Bedouin Guide: Al Badia part 1

How anyone could know precisely where to drive off a flat desert highway without the benefit of landmarks, or a GPS, to find a little known fort that is poorly depicted on maps and hidden in a wilderness of rock, was the question I kept turning in my head, as Ahmed al-Shalaan steered our vehicle tentatively off the asphalt. “I came this way once before, many years ago,” he said, smiling as though he had divined my thoughts.

As a member of one of Jordan’s many Bedouin families, Ahmad al-Shalaan—also known as Abu’l Shalaan, and the name I would come to call him—had an internal guidance system of gold. It was one predicated on genetic and collective memory, and which, to me, bordered on the metaphysical. It didn’t matter that he was unfamiliar with this part of the Jordanian desert. The fact that these were his ancestral stomping grounds seemed to mean he could improvise without fear of failure.

Once off the road, he gunned the vehicle, navigating the pebble-strewn tracks like a man possessed. 

Outside, a vast emptiness presided. Old tire tracks lacerated the cracked desert floor, while in the distance, mirages undulated along the little changing horizon. In less than an hour we were at the edge of a field of black basalt stones. Abu’l Shalaan pointed to what looked like a finger of rock sticking up from the others in the distance. Following a rough path, we continued on until we reached a fortress set in a depression beside a pond of murky water and reeds.

This was Qasr Burqu, a lonely desert outpost once occupied by the Nabateans, the Romans, and the Umayyad Muslims. It is also one of Jordan’s least known and most remote archeological sites. We were exploring the country’s far-flung Eastern Desert: a desolate region located in the Jordanian panhandle and hemmed in by Syria to the north, Saudi Arabia to the south and Iraq to the east. It is an area known to Jordanians as al-Badia (pronounced “bad-yeah”)—a classical Arabic word meaning both “arid area” and “the place where the Bedouin come from.” Although the Badia includes most desert areas in Jordan, including places frequented by tourists, its easternmost part remains a world apart.

I had passed through this area briefly in 2003. Like other journalists in the region at the time, I had made the trip east along that flat-line countenance of highway that connects Jordan’s capital, Amman, to the beleaguered city of Baghdad in Iraq. Just after the American invasion, this road (a Middle Eastern version of Route 66) became a busy thoroughfare of reporters, aid workers, contractors and refugees running the gauntlet to and from a city in the grip of apocalypse.

My only memories of the 11-hour journey through the desert were of the faceless emanations of its Mars-like landscape. This certainly wasn’t the Jordan of billboard tourist ads. Yet the area was, and continues to be, one of the great interstices of the Middle East. It is also a compelling alternative for anyone with an adventurous spirit who wants to go beyond Jordan’s more conventional natural attractions.

From that point of view, Qasr Burqu did not disappoint. This unknown fort built thousands of years ago remains hidden in an oasis surrounded by a deserted sea of jet-black stone. Moreover, there were none of the usual ticket stalls, guided tours, rows of buses or semi-staged displays of local hospitality so common in the rest of the country. There was nothing to do here but take in a scene that had changed little for millennia. 

Stay tuned for Part 2 of Al Badia, and follow Outpost Magazine on Twitter and Like us on Facebook for all the latest updates from our team in Jordan.