Off at 8 am, on a jaunt down the Baghdad highway, into the Jordanian panhandle. We trundle through the city into and through the house furnishings souk: rolls of linoleum stacked against sleeping windows; parking lots lined with velvet-upholstered furniture. Out past Ain Gazal, where I am told Chalcolithic-Early Bronze Age horse burials inhabited limestone caves above the spring. Through the industrial district of Zarka, choked with smog; lined with vehicle graveyards that escalate from diminutive taxis to rusting semi tractors, the latter incongruously piled on rooftops. The highway is lined with trucks, truckers, truck traffic: a free zone with tarp-covered trailer loads of every make and model; then fuel tankers in line after line.
Main destination today is the Azraq wetlands: once vast marshes; maybe continuously so since the Pleistocene, fed by aquifers seeping from beneath the Druze mountains. Vast tracts outside the marsh are demarcated into lines and squares by piles of basalt stone. Within these censurations sprawl Bedouin encampments, brown burlap tents fluttering in the wind, the livestock off grazing the thin pasturage somewhere out of view. Aquifer pumping has so lowered the water table that exposed peat is cracking and sloughing off. The Royal Water Authority diverts 10% of water back into the wetland to maintain a small fraction of its former extent. The fringe of palms with tamarisk are reminiscent of Borrego Springs or Ocotillo Wells, although, if left ungrazed, the surrounding countryside would revert to salt scrub, not cactus desert.
Reed brakes choke the open water—water buffalo keep patches of open water open. The springs are divided by an Umayyad wall designed to keep the salt from fresh water during medieval times. apparently one end had stone arches carved in animal reliefs, including elephant. A current rehabilitation project is adding a second pool system. The water buffalo are also a nuisance, damaging fencing and nets designed to protect fringe pools during rehabilitation. The reed is hard to identify—heavily cut over, it has dwarfed. Phragmites? It does not seem to be dense or tough enough to be Arundo. Staff poured us honey-sweetened tea in little glasses, then off we wandered through the brakes to an adobe observation hut overlooking a (literally) bucolic wallow. Happy, happy water buffalo.
Then north through Azraq itself—a two-dinar tire repair; shops catering to the highway trade bedecked with plush and plaster and plastic Tweety Pies (do people here even know of Sylvester and Tweety Pie?), because every trucker in the world must take presents home to his kids. One wonders: is it plush for girls, plastic for boys, and plaster for the garden? Cascades of nuts and seeds and spices and tins of olive oil; cheeses in oil; halvah and tahini. The road into town crosses onto the basalt fields sharply as crossing a watered pitch, past a series of once grand, now abandoned guest houses, and then suddenly looms the black blocks of Azraq castle: Lawrence's wartime HQ with its two-ton solid granite door.
Onward to Amman, the southern road, through horizon-wide pebble plains, trackless and capped with desert varnish, grazed clean of any puff of chaff. Along a long-dry wadi lies Qasr Amra—a little Umayyad bubble with its touristic roadway sign, as for a stagecoach inn along the Butterfield stage. Concrete cones, a meter high, run parallel awhile: these are markers along the old Mandate track to Baghdad. We careen behind, through, alongside truck convoys ferrying limestone nodules the size of squashed Volkswagens to facing-tile plants around the city. Qasr Kharanah, foursquare, turreted, heads a second wadi, overviewing an Epipaleolithic tell.
Dust devils boil past flocks of desolate sheep, fed from trucked-out grain; watered by tankers, but nonetheless allowed to graze to scorched earth any seed that dares germinate under the moisture-sapping wind. We pass a truck overtopped with green—cattail? reed? Headed toward the sheep camps.