Lawrence of Arabia in Jordan: Anthony Horowitz follows in the footsteps of David Lean's classic film.
Can it really be 50 years since the release of David Lean's epic masterpiece, Lawrence of Arabia? Looking at it now, it seems as vital as ever, with none of the fustiness or sense of archaism that attach themselves to many classic films. The colours are superb and the performances outstanding (although Peter O'Toole was robbed of his Oscar by Gregory Peck at the 1963 Academy Awards). The wonderful musical score by Maurice Jarre is as evocative as ever.
And there are still moments that have lost none of their power to thrill: Omar Sharif turning from mirage to man as he comes riding out of the desert; the single panning shot that captures the assault on Aqaba; the astonishing cut from the blowing out of a match to the Arabian sun.
"Every tool used to make movies was used in the making of Lawrence of Arabia," Steven Spielberg said in a speech to the American Film Institute 25 years later.
"I was inspired the first time I saw it. It made me feel puny. It still makes me feel puny – and that's just one measure of its greatness, because it's a continued inspiration and it's cutting the rest of us down to size."
The film received a standing ovation at its New York premiere and went on to win seven Oscars, yet in all the acclaim surrounding it, there is one contribution that the critics have overlooked – the country in which it was filmed. As David Lean himself wrote to his producer, Sam Spiegel: "…listen to me, Sam. The thing that's going to make this a very exceptional picture in the world-beater class are the background, the camels, horses and uniqueness of the strange atmosphere we are putting around our intimate story."
Many of the most memorable sequences take place in Jordan, including an early scene in which Lawrence is being escorted across the desert by a Bedouin guide. You'd have thought that a shot of two men on camels would be simple. In fact, it demanded a 500ft ski-lift, two cumbersome Panavision cameras and dozens of men working flat-out in the 40-degree heat. Somehow Lean encapsulates the Arabian desert with the khamsin (desert wind) blowing, the sand chasing its tail on dunes 1,000ft high, the afternoon shadows stretching out and the landscape saturated in an ethereal, golden sunlight.
I travelled to Jordan to celebrate the anniversary and began in the desert at Wadi Rum, about 60 miles south-west of Petra, where Lean shot a great deal of the film.
His brilliant production designer, John Box, might have constructed Aqaba entirely out of plywood – the attack was shot in Almeria, Spain – but Wadi Rum is exactly as David Lean found it. In fact, TE Lawrence came here himself and the Seven Pillars of Wisdom can be found quite close to the railway line that Lawrence spent quite a lot of his time and energy blowing up. Actually, nobody is completely certain that the rock formation is the one that inspired TE Lawrence's book, and I could only count six pillars. Like the nearby "Lawrence's Spring" or the Nabataean construction "Lawrence's House" which isn't the pillars, too, may have only a tenuous connection to the great man. What is certain, though, is that Lawrence came here and famously described it as "vast, echoing and God-like".
I can't put it much better than that. I stayed two nights in King Aretas IV Camp, which was only 20 minutes away from the nearest town – a bumpy, exhilarating drive across the sand – but which really did feel like the middle of nowhere. I was surrounded by vast rock faces – granite, basalt and sandstone – which, whacked by the sun and the wind, seemed almost to be melting. At times, when the light hit them at a certain angle, it was as if they were covered in hieroglyphics, perhaps carved by some alien race, trying to tell me something I didn't understand.
Until you have been alone in the desert, it is hard to grasp how old the world is and how small we are within it. It's not just the light that's extraordinary. It's the shadows, too, clinging on to every stone, every twist of desert grass. I never knew there were so many shades of black and grey. Walk just a hundred yards and the silence is total, overwhelming. You have left the 21st century.
At night, the stars dazzle and as the moon slides out, stark white and ancient, from behind Jebel Umm Ashreen (a mountain whose name translates as the Mother of Twenty), you feel you are watching the essence of all drama, with no need for actors or cameras. There were few horizons at Wadi Rum. I was surrounded, enclosed, by tons of rock, by mountains that a million years ago were at the bottom of the sea. The expeditions that I made – on horseback (through the first-class Wadi Rum Horses, with proper, spirited Arabian animals) and on camels – were thrilling because it was so easy to become lost in the ever-changing landscape.
King Aretas IV is described in the publicity literature as a luxury camp, and with its 10 lavatories and hot showers, sprung beds and very decent food, it certainly offered more luxury than Lawrence ever enjoyed. My first impressions of the many tents in rows and the sewage truck parked in plain sight were not encouraging – the camp seemed more military than luxurious – but with the fire lit, the wine poured and the sand dunes glowing in the moonlight, I was willing to forgive it anything.
Originally, David Lean had planned to shoot all over Jordan and the Unesco World Heritage site of Petra was high up on his list. It was a wish denied by the film's cost-conscious producer, Sam Spiegel, who moved the entire shoot to Spain. (In the end it was Spielberg who would return to this extraordinary place, many years later, sending Indiana Jones into Al Khazneh – the so-called Treasury, which is actually a mausoleum.)
Petra – an official Wonder of the World, and on just about every list of places to see before you die – is this year enjoying an anniversary, too. After a millennium lost to the world, it was rediscovered 200 years ago by a Swiss explorer, Jean Louis Burckhardt, who entered the city disguised as an Arab.
I needed no persuasion to hop on a camel and head that way, although my travel company, with its usual well-honed efficiency, had provided a Sports Utility Vehicle (SUV) and a very knowledgable guide.
Nothing can quite prepare you for Petra, a city carved out of the very rock by the Nabataeans in the sixth century BC. As you descend through the eastern entrance, a narrow gorge that once served as a waterway, you feel as if you are entering a monumental conspiracy between nature and humankind. There are boulders shaped like elephants that turn out to be accidental, and carvings of camels and merchants that have been placed there by design. The colours and shapes of the rock faces put you in mind of the Spanish architect Gaudí, but they are the result of erosion, exposing the sulphur, cobalt, silica and magnesium below. As you continue down, more and more buildings seem to come into focus, mainly tombs and tricliniums (meeting places), emerging from the hillsides until you turn a corner and there is the Treasury. And even though it is the climax of everything you have seen, it is still only the start.
For me, the high point of Petra was exactly that: the Monastery (another misnomer, as it was originally a temple) is 900 steps up, although for the faint-hearted there are donkeys. What makes the clifftop ruin so special is that it is relatively unknown. In fact, you feel you are discovering it for the first time. Impossibly large, carved once again out of a gigantic cliff-face, it reduces you to slack-jawed amazement. It was built from the top down, carved one inch at a time with what must have been incredible patience and skill. My great hero, Tintin, came to Petra in The Red Sea Sharks and I felt exactly the same sense of wonderment and adventure as I climbed past plunging ravines and stood in front of this monolithic construction with the rest of the city far below.
Now here's the thing. Up to 8,000 people visit Petra on some days and it's hard to imagine it with crowds of tourists following brightly-coloured flags and umbrellas through the narrow passageways. But when I was there, at the beginning of May, I had the place almost to myself. Why? Well, I stayed at the comfortable Mövenpick hotel, which has the advantage of being right next to the entrance. I was in there at 6.30am, ahead of the crowds. And right now, there are no crowds.
In a way, you have to feel sorry for the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, which finds itself surrounded by some of the most troublesome neighbours anywhere in the world. It is bordered by Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Israel and, just as memories of the devastating bomb attacks launched by Islamic militants in 2005 have begun to fade, fresh troubles in Syria have dealt another body blow to tourism. One might add that Abu Qatada, that most unwilling of tourists, with his well-publicised desire not to return to Jordan, hasn't exactly helped.
Amid all this, Jordan remains stable, and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office had no restrictions in place in its travel advice for Jordan at the time of writing. Reassuringly, the armed forces are everywhere. While I was cantering across the desert, I was overflown by three Cobra attack helicopters – and no car enters or leaves a hotel without being thoroughly searched. The atmosphere is tranquil, the people highly educated and friendly and, under King Abdullah II, government policy has been broadly liberal (his mother, Princess Muna al-Hussein, was a British woman, born Toni Gardiner, who first came to the country as a secretarial assistant on Lawrence of Arabia).
With an uncharacteristic sense of humour, God gave Jordan not a single drop of oil. In the long run, though, this may have contributed to the country's stability. The economy relies heavily on knowledge-intensive industries such as information technology; educational standards are high, with no fewer than 36 universities in the capital; and most people you meet speak English.
The other thing about Jordan is that it is very small. It is just 225 miles from Amman in the north to Aqaba in the south, and the population is only seven million. Although three-quarters of the country is taken up by desert, the topography is extremely varied, much softer and more verdant than you would expect, and packed with sights that are well worth visiting: Roman, Byzantine, historical, natural, and Biblical. The traditional tourist triangle – Israel, Jordan and Syria in a single package – may be less desirable now, but for me it only emphasises that Jordan is a pretty perfect holiday destination in itself. Even the flights are civilised; if you take off at lunchtime in London, you can be having dinner in Amman by sunset.
That is exactly what I did, joining the crowds in the lively, surprisingly European Rainbow Street, where I sat on the balcony of the jazzy Books Café, watching a spectacular full moon and smoking an argileh, also known as a hubbly-bubbly. (In fact, I would give this experience a miss; it may look exotic, but I'd have had as much fun wrapping my lips around the exhaust pipe of a Land Rover and it took me hours to recover.) It's a pity that so many tourists rush through Amman, a densely-packed city on seven hills. Jabal al-Qal'a – or Citadel Hill – is certainly worth a visit, with its columns of the Temple of Hercules and its archaeological museum, which contains what is believed to be the first statue of a human ever made.
The next day I went to Karak, an impressive castle built by the knights of the First Crusade and eventually brought down by the Muslim commander Salah ad-Din. Even when I was a boy, Saladin was something of a hero figure for me and I could easily imagine what it must have been like to be inside the fortress, listening to the boulders being catapulted endlessly and inexorably against the walls. If there were half a dozen tourists in the place when I visited, I'd be surprised − and that is a crazy situation: Karak is unforgettable.
That said, as you head south down the King's Highway, it's hard to escape the sense that you are following a well-tried tourist route and by the time our guide had ferried us into the obligatory mosaic factory (and shop) near Madaba, I was beginning to detect a whiff of coach-party mentality. If you can get past this, the overall experience is transformative. Stand on Mount Nebo, in the blazing heat, where Moses himself stood and saw a Promised Land that he would never reach, or dip into the water of the River Jordan at Bethany, where Jesus Christ was baptised by John the Baptist, and the Bible is no longer something you had to read at school. It bursts into life. You feel its power and mystery all around. And not just that. At Bethany you are just a few yards away from Israel and two miles from Jerusalem. At night you can see the twinkling lights of Bethlehem and Palestine. Although there are soldiers everywhere and the tensions in the area, the echoes of so much conflict, are palpable, the overall impression is one of peace.
I ended my trip by swimming in the Dead Sea – or rather bobbing like an oversized, ungainly cork. I'm afraid I found myself giggling like an idiot. This is something you must experience sooner rather than later, as the Dead Sea is drying up at an alarming rate – losing more than 3ft of depth per year – and nobody can be sure that plans to divert water from the Red Sea will really work.
I coated myself in mineral-enriched mud, baked in the sun and finally emerged feeling like a new-born baby – though without the nappy rash. At the wonderful Evason Ma'In Hot Springs hotel, I stood beneath waterfalls that pounded me with naturally heated water and ate dinner at the Panorama restaurant, with its astonishing views and so-so food. I wasn't in Jordan nearly long enough. You could spend two or three days in Petra alone. But for a week's holiday, I'm hard-pressed to think of a better destination.
When Lawrence of Arabia came out, 50 years ago, it received positive but not universally ecstatic reviews. In his brilliant biography of the director, Kevin Brownlow records Lean's dismay at one particularly unkind headline: Two and a Half Pillars of Wisdom. However, Dilys Powell in The Sunday Times had no doubts. "The sun rising on the rim of blood-orange sand; dust storms like the smoke-trails of a djinn; the shapes of infinity, the colours of heat – a passage which might be out of Homer…" And it's clear to me, reading those words, that she wasn't just writing about a cinematic masterpiece. She captures Jordan, too.