Sunday, December 8, 2013

From desert castles to the Dead Sea

Today we left the chaos of Amman behind us and traveled once again on the bumpy highway to visit the Desert Castles, a group of early-Islamic buildings dotted around the Eastern Desert – the best of which are now easily accessible by ordinary vehicles driving on proper roads. Most date from the seventh century, when the Umayyad dynasty was ruling from Damascus: Bedouin at heart, the Umayyad caliphs seem to have needed an escape from the pressures of city life, and so built a network of hunting lodges, caravansaries and farmhouses to serve as rural retreats. Nineteenth-century archeologists came up with the term “Desert Castles”, although few of the buildings are true castles, and many were built on what was then semi-fertile agricultural land. Archeologists have suggested replacement titles – desert complexes, country estates, farmsteads – but none exactly fits the bill.
Our first stop was Quasr Kharana, which very much looked like a fortress from the road. We explored the maze of rooms around the courtyard before climbing the stairs to the second floor looking down on the courtyard below. In one of the rooms was some preserved 8th century graffiti.

Back on the road our little tourist bus was stopped by the traffic police. It seemed a little incongruous that here in the desert he checked the windshield wipers but something was amiss. Our tourist policeman, guide and bus driver all got out to have a conversation with the official. After some heated words eventually we were allowed to leave. The bus driver was furious and we shot off, passing road signs for Iraq, at full speed. This then caused words between our tourist policeman and bus driver, all very exciting.

Our next stop was the beautiful Amra castle, where the Umayyad caliphs came to let their hair down, far from prying eyes in Damascus. Probably built between 711 and 715 by Caliph Walid I, it is unmissable for the frescoes covering its interior walls. They stand in stark contrast to the windswept emptiness of the desert, and feature an earthly paradise of luscious fruits and vines, naked women, cupids, musicians, hunters and the kings of conquered lands. The first Islamic edict ordering the destruction of images came from one of Walid’s successors, when Amra’s frescoes were just five years old, but for some reason they were overlooked and have managed to survive 1300 years of fire and graffiti. It is very unusual to see human images depicted in Islamic art.

Our next stop was Azraq Castle, which is located in the village of North Azraq. Because of its strategic location close to the borders of several countries and near a water supply, the site has been occupied by many different civilizations, including the Umayyads and Ottomans. It was made famous during World War I, when Lawrence of Arabia used the castle as his military base during the Arab Revolt against the Turks in Damascus. In fact we were lucky enough to be toured around the castle by an elderly gentleman whose grandfather worked directly with Lawrence. He is even mentioned in Lawrence's book, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom.

The castle is solidly constructed out of black basalt. Entrance is through an impressive door made of a massive slab of basalt weighing a ton. Carved indentations on the floor were used by former gatekeepers to play a board game with pebbles to pass the time. I was very excited to see Lawrence’s office, directly above the southern entrance. There is a small mosque in the middle of the courtyard, an old well near the east wall and a  prison in the northeast corner. At one time the area had been quite lush but now it has returned to the desert. Looking in the distance we could see where the oasis had receded. With the sinking of illegal wells, seepage of salt and pumping water to Amman, the oasis is in serious danger.

We retraced our travels back to Amman before taking the Sea Level Highway to the Dead Sea. Without a doubt the world’s most amazing place, the Jordan Rift Valley is a dramatic, beautiful landscape, which at the Dead Sea, is over 400 metres below sea level. The lowest point on the face of the earth, this vast stretch of water receives a number of incoming rivers, including the River Jordan. Once the waters reach the Dead Sea they are land-locked and have nowhere to go, so they evaporate, leaving behind a dense, rich, cocktail of salts and minerals.

The Dead Sea is flanked by mountains to the east and the rolling hills of Jerusalem to the west, giving it an almost other-worldly beauty. Although sparsely populated and serenely quiet now, the area is believed to have been home to five Biblical cities including Sodom and Gomorrah.

But enough of that, it was time for lunch at a beautiful spot overlooking the Dead Sea. We had the usual selection of salads, chicken wings and some lovely desserts. Everywhere we went there were little tarts or pieces of cakes of all colours. I must say I loved the large pieces of chocolate with nuts. In fact I had to go back and get seconds.

We checked into our hotel and headed off to the beach. I had on my water shoes and was very glad of them since the rocks were quite sharp. What an experience, just floating in the warm, soothing, super salty water itself – some ten times saltier than sea water, and rich in chloride salts of magnesium, sodium, potassium, bromine and several others. The unusually warm, incredibly buoyant and mineral-rich waters have attracted visitors since ancient times, including King Herod the Great and the beautiful Egyptian Queen, Cleopatra. All of whom have luxuriated in the Dead Sea’s rich, black, stimulating mud and floated effortlessly on their backs.

Of course I had to try floating on my front. It wasn't a pleasant experience. The water stung my face and it felt like I had super salted my neti pot. I did have my goggles on. Quickly, I maneuvered back on my back. It was a lot of fun in this water but you couldn't really swim because you were so buoyant. You could float upright in the water, completely out of the water from waist up. Finally we tried to get out but that was difficult going from lying on your back to an upright position because of the salinity. The lifeguard on shore grabbed us to help us out.

There was a lovely big pot of the dark, Dead Sea mud on the shore. We helped each other mud up and then sat in the sand, while the mud dried. Then it was back in the water to clean the mud off, which was easier said than done. It was a wonderful experience and one that I will never forget.


2 comments:

mint said...

Hello,

I am writing an article about Qusayr' Amra and I would like some information from you. Would you be so kind as to contact me at orgu.dalgic[at]yale.edu. Thank you very much

Avoid diabetes said...

Hi every body,
Try not to shave anything for a day or so before dipping in the dead sea The water is very salty and you WILL feel the burn! The same goes for skin scrapes and cuts. While salt water can actually speed up healing, the burning sensation is not a treat.