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.