Sunday, May 27, 2007

Tuba bound, Tuba found

Yesterday I finally made the trip to Azraq to visit some rock cairns or tumuli that a colleague and friend had mentioned visiting last year; she thought they might be Chalcolithic. The other part of the plan was to visit one of the less accessible qasrs in Jordan, Qasr Tuba. I had heard of this qasr for many years from E! who has spent some time over the years not only locating it but also establishing the different approaches available to the intrepid traveler. Her directions were the reason we found it all, because we certainly had no useful maps or other credible info.

We started out from Amman quite early, and since the coffee maker at ACOR was not working, our first mission was to find coffee in town. Like a well adapted hunter-gatherer who knows where all the best mongongo nuts grow, J's highly developed cognitive map of all the known coffee shops in Amman saved us and we quickly had three cups of steaming turkish ahwey in hand (three for the two of us -- W. is too manly for anything like coffee). Almost as important, J also knew how to get us out of Amman to the eastern highways which neither wewa (W) nor I knew.

The drive out can be remarkable. First, one must negotiate fairly heavy traffic in the industrial areas of eastern Amman. Once on the highway, on-coming trucks prefer to use whichever side of the road is smoother, which leads to consequences that shouldn't be too surprising, but appparently are to some, so signs are posted:

It didn't take long to get to Azraq, although we had to go at fairly moderate speeds because I was driving an older truck, and because of the whole oncoming-truck-in-your-lane factor. Once in Azraq, we located this area of basalt boulders. There were various types of structures made out of the basalt boulders; some were probably relatively recent sheep and goats pens, while others may have served in some earlier period as houses. There were a few enigmatic tumuli or cairns; one was partially dismantled, probably in the never ending search for gold.

There were also a few substantial 'dahab holes' (gold holes, or looter's trenches) as W. termed them.

W. knew of a Roman fort (or 'fortlet', apparently) just to the north of Azraq, so we went to find it. We found Askhein without too much trouble, but were pretty surprised when we arrived and discovered that someone had taken a bulldozer and chopped several chunks of the site. Its hard to understand why someone would bother: either the idiot guessed that this would be the way to find the dahab, or just wanted to mess up an ancient site. Perhaps he just didn't like Romans? Why the Romans built a fort this far out is unclear - W. says that it was possibly because the boundaries of the empire shifted, but he seems skeptical of this notion.

We then headed back to Azraq, fueled up, and then headed south on the road towards the Saudi border. We continued further to the south until we got to the new gas station 70 kms south of Azraq, where we turned off the main road. We then followed the 'HAZMAT' road as instructed by E!, and then went too far when we should have turned off at the HAZMAT area. Instead we went west for a bit, until we got to a camel herd, and there we turned around.

baby camels are quite cute

When we got back to the Hazmat area we turned down the wadi and headed north up the wadi, visiting a few modern bedouin cemeteries en route.

Qasr Tuba wasn't far up the wadi. Tuba is one of the many structures extending from Amman to the eastern desert collectively referred to as the "Desert Castles", although they aren't castles and probably served a variety of functions. For any visitor to Jordan interested in something beyond the obligatory Petra tour (not that Petra isn't really wonderful), the Desert Castles are a 'must see'. Probably part hunting lodge, part political meeting point, and country estate for the rich and powerful of the Umayyad dynasty, Tuba was built in the 8th century and initiated by al-Walid, the Umayyad caliph who was assassinated before the complex was completed; he apparently disliked inhabited places and preferred remote places and hunting. Accounts suggest that he may have spent the spring there when the desert is alive and water is found in pools of the Wadi l-Ghadaf; we were surprised by the pools of water that were still here and there, presumably because its been a wet winter and spring. Unlike the other compounds referred to as Desert Castles, Tuba was built largely with fired bricks set on top of limestone cut blocks (others were generally made entirely of stone). Unfortunately, at some point, people appear to have also started robbing out the nicely cut blocks from the foundation, hastening the decay of the walls. Some of the baked bricks were even green, apparently an intentional effect for decorative value.

Once we'd had our fill of ruins, we settled in the shade of a wall and had some hummus. This was pretty tasty, and no one seemed tempted by my offer of sardines, which I also had in ample supply. Although a nap would have been in order, the flies where pretty bad, so we decided to move on. We had some good coffee in the truck stop part of Azraq and then headed back to Amman.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Visiting Suf

This year, when I spent time at Yarmouk University (my Fulbright affiliation) in Irbid, I've spent time hanging out with a few student friends, in particular K and M. They are sisters from the small village of Suf, not far from Jerash. They help me with my terrible Arabic, and I help them improve their (much better) English. K studies archaeology (on the right); M is more interested in ethnography and cultural anthropology. We've had some good conversations and often go for a coffee at the new little coffee hut outside the department. I gather that faculty do not 'hang around' with students, or as little as possible, but since I'm not teaching, I have few opportunities to interact with students. However, K and M sometimes drag along a friend or two. They are brave, in fact, for ignoring the predictable gossip.

I have had a standing invitation to visit their family house for some time. They admitted that although in the past they have had some visitors to their house for meals, those were all females. So, I was a bit nervous about going to visit for the simple reason that I wasn't sure what the rest of the family might think about me visiting. Mo left weeks ago already, and I was worried that going alone would be a rather stilted visit.

Last week after numerous invitations we agreed that I should come for a visit because the school year is quickly coming to a close (exams are in two weeks). I asked Miss A and she was up for an adventure, so we went to buy a big platter of sweets in Souk Sultan. The 'plan', if you can call it that, was to take a bus from Amman to Jerash, then another from Jerash to Suf. From the village we would then need to flag down to a 'bekup' to get to the family home, outside the village. Although being late is a perfectly Jordanian thing to do, this was starting to look like it might stretch the limits of 'fashionably late'. I called up my contact N., who in fact had one rental car available, and within half an hour we were on our way!

Amazingly, it was an overcast day and had rained the night before. As far as I know, this is pretty unusual for the region in the middle of May, but its welcome. We eventually found the sisters' brother, F., who was waiting for us in Jerash to show us the way. Conveniently, his fifth call trying to guide us to him happened to occur just as I was being pulled over by the police for an illegal u-turn. Handing the phone to the policeman, he listened, figure out where K. was waiting for us, and then gave us directions. The illegal U-turn was never mentioned and we were on our way, and found K. waiting for us a little further down the road.

We arrived at the family's house and were greeted warmly. Small cups of delicious Arabic (or Turkish, depending on who you are and where you are) coffee were soon produced and we sat in the front receiving room. We eventually had a wonderful platter of 'capseh', a yummy dish of the region that involves rice, veggies and chicken, all cooked in a huge container, and then flipped over. Nuts are also generously strewn over this, and this is all eaten with yogurt. Really, really yummy!

After lunch, we decided to pile ourselves into the little car and go out to look around the area just a little bit. We didn't go far and went slowly to take in the local scenery; the radio was belting songs I didn't know (although Miss A may have known all the words) and there was virtual dancing in the back seat (I'm not sure...I kept my eyes on the road).

We then pulled off near their house and walked around the fields, taking pictures. Our guests were quite giddy and despite a bit of dampness, all had a merry time.

After a bit more coffee and chat, we finally decided we should hit the road and head back to Amman. We had much more fun that day than expected, and I'm sure we'll keep in touch.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

The Sandstorm

Its difficult to convey a dust storm like the one that hit Amman yesterday. The initial stages appear more like a bit of dusty haze, perhaps with flecks of rain as occurred in this recent storm. By mid-day yesterday, visibility was down to perhaps 200 meters or less (I have no idea how to judge this). On a normal, overcast day, the view from ACOR looks like this:
Thats the University of Jordan on the hill surrounded by trees. By noon yesterday the same view looked like this:
This is the sort of super-fine powder that you start to taste, even if you aren't a mouth breather like myself, as the fine dust works its way into buildings and everything else. It blots out much light just as this post will obliterate (or at least bury) that last post from Dr. Mo! Happily, by the end of the day a stiff wind blew in much cooler, fresh air, sending the dust storm on it's merry way - coming your way Mo!