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49 Hours Out of Aqaba

text by Steve Pigott, images by Jared Ames

With a background in aerospace engineering, Steve Pigott is director of international business development for Lockheed Martin. A member of The Explorers Club since 2013, He has been trekking in the jungles and deserts of Africa and the Middle East for most of his adult life, and his research into the life of T.E. Lawrence has been carried out from the U.K. to the Holy Land for over a decade. He is also an avid mountaineer, climbing mostly in the Alps and Andes, and is a member of a long-term archaeological project in Jordan.

July 1917: Much of Europe is gripped by the unprecedented carnage of the First World War, yet far away, in a forgotten corner of the Ottoman Empire, a different kind of battle is being fought between the German-backed Turks and the Allies, led by the British Expeditionary Force. The Allies have been making little progress advancing into Palestine, and their hopes of taking Jerusalem and Damascus and driving the Turkish Army out of Arabia seemed to grow dimmer by the day.

Fighting on the side of the Allies was the army of the Arab Revolt, a movement begun by Sharif Hussein bin Ali of Mecca, based on promises made by the British and led by his sons Abdullah, the future king of Jordan, and Faisal, the future king of Iraq. With them is a then unknown British soldier named T. E. Lawrence, who after the war would come to be known to the world as Lawrence of Arabia. 

This enigmatic, ascetic, 29-year-old archaeologist, with no military training, had only recently been pressed into the British Army for the simple reason that the general he was presenting his maps to refused to be briefed by a civilian. No one could have imagined that this was another step in an extraordinary string of events that would lead to Lawrence’s becoming the most famous soldier of the war and one of the most controversial figures of the twentieth century.

Having worked on archaeological expeditions in the region, as well as having traveled by foot around the Holy Land working on his Oxford thesis, Lawrence had gained an unusual familiarity with the Middle East, as well as an affinity for its people. So when World War I spread to the region, it became his personal crusade to lift the yoke of the Ottoman Empire off of the inhabitants of Arabia and establish an independent Arab state. It was to this end, or so he believed, that the Allies had promised Arab autonomy in exchange for their assistance in fighting the Turkish empire.

His discovery, however, of the Sykes-Picot Agreement, a secret pact between the British and French to divide up Arabia following the war, convinced him of the need to the lead the Arab Revolt to victory on its own terms and to get to Damascus ahead of the British to make the Arab state a fait accompli. The first step in this audacious plan was to capture Aqaba, a critical port on the northeastern tip of the Red Sea. Militarily, this would be an enormous and much-needed strategic success for the Allies, but politically, Lawrence hoped it would thwart the postwar aims of his own country’s leaders.

On July 6, 1917, following a daring and brilliant desert movement, the unthinkable happened—with the fierce and charismatic Howeitat leader Auda Abu Tayi commanding the Bedouin forces—Lawrence and the Arab Revolt captured Aqaba. The town and the gorge that guarded its approach had been a hitherto unattainable goal for the Revolt and for the British Army. This amazing victory established the military bona fides of the Arab Revolt and would allow the Revolt to become the right flank of the Allied movement into Palestine and Syria, harassing the Turks on the eastern side of the Jordan River as the British moved up the western side. Given the strategic importance of Aqaba and the access it provided to the interior from the sea, the Turks were sure to mount a counterattack to retake Aqaba. With Lawrence’s own fighting force of 500 men there as well as local tribal allies and now 500 Turkish prisoners, and virtually no food or ammunition to sustain their position, the situation was dire and required immediate action. Lawrence had to get across the Sinai to British headquarters in Cairo as quickly as possible in order to get a reinforcement ship to Aqaba before the Turks arrived to recapture it. 

On July 7th, he departed Aqaba with a handful of Bedouin companions and crossed the Sinai on camel, and made it to a British post on the Suez Canal where he quickly organized a relief ship to Aqaba. Any delay in crossing the Sinai and getting relief to Aqaba would have meant the capture of Lawrence’s forces, the collapse of the Arab Revolt, and the loss of one of the key elements that would ultimately help win the war in the Middle East. According to his book, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, Lawrence crossed the Sinai and reached the Suez Canal “49 hours out of Aqaba.”

lure of the desert

In October 2003, I made my first camel trek across the Sinai. I had always been fascinated by the desert and by stories of Lawrence’s exploits in the area, and I wanted to experience the region and its people for myself. What I found was a beautiful and stark landscape filled with warm and welcoming Bedouin families, living off the land and roaming the vast landscapes with their camels as they have done for millennia. 

As I made more trips to the Sinai and learned more about Lawrence, I became particularly interested in his story of the capture of the Aqaba and the subsequent trek to secure it. In the years since he wrote Seven Pillars, many people have disputed some of Lawrence’s claims about his involvement in the Arab Revolt, but with the declassification of military documents decades after the war, the facts have largely shown that if anything, Lawrence understated his role. However, many have continued to question Lawrence’s story of crossing the Sinai Desert by camel in 49 hours straight. And so I resolved to find out whether or not it was possible to have done this.

Here began an odyssey—research, route tracing, government negotiations, camel training, fundraising. But an interesting thing happened along the way. This became more than just an attempt to retrace and corroborate an epic century-old journey. It became an exploration of the extraordinary impact Lawrence’s trek and subsequent exploits would have on the map of the modern Middle East and the evolution of the world as we know it. 

logistics in a changing political landscape

When Lawrence made his crossing in 1917, it was an open desert populated by roaming Bedouin tribes and families. A number of events, including the fateful Sykes-Picot Agreement, the Paris Peace Conference, and the Cairo Conference, redrew the borders of the Middle East, carving up the old Ottoman Empire into various states. The events and aftermath of the war also boosted Jewish migration to the area, which was subsequently accelerated further by World War II and the Holocaust, leading ultimately to the founding of the nation of Israel. Today, the route of Lawrence’s desert trek begins in Jordan, crosses Israel, and finishes in Egypt, moving over two borders that did not exist in 1917. This presented a number of logistical challenges to a modern-day expedition trying to move from Aqaba to Suez by camel in under 49 hours.

My original plan had been to take a single camel team from Jordan, as Lawrence did, cross Israel, and finish in Egypt, enlisting the aid of the three countries in the endeavor. All three were supportive of the project and were very helpful in trying to find a solution, including the possibility of breaching border fences so that I could make the journey unimpeded. However, cutting holes in fences in the turbulent geopolitical environment of today’s Middle East ultimately proved too difficult to consider, even for three supportive governments. So, the alternative was to use three separate camel teams, one for Jordan, one for Israel, and one for Egypt. 

Finding Jordanian camels is not difficult. Just up the road from Aqaba is the magnificent desert panorama of Wadi Rum, a vast, beautiful moonscape that factored heavily during the war as a staging area for Lawrence and the Arab Revolt and now is one of the main tourist attractions of Jordan. I had become friends with a number of camel owners in the Rum area and one of them, Ishmael, was happy for his beasts to be a part of this adventure. 

As simple as it is to organize an expedition in Wadi Rum, organizing one through Aqaba is another matter. The logistical hurdles in taking a camel team from the old fort in Aqaba, where Lawrence and his men departed from, and riding to the border with Israel were enormous. Fate smiled on us though the intervention of Ghassan, our Jordanian production coordinator and a prince of a guy, who negotiated his way through the trials we faced magnificently.

Finding Israeli camels was more difficult. After some searching, we connected with a fellow named Al Walidie near Mitzpe Ramon, about 160 kilometers north of our route through the coastal city of Eilat. When I went to meet Al Walidie and test out his camels, he regaled me with a magnificent story of the sheikh of his tribe, Audu abu Omar. In 1948, Audu was asked by David Ben-Gurion, the first prime minister of Israel, to lead a camel expedition from Beersheba to Eilat in order to survey the southern portion of the new state of Israel. Along on this camel expedition was Ben-Gurion’s protégé, a young Shimon Peres, who would later become prime minister himself. Al Walidie had wanted to retrace the steps of his sheikh’s historic journey to Eilat and the government permissions that we had secured for our own trek would allow him to do exactly that. We now had our Israeli camels.

The Egyptian camels were the easiest to coordinate but required the most preparation. Having trekked in the Sinai for years, my camel partner Doug Baum and I had many friends, all of whom were more than willing to help. We asked our friend Adel from Cairo to coordinate the lengthy preparation of the Egyptian camels as they would have the longest trek, a trek that was unique by 1917 standards and unheard of in 2017. Our old friends Naim and Taiwi, with whom I had first trekked 14 years earlier, were put in charge of the training, putting the camels through longer and longer paces over six months, like training for a marathon. During this period, as often as our travel schedules would allow, Doug and I would join them in the Sinai to ensure the preparations were on track. 

As for the route through Egypt, we were now out of the urban areas of Aqaba and Eilat and into open desert, which simplified things in a way. However, security in the Egyptian Sinai had deteriorated dramatically since the 2011 revolution that ousted Hosni Mubarak, and the relative calm that had existed here since the Israel-Egypt Peace of 1979 was no more. The Sinai was now another home to a pocket of ISIS terrorists.

A year before the trek, I had the great fortune to meet Ric Burns, one of today’s great documentary filmmakers. We discovered that  we shared a passion for T. E. Lawrence and the Middle East, and both a friendship and a partnership were born. Ric’s vision for a film about the trek and the evolution of the Middle East since then would take shape as we worked together on the project over the next 12 months.

across the sands of time

In July 2017, we were finally ready to test once and for all if it was possible to reach the Suez Canal “49 hours out of Aqaba.” On July 6, we held a ceremonial recapture of the old fort followed by a celebration to honor all the hard work that had gone into this project. The following morning, exactly one hundred years after the original trek, we mounted our camels to depart for the Suez Canal.

The Aqaba police stopped traffic along the roads and bewildered motorists looked on as we left the fort and headed for the border. We negotiated our way through the streets of Aqaba and then wound our way through Ayla, Jordan’s newest and largest commercial development. This enormous complex of hotels, condominiums, and golf courses dominated the seashore all the way to the border with Israel. As we made our way through the development, the anachronism of the moment was lost on no one.

At the border fence, we stopped the 49-hour clock and dismounted. After a few hurried pictures, we left Ishmael and the camels, hopped in waiting vehicles and headed for the border crossing. Having passed through the border facility many times over the past few weeks, they knew us well and were expecting us, and we moved through quickly. On the Israeli side, we were met by Arie, who manages the border there.

Moving again into waiting vehicles, we drove quickly back to the beach on the Israeli side opposite where we had stopped in Jordan. Al Walidie’s camels had completed their own historic trek from Mitzpe Ramon and were awaiting our arrival, and we mounted and headed into Eilat. After a short walk along the sand, we crossed over the narrow pedestrian bridge, for which the camels needed quite a bit of urging to cross, and then onto the pedestrian mall. 

To ensure the safety of the people enjoying a day at the beach as well as the safety of those of us on camels, we were accompanied by police in carts and on foot, who surrounded us on all sides. It was an odd scene, this team of camels among the hotels and cafes of the Eilat tourist district. Finally, we worked our way through the pedestrian mall and onto the city streets before starting our long climb up to the Sinai escarpment.

This is the steepest and most difficult part of the trek. In Seven Pillars, Lawrence wrote that here “both men and camels were trembling with fatigue.” Our camels, not battle hardened as his were, felt the effects even more. They revolted before we reached the top, kneeling down in the middle of the road. We had no option but to get off and walk/pull them up the steep gradient. Finally we reached a point where the grade leveled a bit and we were able to remount and ride on.

After pushing on up the steep climb, we finally reached the crest of the road, which topped out exactly at the border with Egypt before turning north toward Beersheba. This was our terminus in Israel, and Ric and the camera team were there to meet us, with grave and disturbing news. An hour earlier, there had been an ISIS attack just across the border that had killed 23 Egyptian soldiers. It was clear that our trek would not be continuing in Egypt today.

best laid plans on hold

The irony of the day’s sad events was deeply felt by all as we pondered the tragic loss of life and the unfortunate state of affairs in this beautiful and complex land. There are many causes for the rise of ISIS, and they will be debated long after its evil has been eradicated from the Earth, but prominent among them is their rejection of the Middle East borders created in the wake of World War I. Their leader, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, even stated when symbolically crossing the Iraq-Syria border, “This is the end of Sykes-Picot.” Few people besides scholars and those with a keen interest in the region, are familiar with this century-old agreement that redefined the Middle East, but to its inhabitants the Sykes-Picot Agreement is still an intimate and defining feature of daily life. 

The trek we were re-creating is of course intrinsically linked to Sykes-Picot, not least because Lawrence’s fervent hope was that the fall of Aqaba and the race across Sinai would nullify its effects. Now, a century later, our trek had been halted by the actions of a terrorist group that traces its origins to the unintended consequences of the historical trek that we were re-creating.

And so our quest to retrace Lawrence’s history-making trek has been completed in Jordan and Israel, but not in Egypt, for now. We are continuing to work with Egypt’s government and military to finalize the timeline for completing the journey. Until that happens—or perhaps until peace has finally returned to the Sinai—we will not know if it is possible to reach Suez “49 hours out of Aqaba.”   

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