Jordan’s Eastern Desert Crossroads

In this remote corner of Jordan - a place T.E. Lawrence once called home - one can find wetlands, extinct volcanoes, castles and even Chechen water buffalo.

A sandy landscape in the Badia region of the Eastern Desert of Jordan

© John Zada

How anyone could know where to drive off a flat desert highway without the benefit of landmarks or a GPS, to find a little known fortress that is poorly depicted on maps and hidden in a wilderness of rock, was the question I kept turning in my head, as Ahmed al-Shalaan steered our vehicle tentatively off the asphalt.

“I came this way, once before, many years ago,” he said, smiling as though he had divined my thoughts.

As a member of one of Jordan’s many Bedouin families, Ahmad al-Shalaan – also known as Abu’l Shalaan- had an internal guidance system of gold. It was one predicated on genetic and collective memory, and which bordered on the metaphysical. It didn’t matter that he was unfamiliar with this part of the Jordanian desert. The fact that these were his ancestral stomping grounds meant that he could improvise without fear of failure.

Once off the road, he gunned the vehicle, navigating the pebble-strewn tracks like a man possessed. Outside, a vast emptiness presided. Old tire tracks lacerated the cracked desert floor, while in the distance mirages undulated along the little-changing horizon.

In less than an hour we were at the edge of a field of black basalt stones. Abu’l Shalaan pointed to what looked like a finger of rock sticking up from the others in the distance. Following a rough path, we continued on until we reached a fortress set in a depression beside a pond of murky water and reeds.

This was Qasr Burqu, a lonely desert outpost once occupied by the Nabateans, the Romans, and the Umayyad Muslims. It is also one of Jordan’s least known and most remote archeological sites. We were exploring the country’s far-flung Eastern Desert; a desolate region located in the Jordanian panhandle and hemmed in by Syria to the north, Saudi Arabia to the south and Iraq to the east. It is an area known to Jordanians as “al-Badia” (pronounced “BAD-yeah”)—a classical Arabic word meaning both “arid area” and “the place where the Bedouin come from.” Although the Badia includes most desert areas in Jordan, including places frequented by tourists, its easternmost part remains a world apart.

I had passed through this area briefly in 2003. Like other journalists at the time, I’d made the trip east along that flat-line countenance of highway that connects Jordan’s capital, Amman, to the city of Baghdad in Iraq. Just after the American invasion, this road (a Middle Eastern version of Route 66) became a busy thoroughfare of reporters, aid workers, contractors and refugees running the gauntlet to and from a city in the grip of apocalypse.

My only memories of the 11-hour journey through the desert were of the faceless emanations of its Mars-like landscape. This certainly wasn’t the Jordan of billboard tourist ads. Yet the area was, and continues to be, one of the great interstices of the Middle East. It is also a compelling alternative for anyone with an adventurous spirit who wants to go beyond Jordan’s more conventional attractions.

From that point of view, Qasr Burqu did not disappoint. This unknown fort built thousands of years ago remains hidden in an oasis surrounded by a deserted sea of jet-black stone. Moreover, there were none of the usual ticket stalls, guided tours, rows of buses or trumped up displays of local hospitality so common in the rest of the country. There was nothing to do here but take in a scene that had changed little for millennia.

Abu’l Shalaan got out of the vehicle and parked himself quietly on the edge of the pond. He took a front row seat before an unlikely group of birds and insects, and amid a spectacular silence. I followed suit, embracing a moment in which less was certainly much more.

*

It isn’t easy to describe, let alone hold in one’s mind, a mostly flat and featureless expanse of desert. Perhaps that’s why few Jordanians or foreigners venture east of Amman, preferring instead the tangible draws found along the north-south axis of the country. The Eastern Desert, considered by many to be a veritable badland, has none of the sexiness and shock-and-awe allure of Petra, Wadi Rum, Aqaba or the Dead Sea. Its landscapes, far from being epic or grandiose, are highly subdued, offering a beauty which is, at best, gnarled and moribund. It is also largely empty. And unlike Jordan’s other regions, it requires its visitors to scratch beneath the surface to find its loftier qualities.

A rocky landscape in the Badia region of the Eastern Desert of Jordan

© John Zada

The first impression of the Eastern Desert is often one of inhospitableness, even impregnability. Its western half is punctuated by a handful of extinct volcanoes; dark and mysterious hills that loom broodingly in the distance and that break the monotony of the flat expanse. The lava flows from those volcanoes, whose last eruptions occurred several million years ago, have littered the desert floor with black basalt stones. They make navigation difficult for any creature travelling on foot, and make off-roading by vehicle nearly impossible. So wide and dense is this mesmerizing field of rock that all the inhabitants of Jordan would have to work for 10,000 years to rid the landscape of them.

Moving east, this basalt zone gives way to an area known as the Rweishid Desert—an undulating flat limestone plateau that reaches to, and beyond, the borders of Iraq. Here, the rugged and infernal-looking basalt desert becomes a dusty, beige, and dreamlike wasteland, whose intimations of al-Anbar province in neighbouring Iraq make one feel as if the long arm of Mesopotamia had suddenly reached into Jordan. Micro-regions mixing the two geographies, some of which contain vegetated wadis, can be found throughout the Eastern Desert.

Although home to small villages and semi-nomadic Bedouin, the real legacy and continuing importance of this area is as a transit route connecting neighbouring countries and empires. Greeks, Romans, Byzantines and Arabs established strategic trade routes here linking the cities along the Arabian Peninsula, Syria and Iraq with one another. Because of this, the Eastern Desert in Jordan is home to dozens of archaeological sites, many of which are cloaked by their ambiguity and small size.

A fresco painting in the desert castle of Qusayr Amra in Jordan

© John Zada

On my way into the desert from Amman, I stopped to visit the area’s “Desert Castles”. These small, singular fortresses were once used as military outposts, hunting lodges and caravanserais by the Damascus-based Umayyad Caliphs in the 7th and 8th centuries A.D. Many of them were built upon the foundations of earlier Greek and Roman structures. The Umayyads used these outposts not only to socially engage face-to-face with their Bedouin subjects, but in the case of at least one castle, to cast off social and religious codes of conduct. The Umayyad Caliph, Walid I, used Qusayr Amra, now a UNESCO World Heritage site, in the 8th century as a private party-palace in the desert. To this day its interior remains adorned with Byzantine-style mosaics depicting scenes of nudity, dancing and wine-fuelled revelry. Its uber-remote location ensured that no one would ever stumble unwittingly upon the Caliph’s forbidden soirées.

Today, the type and volume of traffic passing near these castles is a testament to the continuing importance of the area as a transport hub. Trucks ply the adjacent desert roads carrying goods between Syria, Iraq and Saudi Arabia. Bedouin smugglers, whose kinship networks transcend international boundaries, ferry forbidden commodities across the various frontiers by night. Along the desert’s main lifeline, the long highway connecting Amman to Baghdad, gargantuan SUVs ply the 870-kilometre route in both directions carrying humanitarian aid workers, Muslim pilgrims and Iraqi refugees. (Supply columns for the American military relied heavily on the route at the height of the U.S. occupation of Iraq a few years ago).

After sauntering through the haunted recesses of a few of the desert castles, I travelled east to Azraq Oasis, the unofficial hub of this ancient crossroads region. Appearing as little more than a sprawling truck stop, the town was the closest thing to a properly equipped community in the region. I would make it my base for the coming days. And, as I discovered, there was more to the town than its steady traffic of lorries, its vehicle repair shops, and a general demeanour of dusty dishevelment.

*

When I was told that a local character named Ahmed al-Shalaan (called Abu’l Shalaan by his friends) would be my driver and guide, I had no idea I would have as my chaperon a local dignitary whose life and origins were so intricately tied to the region I was exploring. His quiet and courteous manner, built upon a solid edifice of Bedouin honour, belied a comical streak and gregarious nature. Always decked out in crisp, spotless khakis and a baseball cap, this 53-year-old former nature reserve manager has lived through some of the most difficult years in al-Azraq’s long history. And like many Bedouin his age and older, Abu’l Shaalan’s life has straddled the often turbulent divide between tradition and modernity.

“I’ve been around for decades and I’ve seen what this place used to be,” Abu’l Shalaan told me, with a touch of melancholy, as we strolled along a wooden bridge. “It’s a complete tragedy.”

For thousands of years, Azraq Oasis was known far and wide for its huge abundance of water. Not only were the life-giving pools and mudflats of this strategically-located oasis important for the sustenance of both settled and nomadic peoples in the region, but it also provided a haven for migratory birds that used the area as a pit-stop for flights between Asia and Africa. The oasis’s legendary waters (from which Azraq, meaning “blue” in Arabic, derives its name) were so famed that migrants from nearby regions travelled there to start new lives. Both Chechens from the Russian Caucasus, and Druze peoples from present-day Syria and Lebanon flocked to Azraq in the early 20th century to escape persecution in their home countries. They are communities that endure in al-Azraq to this day.

Life in al-Azraq was once idyllic. Abu’l Shalaan tells me that his earliest memories are of a life in close communion with nature. He spent many of his waking moments swimming in the pools, catching fish, hunting birds, and using the water to wash clothes and irrigate crops. “It was a simpler life,” he says.

A park warden at the Azraq Wetland Reserve, Jordan © John Zada

Abu’l Shalaan at Azraq Wetland Reserve © John Zada

But the innocent and untouched nature of al-Azraq that led to those special memories would not endure. By the 1970s, large-scale extraction of groundwater from the Azraq Basin began in order to supply the growing cities of Amman and Zarqa with much needed drinking water. In a region beset by epic water shortages, the Jordanian Government’s decision to draw upon al-Azraq’s lifeblood seemed essential and inevitable. By early 1993, most of the 25 square kilometres of surface water of the oasis had vanished. A small-scale, international rescue effort to revive the pools began almost immediately, but yielded mediocre results. Today, at any given time only a small fraction of the wetland’s original surface area remains. And much of that water has to be continually pumped in. Meanwhile, the groundwater continues to be extracted to service nearby cities.

“Officially, 26 million cubic metres of water are taken from al-Azraq every year, but the actual number is more than double that,” says Odeh al-Meshan, the Director of the Badia Research and Development Center, an organization devoted to the sustainable development of Jordan’s desert regions. “The problem is that about 40 percent of the water extraction is unlicensed. The private sector is taking that additional water. The Syrians, too, across the border, are siphoning off much of the natural run-off that used to replenish the Azraq basin.”

Abu’l Shalaan took me on a walking tour of the Azraq Wetland Reserve. The Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature (RSCN), manages the area. In spite of the tragedy at al-Azraq, what remains of the wetlands is still highly unique for the region, existing in stark contrast to the surrounding desert. Herds of water buffalo (descendants of animals brought to al-Azraq by Chechen migrants) bask in the wetlands and roam the dry reed beds on the edges of the pools. Dragonflies and birds of every variety flit about over the waters. It is an ancient eco-system that is, sadly, just clinging to life.

From the wetlands, Abu’l Shalaan and I drove a few kilometres to the Shaumari Wildlife Reserve. The 22-square-kilometre fenced-off park, created by the RSCN, has been a breeding centre for the globally threatened Arabian oryx – a medium sized, long-horned antelope that is held in reverence throughout Arabia. When we drove onto the grounds of the reserve, a semi-arid scrubland resembling the southern fringes of the Sahara, Abu’l Shalaan became visibly more upbeat. He had devoted a large part of his life to helping develop the reserve, a role for which he is well known in al-Azraq today.

The son of a Bedouin policeman of modest means, and one of eight children, Abu’l Shalaan spent much of his childhood and adolescence herding sheep and goat. Later, following stints with the Jordanian military and with the Ministry of Agriculture, he joined the RSCN in 1983 as a driver whose job it was to patrol the boundaries of Shaumari. When the Jordanian Government embarked on its ambitious plan to breed eight endangered Arabian Oryx (which were hunted to extinction in Jordan in the 1920s), Abu’l Shalaan was promoted to the position of “Oryx Observer.”

“These were the best years of my life,” he told me, as we walked into the holding area where the oryx were being kept while renovations took place on the reserve. As an oryx observer Abu’l Shalaan worked every day feeding and watering the animals, providing veterinary services and monitoring their behaviour and mating habits. The lay team, of which he was part, knew little about the enigmatic animals at first, and were doing their own research much in the same way professional wildlife biologists do in the field.

By 1997, the oryx population on the reserve had exploded to an astonishing 236 animals. Jordan started exporting the animals to other Middle Eastern countries like Oman, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Saudi Arabia—nations whose own oryx populations had also vanished. Those countries viewed the animal as a lost heritage whose revival became an issue of cultural identity and national prestige. Abu’l Shalaan’s contribution at Shaumari was integral to that success—one that involved a concerted, international effort of zoos and conservationists from around the world. Just a year later he was made manager of the reserve. It was a position he retained until his retirement from it in 2010.

Arabian oryx at the Shaumani Wildlife Reserve, Jordan

Arabian oryx at the Shaumani Wildlife Reserve © John Zada

He and I entered the enclosure to see the skittish oryx up close as they were being fed. Their long javelin-like horns and docile appearance gave them an almost mythological appearance. I felt like I was gazing upon the distant cousin of a unicorn. Perhaps it was seeing them inside a fenced enclosure, rather than in an open habitat, that made it feel as though the headier days at Shaumari, when the species was pulled back from the brink of extinction, were now long gone.

Only 30 of the oryx remain today at the reserve (out of a revived world population of several thousand) along with a few ostriches, gazelle and onagers. Though the animals are of interest, the original impetus of the reserve now felt somewhat lost. And when Abu’l Shalaan introduced me to his former colleagues, including his successor, they appeared more like basic caretakers charged with upkeep, rather than the pioneering wildlife officers he described from his days there. But they were more than welcoming. We all sat together and shared tea and a water-pipe into the early evening, as they and Abu’l Shalaan exchanged gossip.

During the discussion, which touched upon old times, I saw Abu’l Shalaan disappear into the recesses of his memory. By the look on his face, he had gone back many years. When I asked him later how he felt about being back at Shaumari, he gave me a bit of a pained look, shrugging his arms in a fashion that seemed to ask: “What can I do?”

He opened up moments later. “It’s hard when the best days of your life seem behind you,” he said.

Yet after a long ponderous moment, his mood sweetened. Shrugging off the gloom, he smiled and added optimistically, almost matter-of-factly: “Allah Kareem.” God is generous.

*

Revolt in the Desert, by T.E. LawrenceThe good old days of al-Azraq that Abu’l Shalaan harkened to could still be captured with a good book and a little imagination. A week prior to leaving for Jordan, I happened upon an old copy of T.E. Lawrence’s Revolt in the Desert, the 1927 abridgement of his magnum opus, Seven Pillars of Wisdom. The famed World War One British officer, who led a Bedouin guerilla war against the Ottoman Turks in what is now Jordan and Syria, used al-Azraq, and particularly its ancient fortress Qasr al-Azraq, as his base in the winter of 1917-1918.

In his book Lawrence recounts his arrival in the oasis, and the moment he approached the large, ancient castle. “We hurried up the stony ridge in high excitement, talking of the wars and songs and passions of the early shepherd kings…and of the Roman legionnaires who languished here as garrison in yet earlier times,” he writes. “Then the blue fort on its rock above the rustling palms, with the fresh meadows and shining springs of water, broke on our sight and halted us.”

Lawrence, who achieved mythical status following his accidental death in 1935 at the age of 46, was well acquainted with the Middle East. In the period just before World War One, he crisscrossed the region learning Arabic, working on archaeological digs and surveying Crusader castles. As a British intelligence officer during The Great War, his efforts to unite disparate Bedouin tribes into an irregular fighting force against the Ottoman Turks would earn him a special notoriety—and would later prove to be a boon for Jordan’s tourist industry. Aqaba and Wadi Rum, popular destinations in Jordan, are both tied to the eccentric British officer’s exploits and are featured in the classic film, Lawrence of Arabia. A shorter, less memorable, scene in the movie shows Lawrence taking shelter from the winter cold in a castle, which could be none other than the fort at al-Azraq.

Dating back to 300 B.C., Qasr al-Azraq is a sprawling fortress located near the wetlands. Because the castle flies under the radar of most travellers, you won’t find the big crowds or tourist amenities present at Jordan’s other sites—which is a kind of blessing. In addition to seeing Roman antiquities, a visitor to the castle can gaze upon Lawrence’s alleged sleeping quarters, located just above the main gates with a view of the surrounding desert. Though I didn’t have the fortune of making my own base among such dwellings as Lawrence did, I did manage to find accommodations nearby that were tinged with a similar history.

I took a room at the nearby Azraq Eco-Lodge, a former military field hospital of the British-controlled Arab Legion dating back to 1940s. Before becoming a hotel, the building had experienced several incarnations, serving as a hospital, a school, a wildlife research station, and a hunting club. Situated on a hill, with a view of the town’s dusty air force base and filled with military bric-a-brac (munitions crates double as coffee tables) the lodge exudes a very British, colonial vibe. The rooms, housed in a newer concrete building next door, are no-frills, Spartan dwellings containing cots. To the rear is a high concrete wall raised, presumably, to prevent aspiring spies from either photographing or gazing at the F-16 Fighters taking off and landing at the nearby Jordanian air force base.

Despite its bare-bones feel, the place was chock-full of character. I spent many evenings filling my belly with the excellent home-cooked Chechen meals of lamb dumplings and broiled chicken, and later, huddling by candlelight with hot tea made from locally grown rosemary, as the howling desert wind blew outside. These were the moments when I planned the next days’ trips with Abu’l Shalaan.

He and I covered much ground that week, visiting several hard-to-get-to places that barely see a trickle of visitors. In addition to catching the far-flung archeological site of Qasr Burqu located in the Jordanian panhandle near Iraq, we visited the enigmatic basalt fortress of Qasr Aseikhim, a tiny ruin capping a small volcanic hill to the north of al-Azraq.

A separate excursion further north and west took us to one of the most remarkable and little known ancient cities in the Middle East. Just a few kilometres south of Jordan’s border with Syria, on the western edge of the lava flows beneath Jebel Druze, lies the black basalt city of Umm al-Jimal. Translating to “Mother of Camels,” and known by archeologists as the “Black Gem of the Desert,” it’s a massive sprawl of a city containing the partly intact remains of about 150 buildings spanning different epochs. Umm al-Jimal was a trading post dating back to Nabatean times in the 1st century A.D., up until its destruction in an earthquake in 747 A.D.

The archeological site of Umm al-Jimal, in northern Jordan

The stone ruins of Umm al-Jimal © John Zada

Unlike other ancient cities in the Middle East, Umm al-Jimal does not look its age. The cataclysmic quake, which leveled its buildings, could have happened just last week. I was as shocked by the site’s impressive size as I was by the fact that there was virtually no one there. The only living things we encountered were a few local workers excavating at the edge of the city, and some darkling beetles that were trudging among the ruins, camouflaged by the charcoal-coloured rock.

Abu’l Shalaan and I spent hours walking through Umm al-Jimal, exploring hidden nooks and climbing collapsed walls. The whole time I kept thinking that even though I’d been to Jordan several times before, and was familiar with the country, I had never once heard of Umm al-Jimal.

Tantalized by the prospect of seeing more of the unknown, I convinced Abu’l Shalaan to take me to the region just south of al-Azraq, abutting the Saudi Arabian border. It appeared as a blank area on the map. We drove one hour to the frontier town of al-Uman, and just before reaching the border crossing turned onto the flat desert, following tire tracks running parallel with the border.

This excursion took us into an entirely new area devoid of the usual basalt rock landscapes. A plateau system of chalk white cliffs, known by the local Bedouin as “ad-Thahek” (meaning “the one who laughs” because the pale rock is said to resemble teeth), was the first landmark we encountered.

We scaled the plateau with our truck, then drove back down a wadi on the other side, heading westward into a hazy, dreamlike landscape punctuated by the odd palm tree and flat-topped monoliths. The unmarked Saudi border loomed a few kilometres to our right.

“We are in an area called al-Hazem,” Abu’l Shalaan said, with a mild sense of trepidation. “You’ll find here many border patrols because smugglers come this way at night.”

“What are these smugglers carrying?” I asked.

“Hashish from Lebanon, cigarettes—anything,” he said. “They make a lot of money because the demand for goods in Saudi is high. But if they’re caught, especially on the other side of that border, God help them.”

After encountering some friendly border patrol agents and a Sudanese camel herder just a few hundred metres from the frontier, we decided to turn back north in the direction of al-Azraq. A dust storm was moving into the area, and we thought it wise to keep a healthy distance from the frontier lest we cross it by mistake, and find ourselves in a mess with the authorities. But as we moved north, al-Hazem’s forbidden, twilight-zoney feel gave way to an even bleaker, more austere topography of total desert emptiness. The area here was so bereft of landmarks that even Abu’l Shalaan, who drew upon a heretofore reliable inner compass, seemed to lose his bearing at times.

The endless tedium of nothingness was broken as we came upon a spectacular sight. In the distance, dozens of camels appeared, spread out like ships across the horizon. As we got closer we discerned two figures that turned out to be their handlers—an older man, and a young boy. Abu’l Shalaan drove up to the man, a dust-covered Bedouin shepherd of advanced age, who appeared lost in another reality.

Bedouin man, Eastern Desert, Jordan

Abu Mutarrad © John Zada

The shepherd’s name was Abu Mutarrad, and he was from the Rwala tribe. He and Abu’l Shalaan exchanged pleasantries—Bedouin small talk, marked by a brief discussion of families and lineages. During a pause in the exchange, Abu Mutarrad asked if he could have the bottle of water he spotted in the back of our vehicle. When given the bottle, he asked Abu’l Shalaan what the date was.

“It’s the 28th,” my guide responded.

The shepherd nodded, mumbling something inaudible to himself, before drifting into a light trance. Then, as if suddenly remembering why he had asked, he added: “Yes, but what month is it?”

After telling him it was April, Abu’l Shalaan threw me an amused side-glance.

We eventually bid the Bedouin salaam, and pushed north again towards al-Azraq. While driving, I asked Abu’l Shalaan why the shepherd had asked about the date.

“He has to return to his village at a certain point so that his son could resume school,” he said. “Some of the older desert Bedouin still don’t pay much attention to things like time. In the past, before clocks and watches, there were only the seasons and cyclical religious observances. Abu Mutarrad still has one foot in that life. It’s not so common anymore.”

As we neared al-Azraq, groves of olive trees heralded our emergence from the deep desert wilds. The oasis mudflats, dried and cracked from a recent drought, appeared on the outskirts of town, as white clouds with calligraphic edges sailed upon a dry wind blowing across the parched landscape.

Jordan’s Eastern Desert was a crossroads world, living in a timeless continuum of past, present and future. It was also a place lying fallow on the margins of a Middle East, where the tides of change are lapping ever stronger, ahead of some new, unstoppable epoch.

This article ran in the Spring 2012 issue of Outpost magazine.

 

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