Asphalt Prison

Near Swemieh, Dead Sea coast, Jordan 31°41'23" N, 035°34'48" E

“We can’t walk that way.”

“No? What about over there?”


“Over there?”

“No. Mushkela”—problem.

My guide Hamoudi Enwaje' al Bedul is offering a lesson in freedom of movement.

We slog north in the vast, dry, white Dead Sea Valley. We walk the shoulder of a busy highway: a road beaded with enormous cargo trucks that tilt under tons of harvested tomatoes. The road: a conveyor belt of tar, built for machines, inhumanly straight, strewn with small, dead birds hit by onrushing windshields.

The bronze dunes of Wadi Araba lie far behind us—their soft sands replaced by hot gravel. Behind us lie the old camel trails that wend through the Transjordan Range, a wall of ...

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Photograph by Paul Salopek

The Eddy

Ghor al Safi, Jordan, 31°02'22" N, 35°29'16" E

A sodden dusk.

We walk into the small market town soaked, muddied, dizzied by an astonishment: the first rains in a year of trekking. Rain varnishes the town’s cratered pavements. Electric shop signs glint and glitter in the rain. Car taillights spill their cherry hues into puddles. In the drizzle, the street lamps burn like fireballs. A carnival of reflected light. Yet the rain deters no one! The streets are filled with splashing people. We tug our two weary pack mules through damp crowds at intersections. We are seeking lodging—a roof, a room, anything. But what are these townsmen doing outside? Are they celebrating the precipitation? It seems plausible, ...

Photograph by Paul Salopek


Lot's Cave Monastery, Ghor al Safi, Jordan, 31°2'49" N, 35°30'10" E

We walk to the lowest point in the world: 1,378 feet below sea level.

The site is occupied by a museum. Outside the museum, near the top of a cliff, slump the ruins of an ancient Christian monastery. Inside the museum, behind a large pane of glass, work three or four mosaic conservators. They are Greeks. One Australian. They peer intently at a table littered with countless bits of stone. They labor over a vast puzzle. A chaotic rubble. A colorful mess.

"I can look at this for 10 hours and find no connections," says Stefania Chlouveraki, the senior archaeologist working at the museum. "Then, I'll come in one ...



Shuqba Cave, West Bank, 31°58'52" N, 35°02'34" E

So few miles. So many frontiers.

From the endless, ringing space of the Rift Valley of Africa—from the vast, unparsed horizons of the Arabian Peninsula—I step westward, across the Jordan River Valley into a strange and fractured new world: an abrupt thicket—a maze—of lines, boundaries, borders. A crosshatch of fences and gates. Of checkpoints. Of no-go zones. I stumble into a postage stamp scalpeled, painfully, into countless atomized territories; into enclaves of political control, into uniforms and flags, into settlements built by Israelis, into Palestinian villages enraged by such settlements, into a patchwork of turf that appears to be mutual prisons, ringed by warning signs, razor wire. I have ...

Photograph by Paul Salopek

1,981 Degrees Fahrenheit

Feynan, Jordan, 30°38'32" N, 35°30'33" E

We walk past caves that were blackened by fire like eye sockets daubed with kohl. Some are inhabited by modern troglodytes—by homeless Bedouin. ("It's not so bad. We pay no taxes!") We ricochet down the seam of a great, dry, snaking wadi that fans out onto the stifling basement of the Jordan Valley. Down seesawing trails worn two millennia ago by the sandals of incense traders. Down past the watery blue shade of junipers. Past the brittle grey shade of acacias. Beyond every hue and taxonomy of shade until there is no shade at all. At sunset we reenter the desert, a field of dunes, walking in a ...

Photograph by Paul Salopek

Stone Music

Petra, Jordan, 30°20'34" N, 35°27'16" E

"It is song about a camel. The camel is angry. It is asking the owner why he bought a pickup truck."

"It is a song about a war."

"It is a song about traveling."

"It is a song about love. There are so many songs about about love."

We are sitting in a shack outside of the ruins of Petra, Jordan, listening to Bedouin music.

Petra: the hidden heart of Nabatea—a 2,300-year-old empire, a crossroad of antiquity, of fabulous monuments, of palaces and grand avenues chiseled into a sandstone canyon far above the Rift Valley of Jordan. Towers. Columns. Stairs. Altars. Pediments. Aqueducts. Palaces. Petra is a city scooped from living rock. Its ...

Photograph by Paul Salopek

Brow of Syria

North of Humayma, Jordan, 30°18'7" N, 35°23'18" E

"The Haj government established here in late years a station of horse troopers and Ageyl riders, which should keep the pilgrim highway, and tame the insolence of the Beduw."
Travels in Arabia Deserta, by Charles Montagu Doughty (1888)

The trail grooved its way up a high, wrinkled scarp the color of chalk, the color of rust. Up from the Hīsma. Up from the brilliant, white, waterless flats that Nabatean kings had tried to tame more than 2,000 years ago—building forts, founding oasis towns, erecting watchtowers. All to guard the fabulous incense roads from Yemen. Centuries later other empires would attempt to control the same trade routes. Frankincense was Arabia's ...

Photograph by Paul Salopek


Near Al Quweirah, Jordan, 29°42'56" N, 35°17'14" E

We walk out of the desert and come to where the Earth rises and falls beneath our footsteps in long, regular wales, like corduroy—fields of plowed sand. The hills of Wadi Rum fade in iron-colored light. Dusk is falling. It grows colder by the minute. A path leads through the thickening dark to tents that glow yellowly from within, like belled medusas adrift in a sunless sea. We tether our two cargo mules to large stones. We approach the first tent.

"Sala'am aleukum," calls Hamoudi Enwaje' al Bedul, my guide.

The tent, which had been noisy with voices, falls silent. A man throws back the flap, and after an exchange ...

Photograph by Paul Salopek

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.

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. ...

Photography courtesy of Paul Salopek

The Desert Door

Near Aqaba, Jordan, 29°31'56" N, 34° 59' 52" E

"Those who go out in search of knowledge will be in the path of God until they return." —Al-Tirmidhi, Sunan, 39: 2. (In Muslim Travellers: Pilgrimage, Migration and the Religious Imagination, edited by Taylor and Francis.)

We encountered human footprints recently in the desert. An astonishing sight.

We were inching slowly north toward Haql, to the brow of the Levant, traversing an oceanic white plain that burned at the edge of a true sea—the Gulf of Aqaba. Nothing stirred but the wind. We trod on dust born at the origin of time. And then the track appeared: a human being walking east without camels, alone. Ali al Harbi, my translator, ...