servility, to the power of encroaching empires, to forgotten gods, to forgotten royalty.

Geology as canvas. Inscriptions in Wadi Hafir, Jordan. Photograph by Paul Salopek

Inscriptions in Wadi Hafir. Photograph by Paul Salopek

Bdhrtt—”servant of Aretas

Bdsqlt—”servant of (queen) Shaqilat.”

Mrktb—”man of al-Kutba.”

A Jordanian friend and archaeologist Mahmood Alfageer, takes us to a canyon called Wadi Hafir. We meander among an immense gallery of words. Scores of the antique signatures, perhaps hundreds, are visible on a five-minute walk. Relics of ordinary lives gouged for an eternity. I record their images on a computer memory card that, like the mainframes that will store the camera’s digital code, rely on a steadfast current of electricity. I copy the strange, antique, snaking lettering of Thamudic E onto cheap paper that will begin to fade within a year. A new lacuna, a digital void, begins to grow in Wadi Rum’s stone narrative. I wonder for how long—when must we take up the chisel again? Then I veer northwest.

Mahmoud Alfagee interprets rock art. Haz Ali, Jordan. Photograph by Paul Salopek

Mahmood Alfageer interprets rock art. Photograph by Paul Salopek

Hamoudi and I, alone now, make for the old caravanserai town of Al Quweira, singing badly. Al Quweirah was the logistical base for the Hollywood crew that filmed “Lawrence of Arabia,” the ephemeral celluloid inscription of a traveler who passed through Wadi Rum only yesterday. Lawrence had seen the rock carvings. He called Wadi Rum “a processional way greater than imagination”:

The Arab armies would have been lost in the length and breadth of it, and within the walls a squadron of aeroplanes could have wheeled in formation. Our little caravan grew self-conscious, and fell dead quiet, afraid and ashamed to flaunt its smallness in the presence of the stupendous hills.

The mules’ hooves clap hollowly across the faceted mud tiles of a dry lake bed. We inch into the Middle East.

There are 57 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Linda Timmins
    January 3, 2014

    I live in southern Utah and some of the ancient rock art here looks so similar…the red rock is the same! This is marvelous to see! Thanks so much!

  2. Dennis E.
    January 3, 2014

    Paul; Such a wonder to be able to crawl through a crack in the time continuum of history. I could almost hear the ancient glyphs shouting out their secret messages. Your mind must be a whirl with images of the past. Literally a library of history and human imagination. To touch the souls of the ancients must truly be a gift of untold value. Thanks for the images to ponder in the late hours of solace. Dennis H

  3. Jean Thompson
    January 3, 2014

    Marvelous photos and commentary!

    I took a photo in the late 90’s at the naval air base, China Lake, CA with a creature (goat?) that looks exactly like the one in the video at 16 seconds. These petroglyphs were made by Paleo-Indians. This area isn’t open to the public.

  4. Larry DeClerck
    January 3, 2014

    What a gift to be here at this time in history to read about and see such an amazing trek as it is taking place. Thank you for sharing your first impression encounters with our past human migration. It is fascinating.

  5. tom
    January 3, 2014

    paul, there are so many interesting aspects to follow in your travel. especially interesting is your use of pack animals. many cultures, over many millennia have been utilizing many varieties of “beasts of burden”. you have me wondering about your sentence “each leads by a chain a cargo mule”? could you please describe the use of a chain to lead the beasts? a chain rings of a bit of harsh control?

    • Paul Salopek
      January 8, 2014

      Many Bedouin use chains instead of lead ropes. The wily mules have learned to chew through rope. It’s a labor-saving technology—saving us a marathon run through canyons to retrieve loose animals.

  6. no1special
    January 3, 2014

    Are there wells in this area? If so, how numerous are they?

    • Paul Salopek
      January 8, 2014

      Not as many as Saudi Arabia. We’ve come across three or four. Maybe it has something to do with the cost of maintenance—which Saudi can afford but not Jordan.

  7. HikerBob
    January 3, 2014

    MOST interesting article. Here in Southwest USA there are many many petroglyph sites. It is interesting to see this art in other areas.

  8. Azucena
    January 4, 2014

    Those feet were made for walking…
    Just wondering if you had special physical training for this journey.
    Looking forward to the next chapter.

  9. Megan
    January 4, 2014

    Thank you for bringing the ancient into the present. I enjoy the feeling of being connected to it all as I read your first-hand accounts.

  10. mahmood
    January 4, 2014

    oryx ibex mountain goats wolfs lions and tigers few hunters

  11. Márcia
    January 4, 2014

    Estava ansiosa por notícias de vcs!! Estou ouvindo o vento soprando todas as histórias das imagens que vc nos dá o prazer e o privilégio de conhecer.
    Obrigada Paul

  12. Ana Paula Engler
    January 4, 2014

    What an interesting region is Wadi Rum and its stone inscriptions!
    Thanks for all this wonderful information!

  13. Barbara Quinn
    January 4, 2014

    I have long been intrigued by petroglyphs! My trips to the American Southwest whet my appetite for more knowledge of those people’s. and now Wadi Rum…so far from the Southwest and yet those petroglyphs are so similar. Your journey always tells us truth: we are all connected. Safe travels and thank you.

  14. Chris
    January 4, 2014

    What an awe-inspiring place! The silence of the desert shouts the history of humanity.

  15. Silvia Castiglione
    January 5, 2014

    I visited Wadi Rum in February 2010 and it was one of the greatest experiencia of muy life!

  16. Richard Morgan
    January 5, 2014

    I worked with Dr Bill Jobling from the University of Sydney in Wadi Hafir and Wadi Ram in the 1980s and I have over 10,0000 photos from that time. I am so pleased with the later work of recording and interpretation of the corpus of inscriptions and rock art by Dr Joey Corbett and more recently the Department of Antiquities in Jordan. This area is full of occupation debris and signs of the cradle of civilization. Thank you for sharing this great but little known story.

    • Paul Salopek
      January 8, 2014

      Joey credited Dr. Jobling with doing pioneering work in the area—big shoulders to stand on.

  17. Luis C. Olivencia-Font MD
    January 5, 2014

    Wadi Rum is taking another perspective, because this info is not
    available when I was there. Paul your trip is absolutely fascinating for the world travelers. Looking forward for the continuation of the trip, be careful Paul that area of the world
    so dangerous!!!

  18. Gary Boivin
    January 5, 2014

    I saw many similarities between the Arabs of Israel and the West Bank, and the Native Americans of the Southwestern U.S., on a 1982 visit to the Middle East. It is intriguing that rock art is yet another shared feature of the two peoples.

  19. kim
    January 5, 2014

    to follow your journey is fabulous….can’t wait till the next.

  20. Helen Wing
    January 5, 2014

    Dear Mr Salopek – I have just read your National Geographic article … you write beautifully.. I am in awe. I wish you every good luck on your journey. best wishes Helen

  21. ASMA
    January 5, 2014

    Your statement “when must we take up the chisel again?” was so profound knowing that we have reached the “peak oil”! I am not very well educated about those writings and drawings more than the very minimal information I read now and then. However, knowing that such work must be time consuming (given that they are in hard rocks and deep enough to stand for thousands of years not protected from the elements as is the case in caves,) I can not think of logical reason for why they did it. This is especially true if we consider that they were (like you know) just passing by (e.g. in the case of Hajj travel, the luxury of time is not there). Any insight you can provide (whatever you know) about why there inscription were made?

  22. Rfaust
    January 6, 2014

    We’ll done

  23. Amanda lane
    January 6, 2014

    Reading about your walk is so interesting. I’m a retired Teacher and love history.

  24. Alex
    January 6, 2014

    I just discovered the Out of Eden walk today, and I am absolutely fascinated. This is one of the most incredible and ambitious projects that I have ever heard of. I have only been able to read a handful of your entries today, and I can’t wait to read more.

    I will be sharing this with many people. The journey you are on is not only inspiring to all who will follow it, but you will end up with a collection of stories and memories that few people, if any, will be able to surpass. Safe travels from Maryland, USA.

  25. Katrina Alfano
    January 6, 2014

  26. Linda Hoernke
    January 6, 2014

    Your article and video pulls me from of the deserts of the Southwest USA and into the deserts of Jordan. So similar are they in their landscape and rock art!! Thank you again Paul.

  27. Catie Poersch
    January 7, 2014

    Dear Paul Salopek: My First Grade science teacher told me all about you. She told me that her husband stayed in a hut with you once (I think). How do your camels get across the water? Have a happy and safe trip. I hope you learn more about the world. I’ll be reading.

    • Paul Salopek
      January 8, 2014

      Thanks, Catie. I don’t know what hut roommate you refer to. Was it a yurt or a hogan? I haven’t taken any camels across open water yet. Trying to give them baths was bad enough.

  28. Connie
    January 7, 2014

    Regarding your article in the December Nat Geo magazine, page 47–can you provide more information on how the demographer concluded that 100 billion people have been on earth to date. How many generations does that represent, etc ? Thanks for an article/journey that is thought provoking on so many levels.

  29. Sylvain Pascal
    January 8, 2014

    Excellent rendering of our smallness in space and time

  30. monique hersh
    January 8, 2014

    How wonderful we can all “walk” with you because of this digital age we live in, though it comes@ a price! I always yearn to slow down and look around. There is an amazing world to discover right under our feet. Your journey has inspired me as well as so many others to see the world at walking speed. One question on my mind….can the human foot hold up to so many demanding miles? Looking forward to all of your postings and videos. Best educational course ever!

  31. Lynne Bemer
    January 8, 2014

    What process is used to date the rock inscriptions?

    • Paul Salopek
      February 6, 2014

      Good question. It’s very tough. There are two kinds of ancient rock inscriptions—pictographs (painted) or petroglyphs (pecked or scraped). The latter type dominate Wadi Rum, and unfortunately they are the hardest to date. Scientists are experimenting with chemical techniques that measure ratios of mineral buildups in the rock’s surfaces due to leaching or microbial activity (these methods are called cation-ratio and X-ray fluorescence dating). Others resort to comparing the flaking of the stone surfaces in human-carved surfaces versus “virgin” rock (varnish microlamination techniques). Finally, clues such as language and script styles that can be tied to the archaeological record also helps. But it’s all fairly inexact.

  32. Dan Hawkins
    January 8, 2014

    Bravo Paul!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Your writing is a joy, your courage is an inspiration. Safe traveling to you.

  33. James Murphy, Teacher
    January 8, 2014

    Hi Paul –

    Was talking to a friend on a recent hike to Point Sal north of Santa Barbara, CA. Our 10 mole hike touched on how you explained that walking at 3mph is the best rate by which humans process their surroundings best. We spoke about how it’s in our DNA.

    We also wondered what shoes you are using on this epic journey and if you were sponsored. If not, can we help??

    Sending love, stamina and health your way !!

    James Murphy

  34. Noel Marquez
    January 9, 2014

    Saludos Pablo,

    My daughter Paikea is now seven. We have enjoyed reading all your dispatches, comments, timeline and npr report. Great classroom stuff for our homeschooled daughter. We look forward to seeing you in Columbus to greet you when she will be 11.

    Feliz viaje hermano.

    Noel Marquez

  35. Linda Hoernke
    January 9, 2014

    Hi Paul
    Thought you might be interested in this article>>

  36. Brian Robinson
    January 9, 2014

    Hi Paul:
    What an absolutely fascinating journey you have undertaken. My grade six class here in Toronto, Ontario will be following you through your posts every step of the way.
    What an amazing trek-thanks for giving my students an adventure to follow. Look forward to hearing all the stories!
    Brian Robinson
    Royal Saint George’s College
    Toronto, Ontario

  37. Joan G
    January 14, 2014

    Started article in Nat Geo. Jumped to computer to order book. Oh I hope I live long enough to follow the whole journey.

  38. Cindy Farber
    January 18, 2014

    I remember the first time I saw the rock art in Utah. We were taking a float trip in our kayaks down the green river. As we stood and looked at the pictures I could literally “feel” the spirits of the people that made them. How wonderful to be able to read their history in their art! Enjoying your journey vicariously! Thanks for sharing it with us!

  39. Gary Boivin
    January 18, 2014

    This is indeed the equal of the American Southwest, in terms of timeless accounting of the distant past. Australia and the Sahara have vast stores as well. Will our time be as well accounted for posterity? Regardless of points of view, all should be heard, as points of view are apt to change, with thought and reflection.

  40. Martha Richitelli
    January 18, 2014

    Fascinated by your journey, hope I can see it through to the end( I am 81)

  41. Stefania
    January 18, 2014

    Thanks for teaching us so much and helping us broaden our horizon.. We follow you through your writing

  42. Yvette van Wijk
    January 19, 2014

    I am always so pleased to see a post come up from your site. This one resonates especialyl as I have spent years hunting Rock Art and would like to gently point out that Southern Africa has wodnerful examples among which are many thousands of engraved images and inscriptions uncannily similar to a lot fo those you show here. Maybe some fo our artists were among those early migrants up into the Levant! Looking at the landscape with the rounded rocks is very similar to some of our karoo landscapes, the sense of space similar too, how I envy you your wonderful adventure!

    January 19, 2014

    Para mi Paul es un Señor increible y muy arriesgado gracias.

    January 19, 2014

    Hola Paul un saludo desde Colombia
    espero estar hasta el final.

  45. gayle north
    January 19, 2014

    We enjoy following you as you journey your way along an unbeaten path. We are transplanted Canadians, working in Palestine, and travel to Jordan as often as we can. Wadi Rum is a favourite of ours. The stillness, the red earth, the isolation, and the people are the treasures that we embrace. Thank you for sharing your impressions of this landscape.

  46. Rama
    January 19, 2014

    Did you carve a little message too, so people yonks from now will get a glimpse of your stupendous “walk”?

    • Paul Salopek
      February 6, 2014

      With apologies to Keats, how about, “Here passed one whose name was writ in water”?

  47. Jeffery Nelson
    February 2, 2014

    Paul, your journey is extraordinary. Thisvjourneybshould be required ready for every human on earth. We truly are connected. Be safe.

  48. Linda Stepp
    February 6, 2014

    Through your eyes, ears and words I travel with you through sand and time discovering more than I could ever have imagined! Worlds open up before me right here on earth that I long suspected but could not understand. I still struggle to understand and that is my life’s personal journey. I will be following you. This is just awesome and I am so glad I found this. Thank you Paul- you make this journey for mankind much like Neil Armstrong did on the moon.

    • HikerBob
      February 6, 2014

      Awesome poetic, insightful and inspiring post, Ms. Stepp

  49. Melissa
    April 22, 2016

    Paul, thanks so much for sharing those amazing pictures with us because it’s really interesting to see them and to see how this is part of our worlds history and it is amazing and thanks also for the brief detailed explanation.

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