Innlegg merkte med ‘Setting the Desert on Fire’

In Robert Ryan’s newest book, Empire of Sand, he takes us back to the Middle East during the First World War. Ryan’s main protagonist is the legendary Thomas Edward Lawrence, better known as Lawrence of Arabia. The main focus of the story centers around the year 1915, before the Arab Revolt of 1916 and Lawrence’s fame, and shifts mainly between Cairo and Persia. In Cairo you have Lawrence the map maker and in Persia you have his German counterpart and lookalike Wilhelm Wassmuss (short, blond, blue eyes, etc.).

The book is a work of fiction, but most of the characters are real. It seems that Ryan could not resist adding a number of colourful characters to his story, one of these being Gertrude Bell. Even Harry St. John Philby makes a small guest appearance where he makes Lawrence annoyed by claiming that Ibn Saud is the right man to bet on, not Sharif Hussein.

The book is good and very entertaining, but I keep asking myself where the story is going and how interesting it really was. Ryan’s portrayal of the characters is very good together with his descriptions. You get sucked into his fictitious world which seems very real. My main problem with the book is the story on a whole. Ryan blends fact and fiction skilfully, but for me it seems a bit anti climatic. The story keeps growing and you expect a big showoff that never really comes.

Ryan’s book is worth a read, mostly because of his portrayal of Lawrence and his surroundings, but I would rather recommend James Barr«s non-fiction book Setting the Desert on Fire. It is very interesting and at the same time as exciting as a work of fiction.

On his blog James Barr, the author of Setting the Desert on Fire, compares TE Lawrence’s advices for future Iraq from the early 1920’s with the present situation in the article «Iraq Today – Lawrence of Arabia’s Advice from Yesterday«. An interesting article about Britain’s role in what Winston Churchill according to James Barr called an «ungrateful volcano».

During the first world war the British forces, under the leadership of General Edmund Allenby, had tried and failed twice to take and hold the area of Transjordan. The goal had been to break the lines of the Ottoman Empire between Damascus and Medina. After two failed attacks with many casualties, Allenby shifted focus. Allenby’s new strategy was take Damascus by breaking the Ottoman lines in coastal Palestine and thereby bypassing the Ottoman forces in Transjordan. The rush for Damascus started in September 1918. The Arab Army, under the leadership of the Hashemite Sharif of Mecca, Hussein b. Ali, had been held in check by the Ottoman forces, but moved camp to Azraq Oasis to participate in the rush. To cover this operation up Allenby came up with a plan to fool the Ottomans:

Allenby feigned a new attack on Transjordan to cover his troop build-up on the coast of Palestine by pitching an empty encampment in the Jordan Valley, making some 15,000 dummy horses out of canvas, and driving mule-drawn sleighs to raise dust.

At the same time the Arab Army draw the Ottoman’s attention away from Palestine by attacking the Hijaz Railway line. The plan worked and the heavily outnumbered Ottoman forced in Palestine were defeated and their defenses collapsed in six days. The Arab Army and Allenby’s forces now raced each other to Damascus, a race the Arabs would win.

This small moment in history is picked from Frontiers of the State in the Late Ottoman Empire by Eugene L. Rogan. For more detailed information about the campaign see Setting the Desert on Fire by James Barr.

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)

Her ein dag kom eg over ei ny bok, Setting the Desert on Fire av James Barr, ein britisk historikar. Boka har undertittelen T. E. Lawrence and Britain’s Secret War in Arabia, 1916-18 og er like mykje ei skildring av Lawrence som den er av den britiske kampanjen i Arabia. Lawrence spelar den største personrolla og Barr går grundig til verks for å skildre både personen Lawrence og kva han gjorde. Som ein liten bonus har Barr eit nyttig indeks over hovudpersonane i boka.

Barr skriv godt og med kapittel på 10-12 sider kvar kjem ein raskt gjennom boka. I byrjinga fekk eg kjensla av å lese ein spenningsroman grunna måten Barr skriv på. Barr nyttar dialogar i større grad enn andre historiske verk, og i tillegg er boka full av detaljar som Barr skildrar på ein måte som gjorde meg litt skeptisk. Barr nyttar nemleg ein del skjønnlitterære verkemiddel, i alle fall verkar det slik. Kjeldene han har nytta er likevel mykje private brev og dagbøker, og det er sannsynleg at han har skildringane frå desse. Den korte perioden boka dekkjer, dei personlege kjeldene og hendingane sjølv legg òg betre til rette for å nytte skjønnlitterære verkemiddel slik Barr har gjort utan at det går ut over den historiske analysa. Barr har òg gjort rom for nokre litt artige historier, som desse to:

Trying to help the Arabs regain the initiative, the British became unwittingly embroiled in the port’s [Jeddah] highly factional politics when Boyle invited a local tribal leader aboard the Fox to point out possible targets inside the town that he could shell. Boyle became suspicious when the man identified some unlikely-looking buildings. «Months after I heard that my picturesque sheikh was in reality a merchant of the town,» he later wrote, surmising that the man «had taken advantage of this opportunity to rid himself of trade rivals».

The French would force Feisal into exile in July the following year. The French general responsible is reputed to have gone to Saladin’s tomb in Damascus afterwards and announced: «Nous revoilà, Saladin» – Saladin, we’re back.

Shrine of Saladin

Shrine of Saladin

James Barr har, i alle fall slik bibliografien gjev uttrykk for, gått grundig gjennom britiske arkiv og har basert seg nesten utelukkande på britiske og engelskspråklege kjelder. Dette fører til at det største fokuset i boka er på britane og kva dei gjorde, men det er då òg meininga med boka. Det hadde derimot vore interessant å ha høyrd meir frå eit arabisk perspektiv.

Barr har, i tillegg til å rote grundig rundt i britiske arkiv, sjølv tatt turen til regionen for å følgje vegen det arabiske opprøret tok. Fleire stadar i boka stoggar Barr opp der det er relevant for å skildre eigne observasjonar av landskapet og situasjonen slik det er i dag. På si reise oppover Hijaz-jarnbane fann han mellom anna fleire lokomotiv som hadde vorte offer for miner og sabotasje frå britane og arabarane. Mange av lokomotiva ligg framleis i sanden der dei spora av, 90 år etterpå. Dette gjev eit spanande og nytt innsyn av konflikta og gjer den samstundes meir levande.

Etter å ha lese boka har eg fått endå meir lyst til å vitje stadane i Jordan der Lawrence var. Spesielt har eg lyst å vitje mellom anna ørkenfortet Azraq («blå» på arabisk), som ligg aust i Jordan. Lawrence nytta Qasr al-Azraq som ein base i krigen mot tyrkarane.

*James Barr har forresten ein ganske interessant blogg. Han har mellom anna lagt opp bilete frå reisa han gjennomførte i samband med boka si.