Isabel of Arabia: Walking in the Footsteps of Jordanian Legends

Mastering the desert, its emptiness, beauty and otherworldly tranquility is a state of mind, our Jordanian guide murmurs as he leads us away from the brightly lit Bedouin camp and the remnants of a lavish banquet from the Arabian Nights.

he inky sky is dotted with a million twinkling stars, the air is cool and fragrant—though my pashmina smells faintly of goat. I shuffle through the soft sands of Wadi Rum, a place that seems to stretch out into infinity here in southern Jordan. Scorpions are sleeping, we are assured, and that far-off howl is the Bedouin dogs excited by the scraps of food awaiting them – not the wolves that roam the area.

On a plateau overlooking a valley bounded by ghostly silhouettes of soaring sandstone walls, we lie flat on our backs in a circle and listen to the stillness in this vast open-air dormitory.

Immortalized in David Lean’s film 60 years ago Lawrence of ArabiaWadi Rum was described as “huge, resonant and godlike” by real adventurer, archaeologist and military strategist TE Lawrence, who fought alongside Arab guerrilla armies rebelling against their Ottoman overlords.

The son of Sir Thomas Chapman of Delvin, Co. Westmeath, who fled to England with family governess Sarah Junner (they took the name Lawrence), TE sat on my grandmother’s mantelpiece – in a framed photograph alongside his friend and comrade – in -arms Pierce Joyce, my grandma’s first cousin.

My grandmother Norah (nee Joyce) Devine was proud of her family connection with the legendary Lawrence of Arabia.

In the photo, handsome Pierce Joyce – a senior officer in the Connaught Rangers, born and raised in Mervue, Co Galway – wears his Arabian headdress held by a cord of goats hair. It offered some protection during the frequent blinding sandstorms.


The desert sky at night over Wadi Rum. Image by Jordan Tourism Board

To me, Joyce as a child was just as impressive as the much smaller figure in flowing white Arabic robes.

At almost 6ft 4″, Pierce Joyce towered over the 5ft 5″ Lawrence (although he was played by the 6ft 2″ Peter O’Toole in the epic Oscar-winning film).

The life of Cousin Pierce, who speaks fluent Arabic, reads like a Kipling story. Seriously wounded during the Boer War, he was decorated for bravery in Egypt, Sudan and other campaigns – where he was attacked by a rogue elephant. He was instrumental in bringing Arab leaders to the British side, served for a time as political adviser to Emir Faisal (later king of Syria and Iraq), and in 1920 Joyce became governor of Luxor.

TE Lawrence was a skilled camel rider – but his Galway-born companion was reluctant to board a ‘ship of the desert when all other means of transport were impossible’. In his work The seven pillars of wisdomLawrence described the journey by camel through the wildly beautiful landscapes of Wadi Rum.

It tells of the daring attacks by Arab forces who “planted tulips” (codename for explosives) along the Hijaz railway to disrupt the Ottoman Empire, the German enemy’s allies in World War I.

My grandma treasured her first issue of With Lawrence in Arabia by the American newspaperman Lowell Thomas. The book included photos of her first cousin and devoted a chapter to “Joyce & Co,” recounting how when they first met Joyce considered Lawrence “messy, opinionated, and overbearing” and “had a strong desire to tell him to.” get his haircut”.

As I lie in the darkness and stillness of the desert, my thoughts turn to my grandmother’s cousin, who would have known this vast, lonely expanse of towering sandstone cliffs and marveled at the tent of night – so different from the Galway skies of his youth.


View over the Jerash Amphitheater. Image by Jordan Tourism Board

I’m on a five day adventure organized by Nebo Tours ( in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, which is home to a spectacular array of historical and cultural sites and landscapes. The trip easily covers all the major highlights as the travel times between them are short.

Our journey begins in Amman, the capital of Jordan. Overlooking ancient minarets and gleaming modern offices in this beautiful city, there is little time to admire the opulent surroundings of the Grand Hyatt Hotel before we head to Jerash, an hour’s drive north, to explore one of the world’s most important Roman sites.

This ancient city was once lost to the world, buried beneath the desert sands by a series of earthquakes. It was not rediscovered until 1806 and many of the Greco-Roman buildings still stand.

We visit the South Theater – a vaulted ceiling made up of numerous stone seats – which now appears to be the domain of two bagpipers, retired Jordanian Army, who sang impressive versions of ‘Scotland the Brave’ and ‘Auld Lang Syne’.

Back in bustling Amman, home to half of Jordan’s 10-million population, the pre-Ramadan afternoon rush hour traffic jams and the colourful, chaotic street stalls bustle with life.


The ancient city of Jerash. Image by Jordan Tourism Board

Kamil Sawalha, Sales and Marketing Director of Nebo Tours jokes: “Driving here in Jordan is quite a challenge, traffic lights can only be suggestions – if a driver grabs the wheel with a distorted expression, especially on a roundabout, beware. ”

But there’s little to worry about when heading out of the city and heading south with few vehicles. We rested to reach the lowest point on earth – the Dead Sea – before sunset. We arrive just in time to swim in one of the Kempinski Hotel’s enormous infinity pools as the sun disappears in a brilliant red-orange sphere behind the hills of Jerusalem beyond.

Jordan has always been a land of religious pilgrims – and one of its holy sites, Mount Nebo, is said to be the burial site of Moses. Today a Franciscan church stands in charge of the site. Overlooking Jericho in the distant valley, Kamil says, “Jordan lies at the crossroads of beliefs, cultures and civilizations – it is a peaceful oasis in the deserts of modern turmoil.”

“A quiet house in a noisy neighborhood, Jordan is a peaceful, open-hearted and tolerant country,” he adds. During our visit, Ramadan begins and we see firsthand the nation’s respect for other faiths. In the city of Madaba, Christian students eat their lunch away from fasting Muslim friends — so as not to offend or tempt.

And Christian cafes and restaurants in the city and elsewhere routinely set out food and water for fasting Muslims to eat “iftar” — the meal that ends Lent at sundown each night.

In another great celebration – Jordan is justifiably famous for its food – we eat delicious mezze and the national dish mansaf (lamb cooked in fermented yoghurt, served with rice and pine nuts) at the Hikayet Sitti Food Basket Restaurant in Madaba.


Camels in Wadi Rum. Image by Jordan Tourism Board

This is an old country. Nabatean traders, Roman legionnaires, Muslim armies, Crusaders – they all traversed what we now call Jordan, leaving behind spectacular monuments and other reminders of their past.

Countless camel caravans have transported precious cargoes of incense, gold, spices, ivory and silk along the King’s Highway. We follow him and he leads us to Jordan’s greatest treasure – Petra, the jewel in the crown of the kingdom.

With a million visitors in 2019 alone, Covid struck a devastating blow to the people who depended on this wonder of the world for their livelihoods. Tourism is returning, but slowly.

Petra is the pinnacle of the Jordan River experience – and nothing prepares you for the wondrous sight of the hidden city carved out of sandstone thousands of years ago. After reaching the end of the Siq, a narrow gorge flanked by 80m high cliffs, our guide Wael Amira tells us to take a few steps backwards and then turn back.

Suddenly the famous treasury appears. It is a creation of such splendor that you will be speechless and enjoy a magical moment.


The Treasury – Al Khazneh – at Petra in Jordan. Image by Jordan Tourism Board

North of Petra, just off the King’s Highway, stands an impressive reminder of Crusader glory – Shobak Castle, which dates back to the 12th century. Night has already settled like a heavy blanket on its battlements, so any future visit to Jordan will have to wait for a daylight hike.

The October 1917 capture of Shobak from the Ottoman garrison was among the most celebrated exploits and military triumphs of Pierce Joyce and the Arab Army. Joyce commanded the bold assault that took the fortress and cemented his status as one of the key officers serving alongside Lawrence and Faisal in the desert campaign.

Importantly, Joyce also showed his humanity when he finally led his fighters out of Shobak – to avoid Ottoman reprisals against the local population.

“Joyce was a man to rest against the world, an easygoing, unchanging, comfortable spirit.”

Great praise indeed – and it came from none other than Lawrence of Arabia himself Seven Pillars of Wisdom.

get there

  • Isabel was a guest on Turkish Airlines ( and Nebo Tours ( Turkish Airlines flies from Aqaba back to Amman via Istanbul; Economy from €528 (incl. taxes); Business class from €1,369.
  • Accommodation: Grand Hyatt Amman (; Kempinski at the Dead Sea and Aqaba (; Old Village Resort Wadi Musa (; Saraya Tented Camp Wadi Rum (
  • See Visit and Sunway’s Jordan Classical Tour in September, from €1,998 per person based on two parts with Nebo Tours, including flights, transfers, seven nights B&B, some meals, tours and more. Isabel of Arabia: Walking in the Footsteps of Jordanian Legends

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