The eastern desert Travel Guide
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For hundreds of kilometres east of Amman, the stony plains of the eastern desert extend unbroken to the Iraqi border – and beyond, clear to Baghdad. This is the harshest and least populated part of Jordan, with a bare handful of roads linking small, dusty towns and frontier villages. The two exceptions are Zarqa, an industrial city and transport hub, and Mafraq, the amiable but little-visited capital of the northeast. However, the main reason to come this way is to follow a circuit of desert roads that runs past a string of early-Islamic inns and hunting lodges, collectively dubbed the “Desert Castles”.
For its mosaics and its remote atmosphere, Qasr Hallabat makes a fine opener to the “Desert Castles” loop, matched by elegant Qasr Kharana and the uniquely frescoed Qusayr Amra. At the circuit’s farthest point, 100km east of Amman, lie the castle and twin villages of Azraq, Lawrence of Arabia’s desert headquarters, set in a once-majestic oasis in the heart of the northern Badia, which stretches out to the Syrian and Iraqi borders. Close by in southern Syria, and often visible, is the extinct volcano of Jabal Druze (or Jabal Al Arab), rising to 1800m and surrounded for hundreds of kilometres by blisteringly hot plains of basaltic lava known as the Hawran. Near Mafraq, irrigated fields temper the monotony, but further east – and south as far as Azraq – the desert is shadowy and grimly blackish, stark bedrock overlaid by dark boulders and glassy basalt chips too hot to touch. Out here stand the silhouetted ruins of Umm al-Jimal, enormously romantic in the cool evening, while a host of minor attractions include the holy tree of Biqyawiyya and the striking Qasr Burqu, a ruined black castle on the shores of a mirage-like lake, which lies remote in the far desert, not far from the Iraqi border.
Desert travel is sometimes approached as a chore, but you’ll have much more satisfaction if you abandon the urgency of getting from A to B and treat the desert as a destination in its own right. Adventurous explorers out here will be rewarded with extraordinary hospitality, diverse environments and some stunning natural drama.
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.
Azraq is situated near the crook of the strange angle formed by Jordan’s eastern border with Saudi Arabia, which zigzags here for no apparent reason. The demarcation of this border was the work of Winston Churchill, then British Colonial Secretary, who boasted of having created the new Emirate of Transjordan with a stroke of his pen one Sunday afternoon in 1921. A story grew up that, after a particularly liquid lunch that day, he had hiccuped while attempting to draw the border and – Winston being Winston – had refused to allow it to be redrawn. Thus the zigzag was written into history as Winston’s hiccup.
On closer examination, the truth is rather less engaging: Churchill in fact carefully plotted the zigzag to ensure that the massive Wadi Sirhan – which stretches southeast of Azraq and holds a vital communications highway between Damascus and the Arabian interior – ended up excluded from the territory of the new emirate. Jordan’s resulting “panhandle”, a finger of desert territory extending east from Azraq to the Iraqi border, also had significance: with the French installed dangerously nearby in Syria, it meant that Britain was able to maintain a friendly air corridor between the Mediterranean and India at a time when aircraft were taking an increasingly important role in military and civilian communication. The fact that the new, ruler-straight borders cut arbitrarily across tribal lands in the desert appears not to have troubled the colonial planners.
If you’re relying on public transport, the only feasible access to the eastern desert is via the industrial cities of Zarqa or Mafraq, both located northeast of Amman along the main Syria-bound highway. Neither is even remotely geared up for tourism, though: if you’re driving, bypass them both and aim for the big skies further east.
In 1913, the American archeologist H.C. Butler wrote: “Far out in the desert there is a deserted city all of basalt, [rising] black and forbidding from the grey of the plain.” The romance and sense of discovery accompanying a visit to Umm al-Jimal (literally “Mother of Camels”) remain, even though the plain is now irrigated, and a modern village with good roads has grown up around the ruins. The site, about 75km northeast of Amman, has been well excavated and is rewarding to explore – you could spend a couple of hours here, though the sun can be fierce: bring water, and plan to visit before 11am or after 3pm. Conservation work here was continuing as this book went to press; you may find access and on-site information have improved when you visit.
Umm al-Jimal was occupied from roughly the first to the eighth centuries. Following Queen Zenobia of Palmyra’s rebellion against Rome around 270 AD, the village was rebuilt as a military station on the fortified frontier of the Roman Empire. It prospered as an agricultural and commercial centre; a sixth-century conversion to Christianity resulted in fifteen churches going up. The town continued to prosper after the Muslim conquest, though an eighth-century onslaught of earthquake, plague and war led to the town’s abandonment, until it was resettled in the early twentieth century by Syrian Druze families and local bedouin.
Umm al-Jimal’s appeal lies in its ordinariness. Although it is roughly contemporary with the grand city of Jerash, only a day’s ride westward, Umm al-Jimal has no temples or impressive monumental buildings. There’s not even any evidence of the town’s original Roman name, which remains unknown. The archeologist who excavated the ruins, Bert de Vries, perceptively explained Umm al-Jimal as “a symbol of the real life of Rome’s subjects”.
Start a one- or two-hour walking tour at the barracks, which date from the fifth century. In the eastern wall the basalt slab door, which still moves on its hinges, gives onto a courtyard. The late Byzantine corner tower is inscribed with crosses and the names of the four archangels: Gabriel, Raphael, Michael and Uriel.
Picking a path between Houses 102 and 116, and left around House 104, will deliver you to the double church, two adjacent basilicas tucked into the houses around them, fronted by a small ablutions basin. Nearby House XVI’s lockable double doors would have fitted together snugly, and inside is a good example of a corbelled ceiling, the strong basalt beams supporting a much greater load than limestone could. Back behind you, the sheikh’s house (House XVIII) is outside on the left. Its large internal courtyard has a cantilevered staircase on the left and two in front forming a V-shape; stables were ranged at ground level, with bedrooms above. If you leave the courtyard through the gate here, you’ll spot a beautiful double-arched window three storeys up. The 2012 archeological season focused on restoration of this house: it may be in better shape when you visit.
From here, wandering north through the loose, clinking basalt leads to a huge reservoir – now fenced off – that was originally Roman. Just west of the reservoir, a scramble through House 82 brings you into House XIII, with mangers and an interlocking stone ventilation screen – partially obscured by a recently built arch – dividing space for livestock within the house.
It’s a 150m walk across to the four graceful and strikingly silhouetted arches of the West Church. The structure that remains is the division between the nave and a side-aisle; beautiful Byzantine crosses are carved on the arches. A little way south the cathedral sports a reused lintel stone mentioning Valens, Valentinian and Gratian, co-emperors in 371 AD. Close by is the praetorium, with a triple doorway. As you stroll you may come across a herd of beautiful white camels – they belong to a local sheikh.
Fans of Roman roads could drive to see a well-preserved stretch of the Via Nova Traiana, which survives near Baa’idj village. Take the perimeter road around Umm al-Jimal to the West Church and fork left; after 7km, a left turn at a T-junction, right at a small roundabout and straight on at a bigger roundabout will bring you after 600m to the cambered Roman road, which points north across the fields towards Bosra and south towards Amman.
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.
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 4x4 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 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.
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 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 4x4 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.
Top image: Qasr Amra © Radek Sturgolewski/Shutterstock