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.