The drive into Jordan’s eastern desert was one of the more eventful parts of my Jordan road trip. It took me through the southern section of Amman at rush hour, a gruelling and frequently terrifying experience. I was relieved to escape the mass of traffic and crazy driving.
The road runs east through endless desert towards Iraq and Saudi Arabia. It’s a hostile environment, and few people live out here. Yet for a couple of thousand years this has been a vital trade route. Roman legions were once posted here protecting the Empire’s frontiers; Arab caravans carrying silks, spices and other valuables travelled this route. Today trucks thunder through it.
Thanks to this history there are extraordinary sights dotted in the seemingly featureless desert: ancient forts, life-giving oases and scattered nomadic Bedouin communities. There are also camels wandering randomly across the landscape, demanding their historic right of way over wheeled vehicles. The further east you go the more remote it feels, the fewer camels there are to avoid.
It was this remoteness that attracted T.E. Lawrence – Lawrence of Arabia as he’s known – during a winter of hardship hiding from Ottoman troops during the Arab Revolt in the First World War. Lawrence was here with Bedouin forces fighting Ottoman rule, and trusting the British to make good on their promise of an independent Arab nation once the Turks were defeated.
In traditional British style the Foreign Secretary, Arthur James Balfour, decided to make Palestine “a national home for the Jewish people” instead. This was the Balfour Declaration of 1917 (he made another in 1926 about something else), and it undermined all the promises made to the Arabs.
The seeds of today’s dystopian Middle East were sown against a backdrop of colonial false promises, ever present European anti-Semitism and the birth of political Zionism calling for a homeland in Palestine. To be fair, Balfour was clearly an idiot who, having risen to the top of the British Establishment on the back of inheriting a fortune, felt he could manipulate countries and people at will.
He is credited with the following remark, “Nothing matters very much and few things matter at all”. This is the man who once offered Chaim Weizmann, President of the Zionist Organisation and first President of Israel, a homeland in Uganda. That’s how detached from reality he was. It was his declaration that lent British support to the political process of turning Palestine into Israel.
A visit to Qasr al-Azraq then, comes with a certain amount of baggage if you happen to be British. These misgivings gave way to a sense of disbelief as I drove through the truck stop town of Azraq. A life sapping place, Azraq was dirty, noisy and crowded with trucks. It’s hard to believe anything of beauty or interest could be found here.
Yet Qasr al-Azraq is a thing of beauty. Built from black basalt it’s an imposing fort that is surprisingly large on the inside. The building is Arab but dates back to an earlier Roman fort. In the centre of the courtyard is a 13th Century mosque, built on the ruins of Byzantine church when the fortress was a defence against Crusaders. Qasr al-Azraq has witnessed a lot of history.
I was forced to read the Seven Pillars of Wisdom when I was at school in which Lawrence discusses Qasr al-Azraq at length, but I don’t recall much of it now. In a part of the book he describes the immense lumps of basalt that serve as the door to the fortress. Seeing it, I can imagine it would leave an impression.
I’d had the place to myself but as I left a group of four Russian tourists arrived and we chatted about how few tourists there were. The guides who work at Qasr al-Azraq didn’t even bother coming out of their office to try to extract some dinar from us. Strange times.