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.

No comments: