The good old days of al-Azraq that Abu’l Shalaan harkened to could still be captured with a good book and a little imagination. A week prior to leaving for Jordan, I happened upon a first edition of T. E. Lawrence’s Revolt in the Desert, the 1927 abridgement of his earlier magnum opus, Seven Pillars of Wisdom. The famed First World War British officer, who led a Bedouin guerilla war against the Ottoman Turks in what is now Jordan and Syria, used al-Azraq, and particularly its ancient fortress Qasr al-Azraq, as his base in the winter of 1917-18.
In his book, Lawrence recounts his arrival in the oasis, and the moment he approached the large, ancient castle. “We hurried up the stony ridge in high excitement, talking of the wars and songs and passions of the early shepherd kings…and of the Roman legionnaires who languished here as garrison in yet earlier times,” he writes. “Then the blue fort on its rock above the rustling palms, with the fresh meadows and shining springs of water, broke on our sight and halted us.”
Lawrence, who achieved mythical status following his untimely death in 1935 at the age of 46, was well acquainted with the Middle East. In the period just before the First World War, he crisscrossed the region learning Arabic, working on archaeological digs and surveying Crusader castles for his honour’s thesis. As a British intelligence officer during the war, his efforts to unite disparate Bedouin tribes into an irregular fighting force against the Ottoman Turks would earn him a special notoriety—and would later prove to be a boon for Jordan’s tourist industry.
Aqaba and Wadi Rum, Jordan’s most well-known destinations, are both tied to the eccentric British officer’s exploits and are featured in David Lean’s classic film, Lawrence of Arabia. A shorter, less memorable, scene in the film shows Lawrence taking shelter from the winter cold in a castle, which could be none other than the fort at al-Azraq.