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. ...

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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, ...

Video still by Paul Salopek


Tayib Essem, Saudi Arabia, 28°33'37" N, 34°48'01" E

You must allow camels a generous rest at midday. This improves their dispositions.

You must avoid walking camels on stones—a camel's foot is not a hard hoof but a smooth pad, soft as a pot holder. (Our older bull, Fares, will take your shoulder between his jaws as you lead him with a rope, and squeeze gently, communicating his distress on sharp rocks.)

A camel can travel three to five days without water. Some Bedouin claim, in admiration, that the animals can endure thirst even longer—for weeks, even months. It is not advisable to test these assertions, born of dizzy love.

While traveling, feed your camels twice a day, morning and ...

Photograph by Paul Salopek


Near Haql, Saudi Arabia, 29°05'00" N, 34°52'16" E

We hunt and gather along the Red Sea.

Hassan al Faidi, our new logistician, a charismatic young Hemingway, casts his fishing line into the darkling waves.

He does this over and over. He holds the thin monofilament across the pad of his extended index finger. He is feeling the slow tug of the waves, the gravelly vibration of the hook as it drags across coral, the gentle nudge of a fish's lips as it tests his bait 20 or 30 yards away under the saltwater. We have been doing this for a very long time—this communion with hope: The oldest fishing hook, made of shell, was found in a sea ...


Lost Village

Al Ula, Saudi Arabia, 26°37'36" N, 37°54'50" E

The mud-walled village is old and straddles a vanished hajj road.

Ibn Battuta, the 14th-century Muslim traveler, declared its inhabitants particularly trustworthy: Pilgrims walking to Mecca left their valuables for safekeeping with its inhabitants. A stone fort that guards the village walls perches atop foundations that date back two millenniums.

"The government has bought the entire place," says Mutlaq Suliman Almutlaq, an archaeologist with the Saudi Commission on Tourism and Antiquities. "It has paid off every home owner. There are 800 homes. It will preserve the site as a museum for future generations."

Almutlaq remembers when the ancient village was last inhabited: the mid-1970s. That’s when local officials encouraged ...

Image courtesy Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS

Lawrence’s Ghost

Al Zureb Fortress, Saudi Arabia, 26°15'9'' N, 36°32'41'' E

The old cannon shells looked like rusty pineapples.

Construction workers renovating this old Ottoman fort outside the port town of Al Wajh hauled them up in buckets from a long disused well. There were dozens. Some were packed in rotting wood boxes a hundred years old. Probably, the explosives were still dangerous. Naturally, this made me think of Lawrence.

Thomas Edward Lawrence—"Lawrence of Arabia"—has been on my mind lately.

As I walk north through the Hejaz toward Jordan, retracing the wanderings of the earliest humans who spread from Africa, I am traversing, too, the old battlefields of the Arab Revolt, a "sideshow of a sideshow" during World War I, to use ...

Picture of a woman showing the heated nails she uses for healing

Fire Cure

Near Ummlajj, Saudi Arabia, 25°02'03" N, 37°34'06" E

She took my right hand, turned it palm up, and pressed her thumbs hard into the ball of my thumb. Calloused fingers crimsoned with henna. Browned by sun. Knuckles like walnut shells. Her fingernails brittle as horn—or chert, the kind of stone you strike fire from.

"You don't have sob," the old Bedouin woman said.

She released my hand. "You don't have anything I can treat." My heart was relieved.

Fatimah Ayed Hamed al Hajuri al Johaini, 72 or 73 years old, was a fire healer. She burned people for their own good. She had been doing this all day in a desert operating room that consisted of a dusty rug ...

Photograph by Paul Salopek

Last Predator

Near Surum, Saudi Arabia, 24°50'55" N, 37°27'38" E

We walked out of the desert and hit a road. Next to the road was a tree, and in the tree hung a wolf. It had been strung up by its heels. What little fur remained parted this way and that as the wolf rotated slowly in the hot wind.

"Wolves are threatened in Saudi Arabia," says Ahmed al Boug, the General Director of the National Wildlife Research Center, the scientific arm of the Saudi Wildlife Authority. "I myself, over more than 20 years of field work, have seen about 50 wolves hanging in trees. Shepherds shoot them and put them there. Nobody really knows how many are ...

Photograph by Paul Salopek

Veiled Driving: Billi Cowgirls

Near Al Qusayr, Saudi Arabia, 25°56'44" N, 36°48'44" E

They were out working the camels. The mother raised her arms as if exhorting a crowd from a mountaintop, hazing big ornery bulls toward a water trough. Hah! she said.

One grown daughter horsed 50-pound bales of alfalfa from the bed of a pickup truck. She wore a flowered smock. The other daughter sat behind the truck's steering wheel, yanking on her black abaya and gloves as we approached. They were from the Billi tribe. They had just walked their animals eight days south from Duba. They owned some droopy white tents. Indigo shadows pooled under their camels. Their men were away with the sheep.

"You can help yourselves to ...

Photograph by Paul Salopek

Awad’s Refrigerator

Umlajj, Saudi Arabia, 25°5'0" N, 37°20'9" E

When the first anatomically modern Homo sapiens spread out of Africa and into the Arabian Peninsula, the region's seas were lower and its hills greener. Stone tools discovered recently in Oman have pushed back the date of that crucial first step by some 40 millenniums or more: to 106,000 years ago. Whether these earliest of wanderers died out in one of our species' many failed expansions or went on to populate the Earth (as asserted by "Out of Arabia" theorists) remains an open question.

What is undeniable was their necessity of lugging water.

The weight of water is a sensory experience that the bulk of modern humanity has forgotten. ...