Wadi Rum was formed over millions of years of geological evolution - the massive rock mountains and mesas were thrown high above sea level by primordial tectonic plate movement and shaped by centuries of harsh winds and blowing sand. The wadis (valleys) were smoothed by floods, creating natural rock arches, towers, and oddly-shaped rocks (the most famous of which are given names, like 'the mushroom' or 'chicken rock'!).
The earliest recording of human existence in Rum was some 12,000 years ago, but given it's proximity to Africa, it's probable that Rum lay on the migratory route the earliest humans took out of Africa some 1 and a half million years ago.
Over 40,000 inscriptions and petroglyphs have been found in Rum, showing the various civilisations and tribes that have inhabited the desert: Armaic, Thermudic and Hismaic speaking nomads who carved on the rocks prayers to their Gods and the location of water sources.
As human civilisation and trade developed, Wadi Rum became a stop on an important route from the Red Sea into Arabia. One of the best-known early civilisations were the Nabateans, who reigned for about 500 years (400 BCE - 106 CE) in Arabia until they were annexed by the Romans in 106 CE. The Nabateans are best known for their city, Petra, and amassed their wealth trading from Yemen (then Qataban) to Palestine on the Mediterranean Sea. They're particularly famous for their skill in finding and preserving sources of water. You can see a Nabatean dam here in Wadi Rum as well as the ruins of a temple close to the village.
Following Petra's annexation, the Nabateans lost their influence in the region, and Palmyra (in Syria) became the centre of trade. For the next few hundred years, Jordan was part of the Byzantine Empire and ruled by a tribe called the Ghassanids.
In the early 7th century, the Umayyads (the first Muslim empire) took control of the Middle East, including Jordan and Wadi Rum. The Umayyads continued a period of history called the 'Arab conquests' or 'Muslim conquests' that began with the Prophet Muhammad and Rashidun Caliphate. The Umayyads were one of the largest empires in history, ruling Spain and North Africa, the Middle East and Arabian Peninsula, Mesopotamia and parts of Sindh (modern-day Iran and India). Amman (the capital of Jordan) became an important city under the Umayyads and the first recorded use of 'Al-Urdan' (Jordan) is found in this time. The Empire's successors, the Abbassids, then ruled Arabia until the 13th century, gradually losing ground to other Islamic powers like the Ayyubids. During this period, Islam and the Arabic language spread over the East, and both the religion and language were adopted by Bedouin tribes. The 12th and 13th centuries were also the times of the Christian Crusades, and Saladin (the Ayyubid Emperor) taking Jerusalem in 1187 CE. The Mamluks followed the Ayyubids until the Ottoman Empire took most of Arabia in 1517.
Arab Revolts & Making of the Modern Middle East
Under the Ottoman Empire, agricultural settlements in the north of Jordan declined whilst the Bedouin in the south thrived, left to their own devices. In fact, until the early 20th century, Ottoman rulers pretty much left the Bedouin tribes in Jordan alone, save for occasionally collecting taxes. There were a few revolts against Ottoman rule throughout the Middle East - the Wahhabis from present-day Saudi Arabia, Ibrahim Pasha in Egypt, and the Palestinians Peasant Revolt - but none were successful for long... Until one revolt in the early 20th century, led by Bedouin tribes, ended Ottoman rule and created what we now know of as Jordan and the Middle East!
The Arab Revolt was essentially an uprising agreed upon by Hussein bin Ali, the Sharif of Mecca, the Hashemites of Jordan, and the British to overthrow the Ottomans and created a unified Arab state stretching from Syria to Yemen.
Wadi Rum was one of the theatres of the revolt, as Prince Faisal (son of Hussein bin Ali) and a British officer, T.E. Lawrence, recruited Bedouin tribes to join and fight the Ottomans. Bedouin tribes joined the revolt for varying reasons - some believed in Arab nationalism, whilst others were angry they had lost their income guiding pilgrims to Mecca since the Hijaz railway had been built in 1910 by the Ottomans from Istanbul - Mecca.
Between 1916-1918, the Arab forces wreaked havoc on the Ottomans, from the deserts of Jordan to Damascus, using tactics we would nowadays call asymmetric warfare. This kind of warfare was remarkably successful, mainly because the Bedouin tribes knew the desert, could easily cover huge distances and survive on very little. They secured many dramatic victories, like the Battle of Aqaba.
The story of the Arab Revolts has been popularised in the West by the tale of Lawrence of Arabia (T.E Lawrence), mostly by the 1962 David Lean film which depicts key events such as the Battle of Aqaba (with certain creative liberties) and by Lawrence's own book, 'The Seven Pillars of Wisdom'. Although contemporary historians agree that the British officer was much less important in the Arab Revolts than he claimed, Lawrence of Arabia has succeeded in putting Wadi Rum 'on the map' - something we'll always be grateful for!
To be honest, the real heroes of the revolt were the Arab tribes, and the real villains were the British - because Faisal and his Bedouin never got their united Arab state. After the Ottomans were destroyed, the Brits reneged on the original agreement with the Arabs, divvying up Arabia amongst themselves and France in the Sykes-Picot agreement (creating French-mandated Syria and Lebanon, and British Palestine, Iraq and Transjordan). Prince Faisal, the key leader of the Arab Revolts, was made King of Iraq, and his brother Abdullah bin al-Hussein because the ruler of Jordan. In 1946, Jordan achieved independence, becoming the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.
Wadi Rum village was built in the 1970s, and tourism began to gain popularity in the 1990s. Wadi Rum was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2011.
There are a few popular theories about the origin of the name Wadi Rum: one is that it comes from the name Iram, a city mentioned in the Quran: 'Have you not considered how your Lord dealt with ‘Aad – [With] Iram – who had lofty pillars, The likes of whom had never been created in the lands' [Surah Al-Fajr, 6-14]. It has been suggested by historians that Thamudic and Nabatean inscriptions referring to the place Iram and tribe 'Ad are in fact referencing Wadi Rum - however, Iram is considered a lost city and no one is certain where it was. Another is that 'Ramm' is an ancient word for high places. Wadi is the Arabic word for valley, so it could then be translated as the valley of high places. The second theory is that it comes from the Arabic word for sand, 'ruml' رمل and means valley of sand. It's also sometimes called the 'Valley of the Moon' due to its otherworldly appearance.