Abu’l Shalaan got out of the vehicle and parked himself quietly on the edge of the pond. He took a front row seat before an unlikely group of birds and insects, and sat amid a spectacular silence. I followed suit, embracing the moment where less was certainly so much more.
It isn’t easy to describe, let alone hold in one’s mind, a mostly flat and featureless expanse of desert. Perhaps that’s why few Jordanians or foreigners venture east of Amman, preferring instead the tangible draws found anywhere along the north-south axis of the country. The Eastern Desert, considered by many to be a veritable badland, has none of the sexiness and shock-and-awe allure of Petra, Wadi Rum, Aqaba or the Dead Sea. Its landscapes, far from being epic or grandiose, are highly subdued, offering a beauty which is, at best, gnarled and moribund. It is also largely empty. And unlike Jordan’s other regions, it requires its visitors to scratch beneath the surface to find its loftier qualities.
The first impression of The Eastern Desert is often one of inhospitableness, even impregnability. Its western half is punctuated by a handful of extinct volcanoes; dark and mysterious low-lying hills that loom broodingly in the distance and that break the monotony of the flat expanse. The lava flows from those volcanoes, whose last eruptions occurred several million years ago, have littered the desert floor with black basalt stones. They make navigation difficult for any creature travelling by foot, and make off-roading by vehicle nearly impossible. So wide and dense is this mesmerizing field of rock that I think all inhabitants of Jordan would have to work for a million years to rid the landscape of them.
Moving east, this basalt zone gives way to an area known as the Rweishid Desert—an undulating flat limestone plateau that reaches to, and beyond, the borders of Iraq. Here, the rugged and infernal-looking basalt desert becomes a dusty and beige dreamlike wasteland, whose intimations of al-Anbar province in neighbouring Iraq make one feel as if the long arm of Mesopotamia had suddenly reached into Jordan. Micro-regions mixing the two geographies, some of which contain vegetated wadis (small valleys, or riverbeds that are often dried up), can be found throughout The Eastern Desert.
Although home to small villages and semi-nomadic Bedouin, the real legacy and continuing importance of this area is as a transit route connecting neighbouring countries and empires. Greeks, Romans, Byzantines and Arabs established strategic trade routes here, linking the cities along the Arabian Peninsula, Syria and Iraq with one another. Because of this, The Eastern Desert in Jordan is home to dozens of archaeological sites, many of which are cloaked by their ambiguity and small size.