Innlegg merkte med ‘desert’

One of the reasons why I wish to revisit Jordan is the Desert Castles in the eastern part of the country. In the article «Castle represents cultural time capsule of 8th century life» from Jordan Times Taylor Luck visits one of them, the UNESCO World Heritage site of Qusayr Amra, an old caravanserai, hunting lodge and spa. The «castle» lies in the middle of nowhere, something that adds much to its beauty and the historical feel of the place.

The exterior of Qusayr Amra is not the most impressive. What makes this isolated spot special is the castle’s interior. All the walls are decorated with all sorts of paintings and frescos, from a bear with a banjo to rulers of the World. The last part of Luck’s article pretty much sums up the castle’s exotic location and feel:

Although he enjoys guiding visitors through the storied halls of the Umayyad hunting lodge, Abu Hamzeh said he appreciates Qasr Amra the most at dusk, a time when the castle truly comes to life.

Because, as the tourists leave and the sun begins to set on the 1,300-year-old site, the murals’ exotic dancers, hunters and emperors remain, with Abu Hamzeh’s rababa echoing music of festivals long ago.

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Arabian Sands

Posta: Tysdag, 13 november, 2007 under Books
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Last month I came across a book by Wilfred Thesiger called Arabian Sands. It is Thesiger’s first of many books. The book is a well-written, highly exciting and not least a great travel book about a journey into what is now a vanished world. Between 1945 and 1950 Wilfred Thesiger travelled several times in and around the «Empty Quarter« in southern Arabia. At the time the area was still very much the same as it had been for hundreds of years. Thesiger travelled on camel through an area only a handful of Europeans had ever visited and saw things no European had seen before. Before Thesiger only Bertram Thomas and St. John Philby had crossed the Empty Quarter, Thomas in 1931 and Philby in 1932.When the book was published in 1959 much of the world in which Thesiger travelled had disappeared. The onset of modernity and oil had changed the area profoundly. Thesiger returned to Oman and Abu Dhabi in 1977 and encountered a very different world from the one he had left 27 years earlier. In the preface to the 1991 reprint of Arabian Sands he discribed his feelings:

I was disillusioned and resentful at the changes brought by the discovery and the production of oil throught the region – the traditional Bedu way of life, which I had shared with the Rashid [a Bedu tribe] for five memorable years, had been irrevocably destroyed by the introduction of motor transport, helicopters and aeroplanes. … Abu Dhabi … symbolized all that I hated and rejected: at the time it represented the final disillusionment of my return to Arabia.  

Thesiger visited Abu Dhabi once more in 1990 and found him more reconciled to the changes and described it «as an impressive modern city, made plesant in this barren land by avenues of trees and green lawns.»I will recommend Arabian Sands to anyone who is interested in travelling, adventures and the Middle East. Finally, to show what kind of imprint Arabia and its deserts left in Thesiger I will use his own words:

Since leaving Arabia I have travelled among the Karakoram and the Hindu Kush, the mountains of Kurdistan and the marshlands of Iraq, drawn always to remote places where cars cannot penetrate and where something of the old ways survive. I have seen some of the most magnificant scenery in the world and I have lived among tribes who are interesting and little known. None of these places has moved me as did the deserts of Arabia.
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No man can live this life and emerge unchanged. He will carry, however faint, the imprint of the desert, the brand which marks the nomad ; and he will have within him the yearning to return, weak or insistent according to his nature. For this cruel land can cast a spell which no temperate climate can match.  

Sir Wilfred Patrick Thesiger died in 2003, 93 years old. Photos from some of his journeys can be found here.

Wilfred Thesiger’s thoughts on travelling and what he sees as the challenges of modernity in his highly recommendable book, Arabian Sands:

«I was sailing on this dhow [to Bahrain] because I wanted to have some experience of the Arab as a sailor. … But there was a deeper reason that had prompted me to make this journey. I had done it to escape a little longer from the machines which dominated our world. The experience would last longer than the few days I spent on the journey. All my life I had hated machines. I could remember how bitterly at school I had resented reading the news that someone had flown across the Atlantic or travelled through the Sahara in a car. I had realized even then that the speed and ease of mechanical transport must rob the world of all diversity.

For me, exploration was a personal venture. I did not go to the Arabian desert to collect plants nor to make a map; such things were incidental. At heart I knew that to write or even to talk of my travels was to tarnish the achievement. I went there to find peace in the hardship of desert travel an the company of desert peoples. I set myself a goal on these journeys, and, although the goal itself was unimportant, its attainment had to be worthy every effort and sacrifice. Scott had gone to the South Pole in order to stand for a few minutes on one particular and almost inaccessible spot on the earth’s surface. He and his companions died on their way back, but even as they were dying he never doubted that the journey had been worth while. Everyone knew that there was nothing to be found on the top of Everest, but even in this materialistic age few people asked, «What point is there in climbing Everest? What good will it do anyone when they get there?» They recognized that even today there are experiences that do not need to be justified in terms of material profit.

No, it is not the goal but the way there that matters, and the harder the way the more worth while is the journey. Who, after all, would dispute that it is more satisfying to climb to the top of a mountain than to go there in a funicular railway? Perhaps this was the reason why I resented modern inventions; they make the road too easy. I felt instinctively that is was better to fail on Everest without oxygen than to attain the summit with its use. If climbers used oxygen, why should they not have their supplies dropped to them from aeroplanes, or landed by a helicopter? Yet to refuse mechanical aids as unsporting reduced exploration to the level of a sport, like big-game shooting in Kenya when the hunter is allowed to drive up to within sight of the animal but must get out of the car to shoot it. I would not myself have wished to cross the Empty Quarter [in Southern Arabia] in a car. Luckily this was impossible when I did my journeys [1945-1950], for to have done the journey on a camel when I could have done it in a car would have turned the venture into a stunt.»

 

Scattered across the eastern desert of Jordan there are buildings and ruins that make out what is commonly known as desert castles. They are mostly a mixture of forts, caravanserais and hunting lodges, some bigger and better preserved than others. Most of them were built during the Umayyad-period, but some originate from Roman times, as Azraq and Hallabat. I had wanted to see them since I came to Jordan and this small urge intensified after reading James Barr’s Setting the desert on Fire, partially about the exploits of Lawrence of Arabia. As a small follow-up to the book, me and two friends of mine, went to see the castles on the last day of Eid al-Fitr [15 October]. In a rented car we went to Zarqa and visited the castles clockwise from there. Because of time restraints we only saw the four main castles. There are several other castles, but considering the effort and how long it takes to get to most of them they were dropped.

Qasr al-Hallabat and Hammam as-Sarah

The first castle we came to was Qasr al-Hallabat. Originally a Roman fort from the 2nd century, it had been strengthened by the Umayyads in the 8th century. The place was still being restored/reconstructed by of Spanish archeologists. There were two buildings standing erect on the site, an old mosque and the castle itself. The other buildings were still only piles of rubble.

Qasr al-Hallabat and its mosque

We had to walk up to the site from a parking lot where a group of bored young boys hanged around, sometimes throwing rocks at people. On our way up we saw them kicking our car before they left. Outside the mosque we met a nice old man, probably the caretaker, who showed us around. The mosque was small, but nice even though it was still under restoration as the rest of the place. The castle was, however, far more interesting. The old man opened the castle for us and also showed us around inside. The castle was very interesting with its mix of black basalt and white limestone. Some of the floors still had beautiful mosaics, some less well preserved than others. I’m not sure if some of them had been restored or not, but it was interesting none the less. Some of the mosaics certainly did not look restored and many of the mosaic pieces were loose and could easily be picked up. The most impressive mosaic was this:

Mosaic floor in Qasr al-Hallabat

The castle also had many rooms, hallways and arches. Outside the castle there was at least two arches ready to be put together again. As most historical sites in Jordan it was possible to explore almost every corner of the castle, except one room that was blocked off. You feel more free when there are no restrictions and it is much more enjoyable to explore. That we, and an Indian couple, were the only visitors only added to the calm and relaxed feeling of the site. A feeling you do not find in the most popular tourist attractions.

Many of the black basalt stones used in the castle were filled with Greek writings. The problem was that they were on different places in the castle and some were even upside down. Either the Spanish archeologists had not paid enough attention to them or it was result from when the Umayyades strengthened the castle. According to our guide Arabs could not read Greek and did not know what way is was written . Whether he was refering to the Umayyads or the present-day Jordanians, or both, I do not know.

Greek writings

The view was also impressive. You could see for miles over the desert and the surrounding area. Scattered around the castle and the mosque were also the remains of buildings probably belonging to the castle. The Castle is definitely worth a visit if you are touring the desert castles. Since it is currently under restoration it will probably only get better and better the more it is restored, unless it will get overfilled by tourists.

Close to the castle is also Hammam as-Sarah, a small bathhouse and hunting lodge built by the Umayyads. A few kilometers drive from Hallabat and you will find a very small building right by the road. It was not the biggest attraction, but it was worth a 15 minute stop. A slightly interesting 20 meter deep well was close to the building and supposedly the remains of a small mosque also, but we did not find the latter.

From the Hammam the next castle on the route was Qasr al-Azraq. On our way there we saw a traffic accident where a truck had tipped over, had to do some offroad driving since the truck blocked the road and finally we turned left towards Iraq and Azraq.

The Old Man and the Truck that tippedOffroadLeft or Right

Qasr al-Azraq

TE Lawrence and the Arabs used Azraq and the castle there as a base in their fight against the Turks during the Arab Revolt in 1917-18. The castle is situated in an oasis, the Azraq wetlands, but they are no longer as wet as they used to be. Originally it was a Roman fort, but it has been renovated several times since. An earthquake in 1927 destroyed much of the castle. To describe the place I will use the words of James Barr from Setting the Desert on Fire:

The following day Ali and Lawrence arrived back at Azraq. Jackals, hyenas, even leopards prowled through the undergrowth. The lakes, which gave the place its name – Azraq means blue in Arabic – resounded with the liquid croaking of thousands of frogs. Overhead, black kites swirled.

Almost none of this survives today. The lakes have shrunk, the wild boar hunted, the trees cut for firewood, the thickets grazed into dust. Azraq is a grimy truckstop on the road to western Iraq. But among the grubby flat-roofed houses supporting large and rusty satellite dishes, the castle survives.

We found the castle right by the road and parked besides it were two busloads of French and German tourists. The castle was constructed using black basalt stone, like some of the the stones at Qasr al-Hallabat. We entered the castle through a door made out of two basalt stones, each weighing about one ton. Lawrence’s room is just above the door, overlooking the entrance through an arrow slit.

The Entrance The view from Lawrence’s room

Inside the castle there was wide courtyard with only a single building in the middle. The rest of the rooms were somewhat a part of the outer wall. Many of the small rooms that ran along the walls had arches and in most rooms the soot from fires could still be seen in the roofs. Much of the castle is in ruins today, but there was much to explore. The castle has several rooms and no restrictions, except a few warning signs saying: «Dangerous!! Restoration». The castle could certainly use a little restoration. A small museum in one of the rooms inside the castle was dedicated to stones and artifacts.

The courtyard

The castle also had a second tower similar to the entrance tower, but this was more decayed. It also had a second entrance. This was shut by, according to the guards, a three ton stone door. We were unable to move this since its hinges were not oiled as the other two doors. I found a smaller hidden entrance without a door that led me outside the walls. Here lay most of the remains of the walls like a long heap of black stones. The whole castle was originally three storeys high so there were alot of stones.

The second door in the second tower Remains of the original wall

After reviewing almost every room we left for the next site. We paid on our way out when we found out that we had not paid the ticket on the way in. It costed 1 JD each for three castles. We had to hurry when the guards told us that the other castles closed in an hour.

Qusayr Amra

The next stop on our journey was Qusayr Amra, a small building in the middle of the desert. Qusayr means «little castle» in Arabic. The term «castle» seems to be a bit of an exaggeration, no matter how little it is. The building is famous for its frescoes and also has a small bath. Because of its frescoes the building is now a Unesco World Heritage site. Outside the main building there is a 36 meter deep well with a restored pump turned by a donkey (unfortunately no donkey was present during our visit). The place was used as a caravanserai and a hunting lodge and most likely built during the Umayyads.

Qusayr Amra

All the rooms in the building were filled with paintings. From naked women to a bear playing the banjo with an applauding monkey at its side. There were depictions of hunting at night, fishing, the construction of the place itself, a presentation of the universe in a dome and even of a couple having sex. Personally I liked the banjo-playing bear best.

Dome of Heaven A bear playing the banjo

There were a lot of painting to see and we stayed the till the place closed. Just before it closed the «gatekeeper» explained showed us some paintings and explained them. We were the only ones left after the tourists had left. These were the same tourists we saw at Azraq. When we were leaving we saw another busload of tourists arrive. Even though it was supposed to be closed I believe they kept it open for a little while longer. We left for our fourth and last castle of the day hoping it still would be open.

Qasr Kharana

The last castle on our tour was Qasr Kharana, an impressively well preserved building. It was, as Qusayr Amra, sited in the middle of the desert. We got exactly as a touris bus left and when one of the keepers was on his way to lock the castle door. We got out of the car and hurried after him and he agreed to keep it open a bit longer. The use of the castle is disputed. So is the age, but it is believed it was built early in the 8th century on the site of an earlier Roman or Byzantine building.

Qasr Kharana

The castle has two storeys and a small courtyard in the middle. You can walk from room to room till you eventually get back where you started. The roof is flat and offers an impressive desert view. Since it was passed closing time we toured the castle fast, but there not much to see. All the rooms we saw were empty, but because of the restoration work it was very enjoyable still.

Inside the castle - the courtyard

When got back to the car we the two keepers there offered us tea. We accepted and sat in their tent for awhile. The whole place were very silent and calm, and with the setting sun it was very peaceful. Before we left we bought some postcards and I bought a small sheep bell shaped like a fish. From there we drove straight back to Amman.

The Entrance Qasr Kharana from a different perspective

All in all it was a very fun trip and a monday well spent. A trip recommended to anyone who visits Jordan and have the time. (All photos taken by me)