The Black Basalt City: Al Badia part 9

Qasr al-Azraq is a sprawling fortress located near the wetlands, dates back to about 300 BC, and is open to the public. Because the castle flies under the radar of travellers adhering to traditional itineraries, you won’t find the gargantuan crowds or tourist amenities present at Jordan’s other sites—which is a kind of blessing. In addition to a display of Roman antiquities, a visitor to the castle can gaze upon Lawrence’s alleged sleeping quarters, located just above the main gates with a view of the surrounding desert. Though I didn’t have the fortune, like Lawrence, of making my own base among such epic dwellings, I did manage to find accommodations nearby that were tinged with a similar history.

I took a room at the nearby Azraq Eco-Lodge, a former military field hospital of the British-controlled Arab Legion dating back to the 1940s. Before becoming a hotel, the building had experienced several incarnations, serving first as the hospital, then as a school, wildlife research station and hunting club. Situated on a hill, with prime views of the town’s dusty air force base and filled with military bric-a-brac (munitions crates double as coffee tables), the lodge exudes a very British, colonial vibe. The rooms, housed in a newer concrete building next door, are no-frills, Spartan dwellings with cots. To the rear is a high concrete wall raised, presumably, to prevent aspiring spies from either photographing or gazing at the F-16 Fighters taking off and landing at the nearby Jordanian air force base.

Despite its bare-bones feel, the place was chock-full of character. I spent many evenings filling my belly with the excellent home-cooked Chechen meals of lamb dumplings and broiled chicken, and later, huddling by candlelight with hot tea made from locally grown rosemary, as the howling desert wind blew outside. These were the moments when I planned the next day’s trip with Abu’l Shalaan.

He and I covered much ground that week, visiting several difficult-to-get-to places that barely see a trickle of visitors from Jordan’s tourist circuit. In addition to catching the far-flung archeological site of Qasr Burqu, located in the Jordanian panhandle near Iraq, we visited the enigmatic basalt fortress of Qasr Aseikhim, a tiny ruin capping a small volcanic hill to the north of al-Azraq. A separate excursion further north and west took us to one of the most remarkable and little known ancient cities in the Middle East. Just a few kilometres south of Jordan’s border with Syria, on the western edge of the lava flows beneath Jebel Druze, lies the black basalt city of Umm al-Jimal. Translating to “Mother of Camels,” and known by archeologists as the “Black Gem of the Desert,” it is a massive sprawl of a city containing the partly intact remains of about 150 buildings spanning different epochs. Umm al-Jimal was a trading post dating back to Nabatean times in the first century AD, up until its destruction in an earthquake in 747 AD.

Unlike other ancient cities in the Middle East, Umm al-Jimal does not look its age. The cataclysmic quake, which levelled all its buildings, could have happened just last week. I was just as shocked by the site’s impressive size as I was by the fact that there was virtually no one there. The only living things we encountered were a few local workers excavating at the edge of the city, and some darkling beetles that were trudging among the ruins, camouflaged by the charcoal-coloured rock. Abu’l Shalaan and I spent hours walking through Umm al-Jimal, exploring hidden nooks and climbing collapsed walls. The whole time I kept thinking that even though I’d been to Jordan several times before, and was quite familiar with the country, I had never once heard of Umm al-Jimal.

Tantalized by the prospect of seeing more of the unknown, I convinced Abu’l Shalaan to take me to a blank area that beckoned on the map—the region just south of al-Azraq, abutting the Saudi Arabian border.