Jordan tends to be defined as a desert land, but most people – locals as well as visitors – don’t ever get to know the desert, spending virtually all their time in the fertile, relatively well-watered strip of hilly territory running down the western part of the country. Yet more than eighty percent of Jordanian territory comprises the Badia (pronounced bad-ya; from the same root as “bedouin”). This hard-to-define term may be translated as “desert”, but you should banish ideas of classic rolling dune-scapes: gravelly badia desert, though arid and wild, is richer in both flora and fauna than the sandy sahra deserts of Arabia and North Africa.
Jordan’s Badia divides into three sectors. The areas around Wadi Rum in the Southern Badia are now widely known, but much less is understood about the vast stony deserts which stretch east of Amman and Mafraq, and south to Qatraneh. Beyond the Central Badia around Azraq, the Northern Badia, hemmed into Jordan’s long panhandle, remains terra incognita for most visitors. It lacks the drama of Rum’s soaring cliffs and red sand dunes, yet holds some of the most striking scenery in the country, from the black, boulder-strewn, volcanic harra desert near the Syrian border out to the undulating limestone plateau of the hamad desert in the farthest corners of the country near Iraq.
This is also one of Jordan’s most rewarding areas for birdwatching. Recent animal sightings have included the sand cat, the Levantine viper and Tilbury’s Spring-Footed Lizard, all of them rarities, and ongoing investigations have turned up 49 plant species new to science. In addition, there’s a handful of relatively minor archeological sites that serve as a useful hook on which to hang a visit. Everything centres on the small, dusty town of Safawi: north lie the ruins of Jawa, a long-abandoned city; south is the holy tree of Biqyawiyya which, legend has it, once sheltered the Prophet Muhammad; and east, barely 50km from the Iraqi border, is the astonishing, mirage-like apparition of the glittering lake and ruined black castle of Burqu.Read More
On the western edge of Safawi town is the junction of the roads to Mafraq and Azraq. Almost exactly 15km along the Azraq road – but without any signs or noticeable landmarks – a side-track branches off the highway on a lovely journey towards the holy tree of Biqyawiyya, well worth the tough, 35-minute ride by 4×4 across open country.
As soon as you leave the Safawi–Azraq highway, the track deteriorates to reveal an old, 5m-wide cambered roadway, known to locals as the “British Road”, made of fieldstones packed together, with defined kerbstones and a central spine. This leads dead straight out across the undulating desert, visible for miles ahead without diversion; from satellite imagery it appears to follow the line of the Trans-Arabian Pipeline (or “Tapline”), built in 1947–50 to transport oil from the Saudi Gulf coast to Sidon in Lebanon, but disused in Jordan since 1990. Watch for kilometre markers all along the side of this route: the first, just off the highway, is 978; after 3km of a very bumpy ride you pass a modern brick hut marked “Km 975”. Around 1500m further across the stony desert is a gentle rise, on the far side of which – in a memorable flourish of natural drama – stretches a vast area of fertile rolling grassland, often dotted with standing water, soft on the eye and echoing with the calls of swooping birds. A little after Km 970 is another small rise, which gives onto more gentle countryside in the area known as Biqyawiyya. Shortly after you’ll be able to see the holy tree itself, located about 300m past Km 967.
In his youth, the Prophet Muhammad is said to have travelled at the behest of a wealthy widow Khadija (who later became his wife) from his hometown of Mecca north across the desert to Syria. Accompanying Muhammad on this trading mission was Khadija’s slave, Maysarah. During the journey the caravan stopped for a break near the remote home of a Christian monk named Bahira. While Muhammad rested under a wild pistachio tree, Bahira came up to Maysarah and asked, “Who is that man?” – to which Maysarah replied, “That is one of the tribe of Quraysh, who guard the Kaaba in Mecca.” In a reply which has passed into folklore, Bahira then said, “No one but a Prophet is sitting beneath that tree.” Islamic tradition holds that the particular tree beneath which Muhammad rested still lives. There are competing claims, but the prime candidate stands far out in the desert south of Safawi. The fact that dendrochronologists have estimated the tree’s age at only around 500 years detracts from the power of the legend not one jot.
The holy tree
The holy tree of Biqyawiyya stands in a beautiful setting on the edge of a flowing stream feeding a modern reservoir. It’s the only tree within view – indeed, just about the only tree visible on the entire journey from Safawi – in a peaceful and pleasant spot, from where vast panoramas stretch out across the open desert. Bear in mind, however, that this is a holy place, and that the local bedouin as well as pilgrims from around Jordan and beyond make the long journey here specifically in order to pray and spend time alone or with their families in the presence of the Prophet. Frivolity, or stripping off to go bathing in the temptingly cool water, would be most disrespectful, as would tampering in any way either with the tree itself or with the strips of cloth which pilgrims leave tied to the lower branches as a mark of respect.
East of Safawi: towards Iraq
East of Safawi: towards Iraq
A short way east of Safawi, the highway crosses the Wadi Rajil, which feeds water falling on Jabal Druze in Syria south to Azraq. Soon after, you pass alongside the prominent Jibal Ashqaf mountains, looming on both sides above the rolling slopes of black rocks (overlaying yellowish sand) which fill the immensely long sightlines in all directions. The Ashqaf area marks a watershed, since the large Wadi Ghsayn, which runs alongside the road further east, drains water into the flat Qa Abul Ghsayn and then to Burqu and north into Syria. As you head on east, you cross the dividing line between the black stony harra desert and flatter limestone hamad, which stretches east to the Iraqi border and is much more soothing on the eye.
Some 90km east of Safawi, Muqat is the starting point for a journey north along the Wadi Muqat into the roadless desert towards Burqu.
The qasr at BURQU (pronounced “beurkaa” with a throaty gargle: “berkoo” is wrong) is a small Roman fort, occupied and expanded during the Islamic period, that can be grouped – archeologically speaking – with the “Desert Castles” of Hallabat, Azraq and others. However, the ruins take a poor second place to Burqu’s extraordinary natural environment, both on the off-road journey to reach the site and once you arrive. The qasr stands on the shores of Ghadir Burqu, a substantial lake some 2km long which is fabulous enough in itself, hidden in the depths of the desert, but which also serves as the lifeline and congregation point for an array of animals and local and migrating birds. Proposed to become a protected nature reserve, Burqu is a wild and dramatic place, well worth the long and difficult journey. It lies at the focal point of desert tracks roughly 18km north of Muqat and 25km northwest of Ruwayshid, and is all but impossible to locate without the help of a guide with intimate local knowledge.
The dam and castle
The dam 2km north of the qasr (which led to the lake’s formation) and the jagged, broken-off tower which still rises above the ruined walls of the castle are thought to have been constructed in the third century, possibly to guard the water source for caravans travelling between Syria and Arabia. Inhabited throughout the Byzantine period – possibly as a monastery – Burqu was expanded by Emir Walid in the year 700 AD; an inscription dated 1409 might indicate occupation up to that date. The entrance into the qasr is on the north wall, which gives access to two inscriptions – one naming Walid – above the lintel of the room in the far left-hand corner of the rubble-strewn courtyard, next to a room with a pointed arch. In the opposite corner is a small, freestanding circular room with a cross carved into its lintel; next to it is the original tower, still standing to around 8m, with a tiny, easily defended door (now blocked) in one wall.
It’s Burqu’s lake and its flora and fauna which most impress. The drive from Muqat crosses a large, flat qa, from which subterranean water rises to form the lake, full almost year-round and bordered in spring by poppies, irises and other wildflowers. Gently lapping wavelets fringe the most incongruous beach you’re ever likely to stroll on.
The projected nature reserve is to be centred on this mirage-like apparition, which stands between two very different habitats. To the east is a vast expanse of hamad, or stony desert pavement, covered with bushes and grasses in winter. To the west sweeps the black Harrat ash-Sham, a moonscape of basalt rocks ranging in size from a few centimetres to a metre or more across. The rocks make the harra impassable even for 4×4 jeeps: hunters cannot penetrate the area, turning it into a perfect wildlife refuge. Gazelles roam here, in addition to hyenas, wolves, sand foxes, sand cats, caracals and hares. Birders, too, will be delighted: as well as regular sightings of sandpipers, larks, wheatears and finches, Burqu boasts herons, pelicans, storks and cranes, along with buzzards, owls, vultures and even the rare imperial eagle, pallid harrier and saker falcon. Rumours, as yet unsubstantiated, persist among the locals of the presence of cheetahs. For the latest news about access, check with staff at the Azraq Lodge.
About 10km east of Muqat – and 100km east of Safawi – stands the last town in Jordan, RUWAYSHID, another shabby but bustling place boasting a couple of truckers’ motels and a few diners. A dual-lane highway makes short work of the 79km to the border, which is better known by the name of the Iraqi border post Turaybil than by the Jordanian post of Karama. Baghdad is about 550km further east.