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Camping with Bedouin nomads in 'God-like' desert of Jordan's Wadi Rum

updated 11:40 PM EDT, Wed May 14, 2014
  • Wadi Rum, nicknamed the Grand Canyon of the Middle East, is a Unesco World Heritage site in Jordan
  • The rugged desert wilderness is a traditional home of nomadic Bedouin shepherds
  • The most famous foreigner ever traversed this desert is British army officer T.E. Lawrence
  • Lawrence's adventure was dramatized in the movie "Lawrence of Arabia," which was partly shot in Wadi Rum

(CNN) -- Deep in the remote deserts of southern Jordan, not far from the border with Saudi Arabia, lies Wadi Rum one of the world's most stunning natural wonders.

Nicknamed the Grand Canyon of the Middle East, the rugged desert area covers 720 square kilometers and comprises geographical wonders from narrow gorges to towering cliffs and massive caverns.

In the footsteps of Lawrence of Arabia

It has provided a backdrop for science-fiction films like "Red Planet," starring Val Kilmer, and Ridley Scott's "Promotheus." But perhaps the most famous foreigner to traverse through Wadi Rum, and put this desert on the world map, was British army officer T.E. Lawrence. Imortalized by Peter O'Toole in the 1962 movie "Lawrence of Arabia", fittingly parts of the Hollywood classic were filmed in the area.

Tourists threaten world heritage site

But long before Hollywood celebrities and tourists descended on this UNESCO World Heritage site, its red sands have, for centuries, been the home of nomadic Bedouin shepherds.

Capturing the beauty of Wadi Rum

With scorching sunshine by day, cold winds at night and little to no water, the Bedouins' desert life has been all about survival.

"Most people believe that the Bedouins are living a romantic life, but in fact, it is a very tough life," says Yousef Zreagat, Jordan's tourism expert.

Hundreds of thousands of foreigners visit Wadi Rum each year. They hire either a four-wheel drive vehicle or a camel to explore the government-protected desert.

The grandeur and majesty of it is something that there is something bigger than us
Andrea Hlywa

Some stay overnight in Bedouin camps, where they can enjoy traditional Bedouin meals. Famed for their hospitality, the Bedouins often invite visitors to their tent homes to share mint tea or cardamom coffee, while sitting by the fire under a starry night sky.

Bedouin life in Wadi Rum is increasingly intertwined with the tourism business. Attayak Zalabia, 45, works as a tour guide and runs a camp for visitors.

At his camp site, Zalabia often prepares home-cooked traditional dishes, like zarb, marinated sheep cooked under the desert sand -- the so-called "sand oven" -- for his guests.

It is prepared fresh, with the meat sourced from Zalabia's own flock of sheep.

"You need to choose younger sheep, or young goats," he says. "The meat is softer than old sheep."

Zalabia's forefathers were among the tribesmen who fought along Lawrence in the 1916-1918 Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Empire. But today's Bedouins are facing a new battle: preserving their culture and identity.

Young boys, like Zalabia's son Zeid, prefer playing video games to tending camels and hunting, much to the chagrin of the older generation. But Zalabia insists the 10-year-old should learn the ways of the desert.

"If children grow up in the city, you sometimes find them soft," he says. "And Bedouins like the boys to be strong for the desert."

Read: Try dune-bashing, UAE's extreme motorsport

Read: A modern-day wonder in the Sea of Galilee, Israel's hotspot for migratory birds

Read: Hollywood movies in Arab countries: A love and hate relationship

Yenni Kwok contributed to this report.

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