As Jordan’s only oasis, AZRAQ, 100km east of Amman, has always been a crossroads for international traffic. In the past, its location at the head of the Wadi Sirhan, the main caravan route from Arabia to Syria (known as the Wadi al-Azraq before its settlement by the bedouin Sirhan tribe), meant that Azraq was both a vital trading post and a defensive strongpoint. The Romans built a fort here – Qasr Azraq – which was continuously renovated over the succeeding centuries and chosen, in 1917, as his headquarters by Lawrence of Arabia.
Today, traffic passes through Azraq from five directions: highways from Syria to the north, Iraq to the east, Saudi Arabia to the south, Amman and Zarqa to the west, and the Red Sea port of Aqaba to the southwest ensure that heavy lorries thunder through the little town 24 hours a day on their way somewhere else. On the approach roads, it’s not uncommon to see road-trains of twenty or thirty trucks nose-to-tail, trundling slowly through the desert together. As a consequence, half of Azraq is given over to roadside restaurants, the other half to mechanics’ workshops. (There has been talk of a new highway bypass, much to the chagrin of local business-owners; you may find construction under way when you visit.)
It takes imagination to enjoy a stay in Azraq, but despite the drawbacks of traffic and neglect, this is a unique place with simple charms. It also has virtually the only tourist accommodation in the entire eastern desert region.
Large numbers of Paleolithic hand axes and flint tools have been discovered around Azraq oasis, indicating a substantial settlement up to 200,000 years ago: it seems that malachite was being brought from as far away as Ain Ghazal, near Amman, to be worked into delicate and beautiful earrings at Azraq. The Romans built a fort on the site of Qasr Azraq in the third century. Qasr Azraq was also used by the Byzantines and the Umayyads, and was rebuilt in 1237 by the Ayyubid governor Azz ad-Din Aybak, shortly after the Ayyubid leader Salah ad-Din had expelled the main Crusader force from east of the Jordan. Still in use under the Mamlukes and the Ottomans, the qasr was occupied during the winter of 1917–18 by Lawrence and the armies of the Arab Revolt; their final attack on Damascus, which saw the collapse of Ottoman power, was launched from here.
After World War I, wandering Druze, from Jabal Druze nearby in southern Syria, occupied the castle for a while, also founding the village outside the walls. The volcanic plains spreading south from Jabal Druze engulf the castle, and their village was – and still is – dominated by hard black-grey basalt, which is very difficult to cut and dress, giving a lumpy, unfinished look to the older parts of the village. Although some Druze became farmers, most earned their livelihood from salt production.
Barely a decade later, Chechens arrived at Azraq following a great emigration in 1898 from Russian persecution in their homeland in the Caucasus. They settled about 7km south of the Druze village, on flat ground near three springs feeding a large area of wetland marsh. The basalt runs out in a remarkably clear line of scarps about 4km south of the Druze village and the new settlement instead lay in an area of limestone. Most of the Chechen émigrés became farmers and fisherfolk. To differentiate between the two villages, the first became known as Azraq Druze, the second as Azraq Shishan.
Nowadays, with a more mixed population, Azraq Druze is officially Azraq ash-Shomali (North Azraq) and Azraq Shishan is Azraq al-Janubi (South Azraq) – though the old names survive in the minds of most locals. Today, the two Azraqs have a combined population of about twelve thousand, not including the large contingents of Jordanian and US air force personnel quartered at the giant airbase just outside town.