On my way into the desert from Amman, I stopped to visit the Desert Castles, and some of its better known ancient monuments. These small, singular fortresses were once used as military outposts, hunting lodges and caravanserais (inns that housed nomadic caravans and their animals) by the Damascus-based Umayyad Caliphs in the 7th and 8th centuries. Many of them were built upon the foundations of earlier Greek and Roman structures. The Umayyads used these outposts not only to socially engage, face-to-face, with their Bedouin subjects, but in the case of at least one castle to cast off social and religious codes of conduct. The Umayyad Caliph, Walid I, used Qusayr Amra, now a UNESCO World Heritage site, in the 8th century as a private party-palace in the desert. To this day its interior remains adorned with Byzantine-style mosaics depicting scenes of nudity, dancing and wine-fuelled revelry. Its uber remote location ensured that no one would ever stumble unwittingly upon the Caliph’s forbidden soirées.
Today, the type and volume of traffic passing near these castles is a testament to the continuing importance of the area as a transport hub. Trucks ply the adjacent desert roads carrying goods between Syria, Iraq and Saudi Arabia. Bedouin smugglers, whose kinship networks transcend international boundaries, ferry forbidden commodities across the various frontiers by night. Along the desert’s main lifeline, the long highway connecting Amman to Baghdad, gargantuan SUVs ply the 870-kilometre route in both directions carrying humanitarian aid workers, Muslim pilgrims and Iraqi refugees. (Supply columns for the American military relied heavily on the route at the height of the U.S. occupation of Iraq a few years ago—along with everyone else who needed to get in and out of the country.)
After sauntering through the haunted recesses of a few of the desert castles, I travelled east to Azraq Oasis, the unofficial hub of this ancient crossroads region. Appearing as little more than a sprawling truck stop, the town was the closest thing to a properly equipped community in the region, and I would make it my base for the coming days. As I discovered, there was more to the town than its steady traffic of lorries, its vehicle repair shops, and a general demeanour of dusty dishevelment.