Blue Al-Bayou

21 September 2004

About 100 kilometers east of Amman, in the middle of the harsh Jordanian desert, are the ruins of a castle that date back to the early 4th Century.  Made of black basalt rock, the castle sits at the northern end of the town of Azraq.  The castle was built by the Romans, and then was later improved upon by the Byzantines, Umayyads, Ayyubids, and finally the Ottoman Turks. 

Blocks of stone bearing Latin and Greek inscriptions testify to the age of the place.  One interesting upper room, supported by large Islamic archways, was occupied by T.E. Lawrence during the winter of 1917.  It was here that he and his Arabian cohorts planned their operations against the Turks.

I made sure I got a good picture of myself in Lawrence of Arabia’s room.  Afterwards, feeling a bit of the legend’s magic inside me, I stepped outside and surveyed the place, trying to see what he saw in it.  As my imaginary white gown and headdress flowed in the wind, I tried to identify the military importance of this site.  But all I could see was desert.  “Why on earth did the Romans build a fort out here?” I asked the guide.  “There’s nothing out here at all!”

My guide, a resident of Azraq for his entire life, was quick to educate me.  “It wasn’t always like this,” he said.  “Azraq used to be beautiful.”

It turns out that for thousands of years wetlands nearly the size of Connecticut spread out across this area where Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Syria converge.  Azraq means “blue” in Arabic, and indeed this blue watering hole was home to elephants, cheetahs, hippopotami, giraffes, and hundreds of thousands of birds that migrated annually from Europe to Africa.  Lawrence of Arabia didn’t stare out across a desert when he was holed up here.  He looked out over paradise.

But in the late 1960s, this aquatic Eden began to evaporate.  Global politics and demographic upheavals took their toll on this peaceful retreat.  In 1967, the war with Israel cost the Hashemite Kingdom the land on the West Bank of the Jordan River.  At the same time, a flood of Palestinian refugees came pouring into Amman to escape the wrath of the Israeli Defense Forces.  Suddenly the tiny desert kingdom had a lot more people, a lot less land, and a lot less water.

And so the government in Amman looked east to the blue waters of Azraq.  For the next 25 years they pumped as much H20 as they could out of the ancient wetlands.  By 1991, the entire thing had dried up.  One interesting fact mentioned in the Lonely Planet guide to Jordan is that in 1967 there were 347,000 birds in the wetlands.  In 2000, there were just 1200.  

If there had been an Arab Peter, Paul, and Mary, they would surely have written a song about this environmental tragedy. 

Where have all the waters gone?

Gone to toilets in Amman

In 1994, the Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature in Jordan began a campaign to restore the Azraq wetlands.  Cooperation with the Israelis regarding control of the shared Jordan River and improved recycling measures in the Hashemite capital allowed for this.  The long-term goal is to bring back the Wetlands to a modest 10% of its former self.  To that end, the Jordanian government pumps in 1.5 million cubic meters of fresh water every year.  At the time of this writing, there is a 12 square kilometer national park known as the Azraq Wetland Reserve.  It ain’t much, but it’s a step in the right direction.   

For now the citizens of Azraq must rely on their ruined castle to bring in the tourist dinars.  Unfortunately the town’s relative proximity to the Iraqi border poses a problem.  When the Fedayeen come charging out of the desert—AK-47s ablazin’ and suicide bomb vests ablastin’—there won’t be enough room in Larry’s old hideout for every member of the AARP tour group.  The Jordanians control the border so tightly that this would not happen.  But, informed by such apocalyptic imagery, no matter how fanciful, the visitors stay away.

And so when I showed up with my traveling companion, the guide got very, very excited.  He rubbed his eyes as he emerged from the castle, both because he’d been sleeping and because he couldn’t believe two pale faces had just shown up at his door.  “Ahlan wa sahlan!” he kept saying excitedly.  “Welcome!  Welcome!”  He showed us around every nook and cranny in the place.  He was so excited—like a guy on a first date who hadn’t been on a date in years—that he kind of freaked us out.  Just a little bit. All in all, he was a very nice man, even plucking a red hibiscus from his garden beside the fort and giving it to my friend.  (This garden was his one-man attempt at bringing back the natural beauty of the area.)  When we finally left, he stood there waving in my rear view mirror for nearly a mile.

Poor old Azraq.  For it to truly thrive again, it needs to recover the water Nature took ten million years to put in and it needs peace to come to Iraq.  Which will happen first remains to be seen.