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.