Sunday, June 3, 2007

Burqu, basalt and badia

Inspired by last week's successful and extremely gratifying effort to avoid work, we again scheduled some eastern desert site visits for yesterday. Inspired by green licorice and perhaps a bit of gin (or was that a different evening?), J. insisted on a trip to Qasr Burqu, in the northeastern section of Jordan, not too far from the border with Iraq. I also had in mind finding the Early Bronze Age site of Jawa, although I had been warned by a Jordanian archaeologist that this is hard to find.

Once again we decided to kick off the day with the yummy coffee place that J guided us to, and if anything, the coffee was better this time (or it just seemed that way because we didn't have to listen to W. go on about 'sludge' since this week he stayed home to watch episodes of "Lost" or something.) This time we had pea donuts with the coffee. Who knew someone would make a fried dough ball with peas and shaved carrots inside? And who buys such a thing?
At any rate, we headed out, ever vigilant for jackknifed infernos of fuel tankers and colliding bumper cars/spaceships/protzoa. Along a certain area beyond Zarqa we noticed a tremendous number of serious looking Jordanian military police dudes with the snazzy red berets lining the highway. A few jets also came in low and fast, then shot up into the air; a few minutes later we could see the explosions, with the surrounding hills lined with important observers. Ever mindful of security precautions, you can see pictures of things exploding here.

With only a stop to top up the gas tank in Azraq, we pushed on to the east towards Baghdad. By the time one arrives in the oasis of Azraq (a former wetlands drained by the early 90s to meet the water needs of Amman), it is fairly flat already, but there is still greenery. Beyond this it becomes even flatter, with some relief barely visible to the north and flat desert to the east.

Armed with instructions from E! again, we knew that the turn-off to head north from the Baghdad road should be immediately after the "Burqu checkpoint, and just before ar-Ruwaished". As it turns out, the checkpoints were unmanned, and so without signs or humans, we had no idea which one was it. Luckily there was a sign just before Ruwaished that let us know where to turn. There was also a big wide dirt track marked on either side with shallow dug out mounds of earth on either side, each with a rock atop the mound. So it was well marked and one only needed a little faith that this was the right general direction.

Qasr Burqu next to lake. Note 'dahab hole' in foreground.

A note on Burqu: like Qasr Tuba, no one goes to this place. Information on Burqu is pretty skimpy, but it was probably originally built by the Romans, perhaps in the 3rd c. CE, reused during the Byzantine as a monastery, and then was used by the Umayyads later in about the 8th c. CE. According to the Lonely Planet (a guide book) for Jordan, "The castle is not worth visiting as such, and is certainly too difficult to reach to be a part of a day trip around the desert castles".

While it IS too far to fit in with a day trip to the other qasrs ('castles'), it is well worth the trip despite what the guidebook says (no wonder its lonely). First, there is all that water out in the middle of the desert! Apparently that water manages to stay even through the baking hot summer.

Two, there are animals and birds, not so common in Jordan. We didn't see any of the gazelle, fox or hyena that apparently still live out there, although we did see some impressive lizards, a dead snake and some birds.

Lonely Planet also claims that you need a 4 WD vehicle. This is also inaccurate, although a vehicle with high clearance is necessary. The former Minister of Tourism admitted on Saturday that he had only visited the site by helicopter. Thats another way to get there. I would be happy to explore this option.

After a lunch of hummus, we headed back out. The track was so smooth, wide and flat that it seemed a good place to have a manual stick tutorial for Miss A, who is now ready for the Porsche (girl version).

We headed to Ruwaished for more 'solar' (diesel). The kids (no, really, they were perhaps 9-11 years old) running the only petrol station in town insisted we pull ahead of the large tanker trucks, so we did, and once again topped up the tank. For some reason the truck drivers patiently took this in stride rather than simply running over us with their trucks. And when hot, sweaty and dusty, what do you need? A nice hot cup of dark sludge, thats right. So we stopped at the truck stop, where our little cups of tasty ahwey were brought on a platter to the truck.
Headed back west to Safawi, we were already getting a bit hot, dusty and tired. From Safawi we headed north In Search of Jawa. Jawa is an Early Bronze Age site excavated by S. Helms; the remarkable aspects of the site are all the water management constructions (dams, run-off channels, etc.) that sustained a larger town than seems possible. I knew that it would be very difficult to find, and indeed, we never found anything resembling a road that headed in the right direction. And in fact the road we were on was much worse than the non-road to Burqu. Next time I will try the approach from Deir el-Kahf.
But the landscape in this area, known as the badia (essentially, the badlands), is impressive. The whole area is covered with a mantle of basalt because of the numerous volcanic cones in the region. If you need something out here, its best if you can make it out of rock, that being the only available material other than the sand below it. There are corrals, sheep pens, cairns, and various other structures strewn across the landscape.

After finally admitting defeat and not eager to drive in the badia after dark, we headed back to Azraq for a coffee and shisha. This was enough to get us back through the harrowing drive of Zarqa and East Amman at night (here is where you need a guide - thanks J! ...not to find Burqu!).


Walter Ward said...

Despite all my bitching, I love toxic sludge!

Mrs. Goodwrench said...

What a wonderful tale. You could make a guy feel sorry for you out there in all those rocks and no beer. It makes me thirsty just to read this. I think Mo definately has the better scenery. I salute your dedication to finding roads and castles. I will wish that before you leave you can talk someone into giving you a helicopter trip to find places Lonely Planet would never have dreamed to look for.

Sandra said...

I found access to Jawa from Deir al Kahf to be fairly straightforward - more so in hindsight! It's pretty much just a question of finding the right turn-off from the road. I have a few Google Earth points/images if you want them.

MMK and YMR said...

Thanks Sandra, I had considered going that way, but we were approaching from the east so thought we'd try that. I'd love the Google points if you have them handy.