When looking out across the Wadi Rum landscape in southern Jordan, one truly gets the impression of being on another world. To tour Wadi Rum, with its red-hued terrain of mountains and hills jutting out of the vast sands, makes one’s jaw drop.
Why on earth is the Wadi Rum desert so unique? What environmental and geological events occurred to create this masterpiece of nature?
The uniqueness of Wadi Rum geology, is a complex mix of lithology (rock characteristics), tectonic activity (movement of earth’s crust), changing climate, weathering and erosion.
What is Wadi Rum?
During the creation of the Great Rift Valley, and subsequent Jordan Rift Valley, some 25 to 5 million years ago, the Wadi Rum region was uplifted exposing layers of granite and sandstone. Over millions of years, some 700 metres (2,300 feet) of sandstone was eroded away along joints, cracks and faults.
This answers the question how is a wadi formed (wide valley), narrow corridors (siqs) and the mountains (reaching 1840 metres or 6000 feet) of the Wadi Rum landscape seen today in Jordan.
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The erosion and weathering continued to wear down the remaining mountains and rock outcrops, creating the unique features of Wadi Rum rock formations. These varying and distinctive qualities were dependent on a combination of the type of erosion mechanisms, as well as the makeup of the rock itself.
Above the sometimes-visible granite base lies two major sandstone formations. The lower Umm Ishrin sandstone and the upper Disi sandstone, with an overall dip of 15 degrees to the east.
Wadi Rum Landscape – Umm Ishrin Sandstone Formation
The Umm Ishrin formation is a dark coloured sandstone due to the oxidation of various mineral content, predominantly iron. The bands of minerals create unique features through erosion and weathering processes.
Shear Cliffs of Wadi Rum Jordan
Due to the relative hardness of the Umm Ishrin formation, large scale erosion along vertical joints have caused gigantic blocky rock falls exposing spectacular shear cliffs.
Melted Wax Look of Wadi Rum Sandstone
In this dry climate near a sea, the most intensive weathering of the rock is caused by salt which coats the rock. However, along joints and cracks in the rock the occasional rains flush the salt away.
This causes uneven weathering along some of the rock faces resulting in concave sections, honeycomb appearances and the iconic melted wax look in sections.
Mushroom Rocks of Jordan
The layering of different mineral content and hardness creates uneven weathering along horizontal plains. This can result in the aggressive erosion of the softer layers undercutting the harder layers above. And voila, a mushroom rock is formed.
The Perfect Natural Tablet in Wadi Rum
The flat vertical sections of the Umm Ishrin sandstone made perfect natural tablets for carving petroglyphs and inscriptions. Some 45,000 of these manmade features have been found in Wadi Rum dating as far back as 12,000 years ago.
Within these Wadi Rum petroglyphs and inscriptions is an amazing record of the past societies, and the emergence of alphabets originating from symbols and icons.
Wadi Rum Facts – Disi Sandstone Formation
The Disi sandstone sits on top of the Umm Ishrin sandstone, as is predominantly white or light grey in colour. This sandstone is relatively soft and is identifiable by its light colour and rounded, dome-like features topping many of the mountains in the area.
Rock Bridges of Wadi Rum
The Wadi Rum landscape contains some very spectacular rock bridges, which are naturally carved out of the Disi sandstone formation. These arches are formed over a relatively short geologic times (measured in tens of thousands of years). Weaker jointed sections of rock are eroded ultimately creating voids below stronger stratigraphic beds of the Disi formation. These voids continue to grow creating the rock bridges.
Wadi Rum Desert
Between the mountains and hills of Wadi Rum, lies a blanket of sand and sediment. The sand varies from hard pan sand surfaces to massive sand dunes, all adding to the wonder of the Wadi Rum landscape.
Are we in Jordan or another planet?
Several movies have been filmed in Wadi Rum for the purpose of depicting another planet. The Wadi Rum landscape is obviously compelling for film makers regardless of the distance from their respective studios.
Below is a list of movies featuring the Wadi Rum landscape.
Red Planet (2000) – mission to Mars goes all wrong
Prometheus (2012) – search for origins of mankind ends up on an alien planet
Last Days on Mars (2013) – the downside of finding life on Mars
The Martian (2015) – astronaut stranded on Mars
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016) – scenes representing the planet of Jedha
Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (2019) – scenes representing the planet of Pasaana
Dune (2020) – action on the planet of Arrakis
The Jordan tourism industry has jumped on the ‘other world’ theme with Wadi Rum camping options. These include luxury camping tents shaped like Martian domes, along side more traditional Bedouin camp tents for accommodations.
Wadi Rum truly illustrates that nature is truly the best architect to capture our wonder and awe.
What destination has best captured your sense of amazement?
If you’re interested in information related to geology, check these posts out:
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The Frank Slide – Fast, Furious and Unforgiving
The Canadian Badlands – A Time Travel Dinosaur Adventure
Big Rock Okotoks – When Glaciers Leave Behind Souvenirs
Formation of the Baja Peninsula – A Rocky Romance
Burgess Shale Fossils – How To Feel Young Again
I was staying in Eilat, Israel so I took a day tour to Aqaba, Wadi Rum and Petra, Jordan from there. The landscape of Wadi Rum reminds me of our National Parks in Southern Utah. I have always said the prettiest places I have ever been are in these Utah Parks with the red rocks, arches, stone bridges, slot canyons, etc. Just an amazing natural landscape. There is so much natural beauty to be found in the world. What a joy it is to find it.
We haven’t yet visited the amazing landscape of southern Utah. I’ve seen many photos of the amazing rock formations there. Definitely a destination we would love to visit!
I, too, was going to mention the parks in southern Utah but see you beat me to it. Specifically, we visited Goblin Valley State Park, which has been used to represent a distant planet in the sci- fi comedy Galaxy Quest.
I remember that scene😊
Fascinating landscape that resembles southern Utah. Such unique beauty!
Ingrid, yes these two areas definitely share amazing rock formations. We haven’t yet seen the Utah structures in person, but definitely will.
Wow, the photos are just bewitching! It really looks like a pictures from another planet! Thanks for sharing!
Victoria, definitely an bewitching landscape. And we just scratched the surface of this amazing area!
Wow! This is a great read guys, and the photos are beautiful. I had no idea that these huge movies were filmed here either. Thanks for the education guys! 😎❤️
Thanks so much John. It’s on of those places that you keep getting amazing no matter which direction you look. I was surprised how many recent films have done some filming in Wadi Rum. There were even more movies filmed there that related to desert scenes, such as “Lawrence of Arabia”
I actually thought you were in the Southwest part of the US! And that one formation was Mexican Hat found here in the Southwest!
Amazing shots! And you should both come speak at out Rock and Mineral Club! We would love hearing your stories and the pictures that go with them.
Happy Friday to you both!
Thank you so much Nancy! Easy to take amazing photos in Wadi Rum. I can imagine the same can be said for your neck of the woods too!!
I’m flattered by the invite to your Rock and Mineral Club (sounds very intriguing). Logistics may be the hurdle however🇨🇦❄️
Fascinating info, Dave. Would this be similar to how the Hoodoos of Alberta were formed?
I think the Geologic and weathering process for the hoodoos is quite different than Wadi Rum. The Alberta hoodoos don’t have the salt erosion, or desert conditions. Although similarities would be around the soft sandstone being eroded and rounded.
Really enjoyed reading this post Dave. We were in Wadi Rum a few years ago and I wish we’d had a guide as informed as you! Great photos.
Thanks so much Carol. Our guide was great with the human history, but not quite a proficient with the geologic history. I puzzled over this with a retired geologist who was on the same tour of Wadi Rum. Neither of us quite had it figured out at the time.
Dave, You’re stunning photographs and fascinating information make for a great read. Like several others I was reminded of the American Southwest.
Thanks so much Wendy! Sue and I will have to revive our plans for a road trip through the Southwest on our way to California!
“your stunning photographs” 😉
Correction: “your stunning photographs” 😉
Incredible, Dave! Reminds me of a combo of my last 2 trips: Nizwa, Oman and Cappadocia, Turkey. Desert background with Mars-like formations. Loving these pictures.
Love all these unique areas of the world with the amazing geology!! Keep on discovering more!!!
Wow, what an amazing landscape! Thank you for sharing it, and a special thanks for the explanation of how it all came about. Geology has always fascinated me, so I really enjoy learning how such spectacular landforms came to be. 🙂
Thanks so much Diane. A fellow hobby geologist I see😊. Yes, the landscape was astounding! As usual, we didn’t spend enough time exploring this region (well at least as far as I was concerned!).
This landscape is quite spectacular and I love your last photo. Those people really show how vast the wadi is.
Thanks so much! Credit given to Sue for that amazing photo of the Bedouin men sitting on the sand dune overlooking the vastness of Wadi Rum!
Dave, you must have done a lot of research to write this brilliant post? I am yet to visit this area and now I really can’t wait to go. Incredibly beautiful landscape, it must have been magical to spend the night there in one of those Dome like tents? Beautiful photos!!
Thanks so much Gilda. Yes, I admit to doing a lot of research, but it was fun slowly figuring out what happened to create this magnificent part of the world. The Martian domes were incredible and very luxurious for being in the middle of a desert!
I’ll never forget our time in Wadi Rum (aka Mars)! Our guide was obsessed with the connection to the red planet, and he kept asking us if we’d seen the movie “The Martin.” We kept saying no, no, no until he mentioned meeting Matt Damon, at which point we realized he was just missing a vowel! 🙂 Silliness aside (although that is a big Wadi Rum memory!), we too found the landscape fantastically interesting from visual, geological, and many other standpoints. Thanks for the info, Science-y Dave!
(And yep, you guys need to get to Utah!)
Agreed Lexie, we need to get to Utah!
I love your story about your guide.
Hard not to be impressed by the Wadi Rum scenery. Truly amazing!
I’m more of a wannabe science-y guy 🙂
Dave, what a great post….love this pics. Beautiful rock strata! Looks like so many areas of the western US….thanks for sharing!
Thanks so much Kirt! Yes, lots of comparison to SW USA. A road trip to plan – someday!
I had heard if Wadi Rum, but never knew its history or visited. Looks very similar to southern Utah. The sandstone formations anyway. That last photo with the camel shadows is especially cool!